Switching Sponsors

I started running ultras at 18 and, at 19 and through an ambitious but totally unmerited barrage of emails and phone calls, managed to pick up a sponsor. That sponsor was Montrail, and I stayed with them for over five years, until the end of this year. Beginning January 1, I will be an official Salomon runner. And that means I no longer endorse Montrail or Mountain Hardwear and instead believe wholeheartedly in Salomon, as if my pure motives in representing the brands I truly believe in have shifted overnight. This feels a little shallow. Indeed, it borders on hypocrisy. But my motives in moving are not necessarily representative of a cynical, take-the-highest-bidder mindset. I believe that within the confines of sport, my move is entirely reasonable. And I’d like to explain why.

Top runners may be the faces of the brands they endorse, but they certainly don’t have much voice within their companies. However, these brands make equipment that runners use, so they have an incentive in paying top runners to use and endorse their gear. The mindset is, “If this guy wins races, other people will want to emulate him. And if he’s wearing my brand’s gear, people will buy it so as to try to give themselves an edge.” On the other side, athletes sell their power to endorse in order to earn money by practicing their sport. Some top runners choose to keep day jobs and eschew sponsors, but no one can deny the allure of having the financial freedom through doing what you love, just to keep doing what you love. This is inherently materialistic because the athletes are essentially selling themselves in order to sell products. But for most people, this is a worthwhile side effect.

Indeed, sponsorship is so common at all levels of our society–whether it’s actors selling cars or rock stars selling energy drinks–that people rarely consider how or why it works and simply focus on how to do it. But the truth is that sponsorship is shallow. Here’s an industry of companies making variations on the same product, and one of the ways they choose to stand out is by getting people who are good at the sport these products are made for to say unequivocally, “I don’t just do well in this product, I do well because of it.” Look a little deeper and you’ll see that top athletes are good because of a huge host of factors that only includes gear in the outer rim. Factors like aerobic capacity, muscular endurance, pain tolerance, hematocrit, and much more are far more influential on ability than are shoes or shorts. But those factors are personal. Nobody can buy a better VO2 max; they have to earn it. People, can, however, buy shoes with better grip, or compression tights, or light backpacks, or sweat-repellant shirts, or a million other products marketed to make runners run faster. And it works.

It works because people do need equipment to run. Our sport’s simplicity is beautiful, but it’s not total. Unless you’re a bit of a weirdo, you’re going to need at the very least a pair of shorts and some shoes. Most of us like to wear other things like shirts and socks, too. If it’s cold out, you need gloves, a hat, long pants, and a jacket. If you want to go a long way, you’ll want food and water, so you’ll need a way to carry it all. These things aren’t nonsense. They may be materialistic but materialism is a thing because otherwise we’d be naked and cold and probably hungry and wet a lot.

Materialism is bad when taken too far, as is everything in life, including running. The basic runner’s outfit is a good thing, and people who run are going to wear it regardless of ability level. And if top runners will be wearing the gear no matter what, where is the harm in getting paid to do it? Especially if that means they can then spend more time and energy focusing on being even better? That’s as simple as it needs to be: I wear this gear, I win races, now I get paid to do exactly that, plus a little marketing.

The ethical problems arise when people set aside their values and endorse brands they don’t believe in for the sake of money or prestige. Since athletes have little say in how a company is run, they must be vigilant about which direction their company is headed before signing on as its face. An athlete’s power to endorse is diluted by inconsistencies like saying one thing and doing another, or by frequently switching sponsors. However, when undertaken with a conscience, sponsorship can be entirely relevant and totally defendable because it allows athletes to practice their sports with total focus, and in exchange they must simply endorse brands whose products they already use.

I got sponsored by Montrail at 19 because I was lucky. I arrived in the sport at an age and time when almost any moderate success was met with some kind of sponsor support. The industry was just beginning to take off, yet the pool of competition was still relatively shallow. Nowadays the competition is much closer than ever before and people like Seth Swanson, who took a close second at Western States and then destroyed Cascade Crest this year, remain sponsor-less. Montrail must have been throwing out sponsorships like candy in 2009 because I had at that point accomplished almost nothing. They took a risk on me and I just took the first opportunity that came my way. The truth is that I had asked as many shoe companies as I could think of for sponsorship and Montrail was the only one that responded. As far as values went, I valued being sponsored more than anything else at the time, so I was very lucky that the first sponsor to bite happened to be a good one.

I ran for Montrail for five years and believed in them wholeheartedly. I liked their shoes and was proud to represent them. Because Montrail is owned by Columbia–who also owns Mountain Hardwear–I was also a Mountain Hardwear athlete. Between the two brands, I was fully kitted out in everything I could need for running, plus lots of great gear for climbing, too. Even now I would say that both of those brands make good products. Our differences in direction should not be construed as my condemnation of their practices. The reason I chose to leave Montrail for Salomon is simply that we have grown apart. The kind of running I now do is too divergent from the kind of shoes Montrail makes for us both to be able to maintain an honest partnership. I still believe in Montrail and Mountain Hardwear as brands even if our specialties are different.

Good brands grow and adapt to changing industry conditions. They are not stagnant because they would soon be overtaken by innovation. And innovation is what changes not just the industry but the sports themselves. While top athletes have natural attributes that would allow them to be good in just about any product, the best products make them even better. The difference is marginal, but marginality is what now counts. People used to win ultras by 10 to 30 minutes or more. Nowadays, many competitive races see the top-three runners within five minutes of each other. These margins will continue to grow smaller and as they do the tiniest advantages will make the difference between first and second place. The right shoes for the course, the right clothes for the conditions, and the right food and hydration are factors that really determine position. Thus the right sponsor is crucial for those who want to take part in the competitive world of mountain running. That, or a good job that provides the financial means to buy the right gear and travel to races. But if you’re winning races, you’ll be endorsing the products you wear whether you want to or not. So you may as well be paid for it.

A lot of us choose to take the easy(er) route and endorse a product. For me and my focus, for the particular goals I choose, the right brand is Salomon. I feel that because of how I have grown as an athlete and person among all the shifting forces of the mountain world, this is a decision I can stand by and be proud of. I’m not asking for anyone’s validation or approval. People can no more stay in one place than can brands, and if athletes don’t move with the brands they represent, they will come to support a lie. In that case, moving is often the best option.

Let’s consider for a moment the world of mountain running as a giant sphere, and within it move all the other spheres of races and racers and ideas and products. Fact is, not all mountain runners are contained within the mountain-running sphere. Only those people who choose to engage in the ‘scene’, interact with other runners, partake in events, and generally participate in the sport overall would fall into the sphere. Some people run long distances but choose to keep it to themselves, and that’s fine. But if you choose to enter into the sphere of the mountain-running world, you must also engage with the sport that it is. You don’t necessarily have to agree with it, and change is very possible. But the fact is that by entering into this sphere you must contend with all the forces, good and bad, which comprise its character. One of those forces is sponsorship and all the factors that comprise its sphere. If you’re sponsored, you get paid to run. If you’re sponsored, you lose some control over how you are portrayed/viewed publicly. You get to travel the world to events; but you accept that your likeness is being used to promote a materialism far beyond what is actually needed to be a runner. These are factors that must be understood and come to terms with in order to be part of the ultrarunning sphere.

Personally, I see some things in this sphere I’m not too proud of. But I see a lot more things that I am proud of, including the capacity for innovation. I want to be part of this world even though it isn’t perfect, because I love what I do and I love to engage in this world with other like-minded people. I believe we’re moving in the right direction and by choosing to be a ‘top’ runner, I choose also to partake in the world of mountain running. Sponsorship allows me to maintain a bonafide career, and because of that I’m proud to support the companies that support me.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are your thoughts on the relationships that sponsored runners have with the companies they are sponsored by?
  • Do you, as a consumer, base any of your purchases on which athletes are sponsored by what companies, and what kind of gear those athletes wear for their races and adventures?