Sprinting may have its deity-like superstars and distance athletics a smattering of royalty, but in the main running has rarely been seen to deliver the drama, peril, or big personalities likely to inspire the next Rocky. Generally speaking, short shorts and split times have struggled to ignite modern audiences’ imaginations.
Redressing that reputation in its typically stealthy way is US brand Tracksmith – a ‘pure’ running label; it doesn’t dabble in other sports nor lean into the trend for hybrid fitness. Established in 2014, revenues have grown 280% since 2019, thanks to a timely breed of intellectually centered athletics, soulful cultural stewardship – including content spotlighting running’s unsung heroes and seminal narratives – and programs for aspirational amateurs that gently nod towards a new era of stakeholder capitalism.
Alongside its distinctively retro collegiate styling, erudite content, and direct lines to running’s most important rebels, the unorthodox ‘no pro’ approach to sponsorship may be its most enduring legacy.
This month it began its global expansion via the launch of a flagship in London (it’s first beyond the US, with Brooklyn coming next), the unveiling of inaugural shoe the ‘Eliot’, and an apparel collaboration with the freshly resurrected institution of American casualwear, J. Crew. Here, Cofounder & CEO Matt Taylor reveals the strategic tenets steering its rise to cult status.
Boston Born and Styled
Tracksmith is ostensibly a brand by and for those obsessed with details (“that don’t date”), born from the brain of an exceptional documentarian and marketeer. Conceived in Boston, a city so fanatical about running that its annual marathon warrants a public holiday, it was largely rooted in the expertise that Taylor, a lifelong runner, had accrued as head of ‘running category marketing’ at sports giant Puma, fueled by a desire to rectify what he saw a paucity of design thinking focusing on a.) the core runner (rather than the hyper elite or casual enthusiast) and b.) the rich history and diversity of running culture.
Harnessing the historic bent, the classic collegiate aesthetic trades on Ivy League academia. Think: grey marl sweats, diagonal sash motif singlets and muted shades recalling the palettes of New England track teams with names like berry, sea pine and lagoon. Then, it was a visceral pushback against the neon bombast of the sportswear he was seeing everywhere else. Now, it’s still an unusually subtle signal; it’s unlikely you’ll find a ‘tamarind heather turnover’ on the blocks at Nike, while the detailing and fashion collabs (see the aforementioned J. Crew) deliver a romanticized remix of vintage cues for style aficionados where New Balance’s normcore falls short.
Beyond Big Data: Decomplicating Running
What Tracksmith isn’t is high tech. While big data and the attendant language of self-optimization has been an increasingly dominant pillar for everything from remote group runs (HOKA’s hook-up with Strava) and behavior-activated advice (Under Armour) to tracking mental wellbeing (Asics’ own Mindlifter app) Tracksmith prefers the art of storytelling as a more straightforward motivational tool:
“The simpler truth is that most people will improve if their training is consistent, and their motivation is fired. We don’t have anything against technology, the reality of having it in our lives isn’t going away, but I think many of the tools can be disingenuous. For us it’s more about decomplicating running, allowing people to tune into things that are sitting in your subconscious.”
Algy Batten, the runner, designer, and founder of British subcultural sports club The Art of Ping Pong agrees: “The sports brands that are digging heavily into personal optimisation metrics are primarily focussing on just health, but there’s a huge value in placing an emphasis on design and culture whilst still being 100% focussed on the enjoyment and performance of the sport. Tracksmith seem to be doing this effortlessly, suggesting the love of the sport genuinely runs through its veins.”
Reclaiming Running Narratives: A Culture of Courage
The appetite for storytelling stems from Taylor’s pre- Puma days when he produced “The Chasing….”– a docuseries following elite athletes, both individuals including Usain Bolt and US college teams. It taught Taylor that for most people, showcasing athletes’ performance was a poor substitute for emotions and less predictable narrative arcs. The most popular was a short homing in on the lives and travails of five athletes sharing a house while training, a sentiment now manifest in its marketing imagery: “At the start the intention was always to shoot running itself. Now, it’s maybe 50%. We just go off for training camps for two or three days and shoot documentary style. And it’s often the difficult aspects, the truth of being competitive even with friends; the more human side,” says Taylor.
The brand now tells stories across numerous formats rooted on its main ecommerce site – a journal, films, and podcasts plus its own magazine (Meter) – spotlighting unsung heroes, pioneers formerly without a platform, and seminal moments for sports-led social justice. Examples range from the historic – see Starting Line 1928 in reference to the first-time women were invited to compete in the 800m in the Olympics (before falsified accounts had the distance revoked until 1960) to the contemporary; most recently an overview of London’s Muslim runners competing to amplify inclusion.
Sometimes they’re simply about personal endeavor, guts, and charisma; see the cinematic ambience of films like the Midnight Mile documenting nocturnal attempts to run a sub four-minute mile on the stroke of 12, or the equally soul-searching Alone, Together when former Tracksmith accountant Jason Ayr tackled the 340-mile distance from LA to Las Vegas entirely solo.
And sometimes the stories are so powerful they literally spill beyond the celluloid, as was the case with Roberta (Bobbi) Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston marathon in 1966. Gibb came in ahead of two thirds of the male competitors but had been habitually overlooked in favor of Kathrine Switzer who officially won one year later; Gibb had been ordered not to compete on the grounds of women being prohibited but crashed the race anyway in defiance, running in a bathing suit, her brother’s Bermuda shorts and a hoodie to avoid detection until the end. Notably, Switzer didn’t have it easy either – having entered using just her initials she received registration she was tackled to the ground by race co-director Jock Semple for her trouble.
The legend that is Gibb – and this is perhaps as Tracksmith as it gets – described running “as a spiritual act.” Now a sculptor, Tracksmith furnished her with a tribute capsule collection and floor space for her art.
In Tracksmith’s tale of art and intellect intersecting with commerce, arguably the biggest coup to date has been getting Malcolm Gladwell, the British-Canadian don of populist intellectualism, on board. In typically jammy Tracksmith fashion, big gun Gladwell was ‘recruited’ having been seen running in Tracksmith kit in NY, spurring a conversation with Taylor that saw him write and voice the brand’s first TV commercial – broadcast on NBC – during the 2021 US Olympic trials.
The collaboration led to the brand’s inaugural podcast The Legacy of Speed, produced by Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries team. Anchored in the pivotal moment two Black sprinters, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith, raised their (black-gloved) fists while on the podium in protest at the 1968 Olympic Games, the six-episode series explored the coaches who mentored them on and off the track, stories previously untold.
It also partnered with Puma on a product collab (Smith is a lifetime ambassador for the brand) that could loosely be considered a frenemy situation, where 5% of the proceeds fed back into the Tracksmith Foundation to support opportunities for young people in track & field. Gladwell remains in the fold, having just narrated some of the brand’s That’s Running shorts which dropped last week. American musician Kevin Morby (a born-again runner) also narrates, but there are no female voices in the mix, as yet.
According to Taylor, social impact and brand engagement can legitimately sit hand-in-glove, particularly when underscored by sensitive intellectual discourse: “The intellectual angle has always been key for us because running is fundamentally about delayed gratification, about living with a certain amount of thinking time. Consider the long history of very successful writers who talk about how running is an instrumental part of their routine. Because when you run your brain changes – there’s a complete unlock of all the other stimuli that allows you to process ideas differently.”
No Pros Allowed: Aspirational Amateurism
If Gladwell brings the showbiz to Tracksmith’s most high-profile thought leadership, it’s the ‘amateur elites’ that keep its feet on the ground. One of its other key strategic moves that Taylor says will remain for the foreseeable is the decision not to sponsor any pro athletes, instead funding aspirational amateurs (funding being the salient point for detractors who have called the brand out on the basis of commodifying the spirit of amateurism).
It’s a policy of citizen-athlete solidarity (it’s focused on the kind of person that’s good enough to trial for the Olympics but isn’t really expecting to make the final cut) which was originally devised to support staff, friends, and family but has now extended to general applications. Aside funding recipients can attend online seminars with sports science and nutrition experts and receive mentorship. What the bursary is doing, says Taylor, “is keeping athletes in the game longer than they could have – allowing people that have full-time jobs and maybe family commitments; to take time out to improve.”
While Tracksmith isn’t about to go full Patagonia, he is emphatic about an “empathetic imperative” as a defining brand-fan bond. Testament to the vision, for the February 2020 Olympic trials a whopping 120 of the 500 starters were wearing Tracksmith: “Our share of voice was massive. We certainly aren’t a fifth of a sports market, but we showed up in a huge way.” Riffing on the amateur support, the brand’s Twilight 5k runs (track races costed at $30 per session, which help runners meet their personal goals) have seen participant numbers grow 400% YOY since 2021.
Following the Fellowship
The brand’s Fellowship program take that school of thought to creatives. Launched in 2020 but not a knee-jerk to the ‘life interrupted’ syndrome of lockdown (coincidentally it was conceived in 2019) it funds five or six runners annually who are harboring artistic ambitions. Whether it’s a book, a mural, a film, or a podcast the premise is to squash the financial obstacles suppressing new voices in running culture. A key example is Dinée Dorame, who used the funding to create the Grounded podcast to explore running, culture, land, and community as an indigenous Navajo woman.
More content, more community – creative and otherwise, says Taylor. “We have big ambitions for content, it’s one of the best entry points to the brand, especially when digital advertising and social media is so fickle. In the long term we believe that creating content that inspires people, alongside community, will have a much stronger and longer-lasting impact than any other.” Expect its socially active stance to stick, too: “We’re not an activist brand but I do think that one of the strongest ways to make a difference is via individual mindset shifts and what we’re doing certainly encourages that.”