Is Commercialization a Threat to the Purity of Trail Running?


Last month I set foot on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia for the first time since I took up running in 2007. For six years I had been purchasing books about the AT and accumulating hiking, fast-packing, and running gear. I completed my miles that day with Nathan handhelds, INKnBURN clothing, an UltrAspire pack, and Montrail shoes.

I can’t say how much money I have spent over the years on the sport of trail running, but I do know that as I ran along that famous trail, the last thing on my mind was what to buy next. And yet trail business is booming.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s annual report from 2010, the outdoor recreation industry boasts $289 billion in retail sales and services as well as 6.5 million jobs in America.

To argue that this bad-wolf commercialization is a perversion of the purity of our sport is in some ways ironic. Think about how you first heard or this sport. How many of us would be running trails if we hadn’t read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, Dean Kanazes’ Ultramarathon Man or watched JB Benna’s Unbreakable?

According to a study by Gary C. David and Nick Lehecka, the book Born to Run not only increased the visibility of trail and ultra running, but completely revolutionized the shoe industry. Their study quotes The Economist in 2011: “Ever since Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run hit the bestseller lists in 2009, Zappos, an online shoe retailer, has struggled to keep up with demand for minimalist footwear.” Similarly, Vibram saw sales jump from $470,000 in 2006 to $50m in 2010.

If you have:

  • read Born to Run
  • recommended running books to others
  • read or written shoe reviews
  • accepted free gear or nutrition in exchange for a review
  • listened to a sponsored running podcast
  • paid for a race entry
  • accepted a goodie bag from a race
  • accepted a cash prize from a trail event
  • clicked on a targeted Facebook or Google ad related to the outdoors
  • bought running gear on sale
  • supported race directors making a living from well-run, well-respected events
  • worn a promotional buff
  • supported or cheered for a company-sponsored team
  • become an ambassador for a company you believe in
  • recommended a product to a friend
  • bought or read a running magazine
  • become a sponsored athlete
  • entered a running-related giveaway
  • attended a book signing
  • added a promotional badge to your blog

… then you have already participated in the commercialization of this sport. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Does commercialization prevent us from enjoying the Olympics? The Superbowl? Perhaps it does. Or perhaps we wait for the commercials with anticipation, record them, analyze them, and share them on social media.

According to, commercialization may have more benefits than drawbacks. “Take one look at how well the North Face 100 is doing and what it has done for Australian trail and ultra running. It has attracted the likes of Kilian and Ryan Sandes to our shores and put us on the map as a destination to come and visit. Sure the companies behind this have deep-rooted motivations to sell more gear, but should we begrudge them that if we benefit too?”

It’s trendy to speak out against commercialization but the truth is that most of us are not mountain hermits. We live in a society of mass consumerism and eagerly participate in that system. We love swag. We’ll take free stuff even if we don’t need it. Can we really compartmentalize our sport so it never touches our morning Starbucks, Mac laptops, or Amazon accounts?

As avid trail runners, our job is not to keep the money out, but to keep this sport honest. So far we’re doing a good job.

When Leadville 100 crossed the line from a respected race to a greedy money-grab, we strongly objected. Hardrock 100 removed Leadville as a qualifier for its event, accusing the race of failures in “environmental responsibility, support of the hosting community, and having a positive impact on the health of our sport”.

The popular site removed any and all mention of Leadville 100, stating that “They’re no longer a part of the sport of ultrarunning, but simply a business venture.”

Instead of hunting down prize money, our top athletes care about and defend our sport. In a Runner’s World article, Karl Meltzer said about the new Leadville: “Life Time is in it for the money. This company is road runner, gym-based folks that do it purely to make a profit.” The gatekeepers of our trails are loyal and effective.

Another point to make is one of perspective. Although our sport has grown by leaps and bounds, it is still comparatively low-key compared to the commercialization around activities like Cross-fit or obstacle racing in the recent years. With the exception of a small handful of races, we don’t see anywhere near the bonanza of sponsors that invest in other booming events.

Still, it is not a low budget that makes our sport pure. It is the care we put into our trails. It is our willingness to move across nature with old friends and new friends, suffering when we don’t have to. Our sport’s purity lies in the value we place on resilience, determination, and giving back. We are trail runners whether we pay hundreds of dollars for gear or just head out with homemade car-tire sandals.

When I motivate people to get on trails, I know full well that my encouragement is directly contributing to a commercialization of the sport. But the payoff is worth it when I see someone finish their first ultra, win their first trail race, or grow monstrous quads.

When the crowds do get overwhelming, I can simply retreat to my backyard mountains and enjoy miles of commercial-free solitude. In a few more years, when my Montrails are completely disintegrated with gaping holes and paper-thin soles, I’ll finally descend from the mountain and buy a new pair of shoes.



This article is part of the April 2014 Trail Runner Blog Symposium. This month’s topic was: Is trail running becoming too commercialized?


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Vulnerability and Catcalling in Bear Country

Unfair Advantages in Trail Racing and Don’t be a Douche


Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

10 responses

  1. Well said Vanessa. As a “sponsored athlete” I guess I’ve definitely done my share of contributing to the commercialization of our sport, but I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to run many more races that I couldn’t afford without that financial help from my sponsor(s). Being able to participate in these races allows me to continue to be an ambassador for our sport, and encourage more people to give the ultra a shot, and become a part of our ultra community.

    As I’m attempting to set a new world record of 40+ 100 miles races in one year (just some silly goal to shoot for), there’s no possible way I could do that without some form of financial backing. I still pay for most of my race expenses out of pocket, but the help I get towards entry fees allows me to continue pursuing my dream, which would otherwise be dashed on the rocks.

    And one last point, there are some very strong opinions regarding Leadville, and I’m no exception. But did you notice how quickly it filled to capacity this year? Faster than ever! The old adage about bad publicity is still publicity seemed to have worked in their favor this year. Although my experience there last year wasn’t the best, if the same sponsor invited me back this year, I would accept in a heartbeat. And the same thing could and has been said about Badwater. Once again, if I had sponsorship dollars, I’d be there with bells on . . . literally!

    Run strong . . .

    Ed “The Jester” Ettinghausen

  2. Based on the title of this post, I was worried this would be be post blatantly against commercialization for the sake of being trendy. I quite like how you took a balanced approach. I can appreciate that some ultrarunners in particular would be puritains about the commercialization of “their” sport, but I like how you nuanced it and showed that there are more other places to run pure.

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  4. Vanessa – interesting discussion. Agreed that commercialization doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But the concern I think is that the more virulent form of capitalism in which the goal is not to provide the best product or experience but rather to make the most money regardless of the means, may invade and become increasingly prevalent. You point to Leadville as an example of how the community reactd positively to just such an intrusion but I’d like to point out that 1) Leadville still seems likely to have plenty of entrants this year and 2) I’m not alone in mourning the loss of such a great and classic race. I would love to run Leadville and now I’m pretty conflicted about the idea. In fact, this is a great example of what the worriers are worried about. In a recent discussion on Craig Thornley’s website, someone pointed out that they could easily fill ws100 at $2000 an entry. This isn’t likely to happen, but even losing a few old classic races would be a tragedy.

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  6. Hi, Vanessa,

    My own ultra bio dates back pretty much pre-commercialization. I discovered UR Mag via a small classified ad in Runner’s World. My subscription dates from 4/91. Started running ultras soon after.
    I was very saddened to hear the reports about Leadville last year. Even more saddened to hear that Western State and Hardrock had blackballed the race as a qualifier. I don’t think that’s fair to the runners. It’s one thing to decide that the race organizer is a jerk, but the runners who go the 100 mile distance are still worthy of respect, and shouldn’t be blamed for race management’s problems. It also places UR Mag in a tough spot. Do they report on Leadville as any other ultra? In doing so, do they validate Leadville’s race management, and offend the powers that be at WS and HR?

    I think commercialization is inevitable. There are several individuals/groups putting on events without a lot of hype (e.g. Ultra-Adventures, with Zion, Bryce, etc). A local runner puts on a race series and a 50 km as a means of supplementing a not extravagant income. More power to ‘em!

    There are still plenty of low key ultra events out there with little to no commercialization. If this is a concern, vote with your feet and get those race entries in!


  7. Reblogged this on "Running the Good Race" Stories and commented:
    Others might think of it as a threat to the purity of the sports but this … answers it…

    What matters is what’s in your heart ❤️❤️❤️ and no one can question that, no one can discriminate anyone from getting into the sports. Glad I was welcomed well ❤️

    Love this blog!

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