Ultrarunner Shares Thoughts on Sponsored Athletes and the Growth of Long-Distance Races
By Jahla Seppanen
The stereotype about the loony ultrarunner who eats cheesecake while running and pushes through blood-filled sneakers doesn’t apply here. Joe Grant is refreshingly human, clear-headed and keen on how to make it as an athlete in the industry.
Sponsored by Arc’teryx, Buff Headwear, and recently Scarpa, Grant met SGB on top of a windy mountain in Boulder, CO to talk shop.
Born in the United Kingdom, raised in France, and with ultraruns in Chile, Alaska, Moab, and the Canary Islands (among other spots), Grant is one of the sport’s rising stars.
What began as a love for hiking and climbing manifested itself into 20-, 50-, 100-mile endurance runs, and with that a good 10-years of racing the hardest, longest, and most out-there ultras the world has to offer. Along with the big names in ultrarunning like Western States 100, Ultra Trail du Month Blanc, Hardrock Hundred, Bighorn 100, and North Face Endurance Challenge, Grant doesn’t pigeonhole himself – participating in races for ski-mo, dog-sledding, and unsupported trail speedhikes.
Grant reminded SGB, “not all sponsorship is running … you have to do your own things, have your own brand, photograph, write and have a strong perspective.”
For an athlete on the outside of the industry, how do you get in? Skill and results are your baselayer. But beyond that, you have to love the products and act as an ambassador instead of just an athlete. Starting out, you get psyched the first time free gear is thrown at you, but when it comes to paying the bills you have to stand out. You do that by extracting from what you are doing by bringing something to the table and translating ideas into usable material.
And your website Alpine Works is a manifestation of that principle? Everything I do lives on Alpine Works, including my coaching, which is a holistic, personalized approach to preparing people to run long distances. I believe success lies in mindset and practice.
Do your personal philosophies ever conflict with your sponsors’? Sponsorships are really about seeking a partnership instead of merely getting free stuff. Giving feedback is important, to make products better, so you have to be able to, and enjoy, communicating. Just before this, I came from Scarpa’s headquarters. I stopped in and spoke with the design team, got a pair of running shoes from their new line that focuses more on alpine and snagged an awesome pair of ski boots. Scarpa is a good fit because I like the people who run the show, and the company is responsive to what I need.
Did you go to Scarpa, or did Scarpa come to you? I’ve known Mark Matthews, the main shoe designer at Scarpa for years. We met-up at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2015 and started talking. Then on January 1, 2016 we became official. I feel the same kinship with Arc’teryx, but they’re based in Vancouver so we have a long-distance relationship.
How can an athlete approach a brand in the hopes for sponsorship? Say, ‘I’m using your product already, I’ve accomplished this and that, and it would be cool to team up.’
What’s the biggest challenge that comes from the growth of ultras? Races in the U.S. have to be smaller because race organizers are restricted from a permit standpoint. Plus, the U.S. is really big. In Europe, you can hop on a train from France to Spain and race an ultra in the same day. These European races can have thousands of runners, while the biggest U.S. ultra, the Leadville 100, only has about 800 … and that is huge. When I race here, it’s normally among 100 or so runners.
If you could race with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? My mom recently got into doing ultras, so that would be cool. It’s nice because she doesn’t do it in the hopes of ‘making it,’ but just for the pure joy of running long distances. I feel that way too. I just got back from racing a 100k in Chile and it was also great to run with guys who are simply passionate about the land. I mean, in the end I’m just a regular guy passionate about being in the mountains.
Photos courtesy Jahla Seppanen