Why elite outdoor brands are rushing to sponsor the most intense ultra races in the world, and whether this trend will last.

By Jahla Seppanen

Running has never been more popular.

Marathon participation is growing, according to 2015 statistics from Running USA, along with half-marathons and their cool cousins including zombie, color and mud runs (non-traditional running events).

But the real buzz at the core of the sport is humming around ultras — advancing to be the next marathon. Ultrarunning Magazine charted growth from 2,890 ultra finishers in 1980 to roughly 70,000 in 2013.

That’s impressive growth for a sport that can require 20-plus hours of running – especially during an era where the most popular trends in the active-lifestyle space center around shorter and more-efficient workouts. But before we pop champagne to toast the ultra, some sources have questioned whether ultrarunning is actually mainstream enough to maintain its steady growth course.

Honestly, it’s hard to tell. There are no official sources we could find that report global participation numbers across the sport. Among the top are websites like DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics and iRunFar, but both appear to be in the beta phase, operated by a lonesome few whose love for long distance keeps them reporting. Bigger websites like Running USA have yet to include Ultra Racing as a category in their National Runner Survey’s and while Ultrarunning Magazine tallies some stats, these numbers are reserved to U.S. participation.

Follow The Leaders
In many ways ultrarunning (which is officially defined as any run longer than a marathon (26.2 miles), but frequently is pegged around 50 or 100 miles) represents the hardcore arena of the sport. With record-numbers of people running marathons, elite athletes are increasingly looking elsewhere.

It’s no coincidence then that many running and outdoor brands (and even a fitness franchise chain) have swooped into ultrarunning to become partners with some of the most prestigious events in the world.

Columbia Sportswear became the presenting partner of the European Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in 2015. The race traverses 100-plus miles and 31,496 feet of elevation gain through the Alps. Smartwool was named official sock and baselayer sponsor of Colorado’s Hardrock 100, also in 2015. The looped course covers 100 miles with 33,992 feet of climb and descent through the San Juan Range. Gore-Tex put its name on The Grand Traverse back in 2012. The race involves 40 miles and 7,800 feet of elevation gain of midnight ski mountaineering, traversing Elk Mountain Range to end in Aspen, CO. Altra Running now rocks its logo as the official footwear sponsor of the Western States 100. The U.K.’s Montane sponsors The Spine Race, 268 non-stop miles of the most demanding trail in Britain. And even the franchise gym Life Time Fitness snagged sponsorship of the prestigious Leadville 100 event.


The True Test
For brands that create $300 waterproof jackets, there’s no better way to show how your product stands up to the elements than by running it through an ultra marathon. Twenty-six-point-two miles aren’t tough enough anymore. “You can run a 10k in a cotton kit and be fine,” said Molly Cuffe, director of global brand marketing at Smartwool. “Our product shines at a longer distance, and you really start to see the value.”

For Smartwool, and no doubt the other brands that sponsor ultras, “Hardcore is the best place to put it to the test,” said Cuffe. “The UTMB is another playground to ‘test tough’ our products and develop unique and innovative technologies,” said Columbia Senior VP of Europe, Franco Fogliato. W.L. Gore’s Tom Boyle, agreed, “The Grand Traverse provides the perfect way to showcase the power of our products in this emerging marketplace,” the company’s North American garments marketing team lead said. “Consumers can see the connection between activity and the athlete. Some of the most impactful sponsorships are those which align with the value in use of the product.”

Ultra sponsorship can also be a new talking point for retailers, where the proof points of durability, credibility and comfort can translate no matter how far the customer is running.

Buffing An Elite Image
The average outdoor consumer recognizes the names Columbia, Gore-Tex and Smartwool more than they do UTMB or Hardrock. So although elite brands don’t need the boost in name recognition, they partner with ultras for an elevated image. In SGB’s interviews of brands sponsoring ultra races, each leading brand described their sponsored race as “the pinnacle event,” of their ultra category. “We put a lot of horsepower behind Hardrock,” said Cuffe with Smartwool. “It’s a premiere race and we believe we are a premiere brand.”

Fun fact: Many ultras, like the UTMB, award no prize money to top finishers. (So…they’re just doing it for fun?) The lack of monetary incentive only verifies the pure ethos of the event. “It’s about people wanting to test themselves in beautiful environments by pushing their personal limits,” Fogliato said.

In turn, ultra races are getting more coverage than ever before. “We have elevated the event to gain national prominence and international recognition,” said Boyle with Gore. The race was first held in 2003, with 722 runners and 67 finishers, and those numbers have skyrocketed to 2,434 racers and 1,578 finishers in 2014.

Then in 2015, UTMB signed a three-year partnership with Columbia, swapping out its previous big wig The North Face, who holds its own TNF Endurance Challenge Series with 50 miles as the longest of seven routes. With the change in partnership came a change in visual identity for UTMB. The series adopted a new logo “to express its loyalty in values and share a new energy moving forward,” said Fogliato. “Columbia becoming the presenting partner is directly associated with the evolution of the race’s visual identity.”

The partnership is also a piece of a bigger picture at Columbia, where starting in spring 2017 the company will realign its original trail running brand, Montrail to Columbia Montrail. “This is definitely a testament to our commitment to trail running and the UTMB,” said Fogliato, who added that the space would continue to be a strategic focus for the company moving forward.

Smartwool underwent a rebranding at the tail end of 2015 as well, rolling out a new logo and will use its sponsorship at the 2016 Hardrock 100 to display its new identity to the public. “This is the place we want to show it for the first time, which speaks to the respect we have for the event,” said Cuffe. But instead of being “just a bunch of banners,” Cuffe stressed how important it is for brands to support the races first and their unique identities apart from marketing and shine. “We don’t want to paint the town Smartwool,” she said.


So… Are Ultras Trending?
Ultra races likely won’t ever reach the mass of marathons, or even perhaps triathlons, but they are a space to watch in the industry.

“Marathons and half-marathons are a lot more accessible than ultras,” professional ultrarunner Joe Grant told SGB. “Trail running is definitely increasing in popularity, but race participation will never come close to road races.” He added that participation in ultras “will always be more limited because of land use permits and the environmental challenges of having large numbers of people running on trails.” If anything, elite athletes likely appreciate some of the exclusivity and underground nature of the sport.

Grant is currently sponsored by Arc’teryx, Buff Headwear, Scarpa North America and Tailwind Nutrition.

Still, the trickle bringing new participants from the outdoor and road-running sector is strong, and made even stronger by the growth of, and competition between, elite brand sponsorships.

In 2018, many of the multi-year partnerships aligning brands with races will come to an end. If outdoor giants like Gore and Columbia move to sponsoring Zombie runs, we’ll know that ultras were a sell-by trend. But the overwhelming sense is that going forward, ultra isn’t a bandwagon, and we’ll only hear of more brands jumping onboard in the coming years. Hint: Marathon des Sables is still open for a big name brand to swoop in for a multi-year deal, as is Death Valley’s Badwater.

Photos courtesy UTMB