Tracksmith Made Running Culture Something You Can Buy
The brand's ethos signals a departure from an apparel industry that has been dominated by giant shoe companies. But can it stay true to the soul of the sport?
In 1975, a 27-year-old Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon while wearing a white mesh T-shirt that he found in a trash can. His wife had scrawled the initials of his team, the Greater Boston Track Club, across the front with a black marker, as well as “BOSTON” in all caps. Despite setting a new American record of 2:09:55, Rodgers did not receive any prize money for his efforts that day. Such were the trials of the elite distance runner in the amateur era: I won the world’s most prestigious marathon, and all I have to show for it is this lousy T-shirt.
This sartorial footnote to Rodgers’s first Boston win is the sort of whimsical detail you might expect to be memorialized by Tracksmith, a company that makes upmarket, classically styled running apparel and presents itself as a cultural ambassador for the sport. It was founded in Massachusetts in 2014, and one would be hard-pressed to think of another sportswear label that has so deftly invented itself as a heritage brand. On Tracksmith’s website, you can read an article about the punishing training regimen of Emil Zátopek, the undisputed king of distance running during the mid-20th century, and then purchase a merino-wool sweater—affectionately named the Emil shawl—“inspired” by the Czechoslovakian legend. Aesthetically and emotionally, Tracksmith often harks back to a time when the best runners in the world were not professional athletes. One of the more enduring items in the company’s collection is a cotton T-shirt with the word “AMATEUR” confidently emblazoned across the chest—a salute to runners who are doing it “for the love.” It is manufactured by a 165-year-old textile company in New England and costs $55.
There’s a mild irony in putting a price tag on the spirit of amateurism, especially in the context of a sport in which some of the most vaunted athletes of the amateur era weren’t particularly happy about not being able to earn a living from their craft. They were doing it for the love, but they would also have liked to be doing it for the cash. Steve Prefontaine famously told The New York Times in March 1975 that if he decided to represent the United States at the 1976 Olympics, he would be doing so as “a poor man.” Two months later, Pre died in a car crash, tragically denying him the opportunity to witness the phasing out of the amateur system he so despised. Rodgers was more fortunate. In the mid-seventies, he signed a multiyear deal with Asics, starting at $3,000 annually—not a princely sum by any means but better than what other companies were proposing; Nike and New Balance, Rodgers told me, offered him the “stunning fee” of $500. (Rodgers couldn’t recall precisely what he was making at the end of his time with Asics, though he thinks it was around $40,000.)
However, the amateurs Tracksmith has in mind are not so much the impecunious would-be professionals of the past but today’s hardcore hobbyists—the bane of every relaxed camping trip. These are the runners who will never make a living from the sport, but who nonetheless might wake up at 5 A.M. to churn out 20 miles before work, after dreaming about their marathon splits. On its website, Tracksmith explicitly refers to these zealots as the “Running Class,” i.e., the “non-professional yet competitive runners dedicated to the pursuit of personal excellence.” The message is aspirational; even if you’re not the kind of person who feels a stirring in your loins every time you see a high school track, you can still signal some of that Running Class passion if you’ve got the right gear. But the right gear does not come from random trash cans. The implicit assumption of Tracksmith’s business strategy is that someone who runs 90 miles a week (or wishes they did) is also willing and able to invest in premium running shorts.
The strategy appears to be working. Over the past two years, the company has increased its revenue by more than 250 percent, according to cofounder and CEO Matt Taylor. The brand closed its Series B funding round in late 2019 and received an $8 million investment from Causeway Media Partners, a venture-capital firm whose portfolio includes the virtual-exercise platform Zwift. Anecdotally, I’ve seen the Tracksmith logo—Eliot, a mini golden hare named after the long-shuttered runner’s bar in Boston—become increasingly ubiquitous in the New York City running scene.
Perhaps my Eliot radar is particularly fine-tuned because I am also a (downwardly mobile) member of the Running Class and the proud owner of several Tracksmith garments. Personal excellence continues to elude me, but I have voluntarily subjected myself to many torturous workouts over the years, in the irrational belief that getting marginally faster will provide some measure of redemption for my myriad failures. The Tracksmith aesthetic appeals to my bougie taste, even as I feel conflicted about flaunting it on a casual ten-miler—as though the purity of the pursuit were diminished by my vanity, or the fact that I now read the washing instructions for half my running clothes. (I recently purchased a Tracksmith merino-wool hat and received “Care & Keeping” advice for the “piece” in a separate email.)
If Rodgers’s example is anything to go by, the road warriors of the old school were above such base materialism. Another case in point: Amby Burfoot, who won the 1968 Boston Marathon and was a longtime editor at Runner’s World, told me that he didn’t “get” Tracksmith, in the sense that he couldn’t see the appeal of spending money on running apparel that didn’t either provide a performance benefit or help prevent injury. To be fair, Burfoot also self-identifies as an “old-time, thrifty New England dude,” the “world’s worst dresser,” and a very late adapter to all running trends. (Now in his mid-seventies, Burfoot just purchased his first GPS watch. Verdict: the heart-rate monitor is garbage.) Nonetheless, as Burfoot puts it: “A T-shirt is a T-shirt is a T-shirt. As long as it’s made out of some breathable material, it works for me.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, roughly 87 percent of Tracksmith’s sales came through its website; another 10 percent came from its brick-and-mortar location on Boston’s tony Newbury Street and occasional pop-ups at big-ticket marathons like New York and London. Since last March, 98 percent of sales have come via the internet, according to Taylor. This is consistent with a larger recent trend, in which the growth of online retail, and the attendant shift away from wholesale-centric business models, has spawned a number of smaller companies in a running-apparel market that used to be dominated by the major shoe manufacturers. Brands like Janji and Oiselle have given consumers an indie alternative to corporate behemoths like Adidas or Nike. From a product perspective, these newcomers present themselves as a refreshing departure from brands that, as Janji cofounder Dave Spandorfer put it, “made shoes first and apparel last.” According to Oiselle founder Sally Bergesen, the clothing lines put out by big shoe companies in the early aughts were plagued by “bland and uninspired designs” and continue to be rather “meh.”
For Taylor, the meh-ness managed to be garish and boring at the same time. “If you went into your local running shop in 2010, everything looked exactly the same,” he recently told me. “It was a very specific aesthetic. Very futuristic. Very neon. There was a sort of Power Rangers thing going on.”
He was in a position to know. Back then, Taylor was the head of marketing for Puma’s running department. He’d grown up in Pittsburgh as an athletic kid, and, in the grand tradition of runners everywhere, eventually discovered that his talent for ripping laps around the track exceeded anything he could hope to achieve on the basketball court. He went to Yale, where he competed on the cross-country and track and field teams. In 2000, he graduated with a degree in psychology and a mile personal record of 4:10—a time that, while plenty fast, meant he likely wasn’t going to be vying for a spot on the Olympic team. Before landing the job at Puma in 2008, Taylor worked at a small, Boston-based professional-runner management agency and media company called Kimbia Athletics. The agency’s director, Tom Ratcliffe, reached out to him after seeing a web-based miniseries called “Chasing Tradition” that Taylor had made about several of the NCAA’s best cross-country programs. He was hired to produce similar documentaries about Kimbia athletes, while also helping on the client-management front. In effect, Taylor was in the running-media business at a moment when, in his eyes at least, the scene looked pretty bleak.
“As a consumer, I felt that there was a kind of cultural void,” Taylor says. “When I was growing up, you could turn on ESPN and occasionally see track and field or a major marathon on live television, or you could flip through Runner’s World and read a story about Marc Davis competing in the steeplechase in the Olympics. As time went on, through the late nineties and early 2000s, there was sort of a trough for the sport. Not only from a performance perspective, where American distance running was at its worst, but the sport as a whole was nowhere to be seen in the media landscape.”
(For what it’s worth, this analysis is slightly contested by Larry Eder, a veteran of the running-publishing scene, who worked at Runner’s World for several years in the eighties and proceeded to launch several titles of his own—including American Athletics, which was later renamed American Track and Field. Eder told me that he thought running media was quite robust at the regional level throughout the nineties and 2000s, though he agrees with Taylor that mainstream interest in professional U.S. running declined dramatically after the ’84 Olympics. As a consequence, Eder says, there was an editorial shift at Runner’s World, which saw the magazine cater more toward a general fitness audience than running obsessives, with fewer Marc Davis profiles and more three-day-a-week training plans.)
For Taylor, the media’s focus on the general runner was mirrored by a retail space that also seemed to lump running into a broader, amorphous fitness category. The Power Rangers look had no soul.
Working at a multibillion-dollar company like Puma gave Taylor an understanding of the apparel business from both the marketing and production sides, as well as an idea of what was possible with a large budget. He also developed a professional relationship with Usain Bolt—arguably track and field’s only bona fide global superstar. The connection came in handy when, prior to the 2012 Olympics, Taylor collaborated with the world-beating sprinter on an iPhone game called Bolt! According to Taylor, he invested about $35,000 of the money he made from this venture as seed capital for his new clothing brand.
Officially, Taylor is the cofounder of Tracksmith. The other half of that equation is Luke Scheybeler, himself a cofounder and former creative director of the über-posh British cycling brand Rapha. Taylor, who is not a cyclist, had never heard of the company when an acquaintance recommended he check it out as potential inspiration. Impressed by what he saw, he “cold-Skyped” Scheybeler, and a casual consultation session morphed into a formal partnership.
“The thing that Matt and I hit upon as the identity of the brand was this kind of preppy, New England, Ivy League aesthetic, matched with running gear,” Scheybeler, who still owns a stake in the company but hasn’t been directly involved for several years, told me. Tracksmith’s trademark sash, for instance, was inspired by Cornell University’s track teams of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As for why Tracksmith seemed to be catching on, Scheybeler’s explanation was that, up until recently, performance-wear brands had been in denial about the fact that they were in the fashion business. Tracksmith never suffered from any such illusions. Rather than echoing an argument that’s often used to explain the athleisure phenomenon—that flaunting your active lifestyle is a kind of subtle power move—Scheybeler insists that, in effect, the opposite is also true. As endurance sports are becoming ever more central in people’s social lives, there’s demand for products that are less aggressively technical in appearance. Indeed, one cliché of gear reviews is that we all need sports attire that we can also “wear to the bar.” Although Tracksmith is hardly the first company to cater to the growing demand for more socially versatile exercise apparel—Lululemon and Outdoor Voices also come to mind—it has so far managed to do so without watering down its hardcore-amateur image.
When Tracksmith launched in 2014, the inaugural collection included a mere five items: a mesh singlet and pair of shorts named after Van Cortlandt Park, home of the eponymous, legendary cross-country course in the Bronx; the aforementioned made-in-Massachusetts T-shirt; the medium-length Longfellow shorts; and a limited-edition track-spike bag, made from a “shirting fabric salvaged from the floors of the New England Shirt Company.” Despite such a scant selection, the company caught the eye of Elliot Conway, who runs the investment division of the Pentland Group—a London-based fund with a large portfolio of sportswear brands, including the swimwear giant Speedo. He contacted Taylor out of the blue and, in early 2015, Pentland invested in the embryonic company. “Everything about the brand was done beautifully and with an eye for their community—an eye for runners,” Conway, who would not disclose the size of his firm’s investment, told me. “People love this brand. They are rabidly loyal. Because they see that it’s made for them.”
If Conway’s on-the-record assessment of the brand comes off as suspiciously starry-eyed, Scheybeler’s perspective is, while not exactly cynical, a little more earthbound about the realities of the retail market. Asked about Tracksmith’s upmarket pricing, he told me that he’d actually tried to convince Taylor to go even higher. Did he think Tracksmith was elitist? For sure, though less so than Rapha. (To my eyes, the cycling line seems targeted at an older, more expressly European demographic. If Tracksmith speaks to that distinctly American desire to forever perpetuate some aspect of the college experience, Rapha is for the London banker who might navigate his midlife crisis with an extravagant bike trip in the Rhône Valley.)
But Scheybeler ultimately agreed with Conway that what made Tracksmith so seductive was that its by-runners, for-runners ethos is convincing. Rather than fitness models prancing around a generic waterfront, the brand exclusively uses real runners for its catalog shoots, often doing actual workouts.
“Matt was a runner at Yale, so all of that New England, Ivy League stuff is authentic and genuine,” Scheybeler told me. “Tracksmith is run by a bunch of people that love running and live and breathe it. And that comes across. You can’t fake that stuff.”
Initially, Tracksmith had big plans for 2020. For the first time, the company was going to set up pop-up locations at all six World Marathon Majors. (Tracksmith has always avoided touting its wares at the carnival of crap that is the marathon expo.) Tentative plans were being made for a new brick-and-mortar store in New York—the big-city equivalent of its Newbury Street locale. In late February, at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta, 138 participants (out of 565 total) sported a red, white, and blue Tracksmith kit that the company provided as part of its OTQ Program for those who’d achieved the trials standard but didn’t have a sponsor. The champion of amateur runners was riding high.
Enter the plague. The writing was already on the wall when the Tokyo Marathon, which took place the same weekend as the U.S. Trials, was downgraded to an elites-only race due to the pandemic, causing Tracksmith to scrap its pop-up plans at the eleventh hour. Opening a new store in New York City, which would soon become COVID central, no longer sounded like such a good idea. Races went virtual. For the first time ever, the summer Olympics were postponed.
Rather than upbeat narratives about athletes seeking glory in Tokyo, the summer of 2020 saw the running industry face its own racial reckoning. After the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer incited nationwide protests, running brands began to awkwardly grapple with the sport’s own blinding whiteness—one that was thrown into sharp relief at the trials in Atlanta, where an overwhelmingly white contingent of sub-elite athletes took over the streets of one of America’s Blackest cities. There were varying degrees of self-flagellation among publications (including this one) for failing to feature more Black people on their covers. In the Journal section of its website, Tracksmith published a short essay by the amateur runner, marketing professional, and occasional Tracksmith model Kamilah Journét, titled “Your Black Teammate.” It begins: “Sometimes I wish I didn’t notice. I wish it wasn’t so clear that I was the only Black woman donning my school’s uniform or that I continue to be one of few Black faces at the start line, at the trailhead, or logging miles with my friends.”
Not long after her article appeared, Journét left her job at Patagonia to join Tracksmith’s marketing team. Taylor told me that Tracksmith, which currently has 27 employees, had “a lot of work to do” to address internal issues of racial equity, but he pointed out that the brand’s catalogs and lookbooks had always been progressive in that respect. “We have been one of the few running brands that show a pretty diverse representation across all of our consumer-facing marketing activities,” Taylor says. For her part, Journét told me that what made her want to join the company was that it was “literally a brand that she had seen herself in.”
One of Journét’s first assignments with the company was to help launch Tracksmith’s fellowship program. The initiative, which received over 350 applicants, includes total funding of up to $50,000 for aspiring painters, writers, singers, sculptors, and other artists who, as Tracksmith’s website phrased it, have an idea for “igniting action within the larger running community.” The six inaugural Tracksmith fellowships include a hip-hop music project “born at the intersection of arts, athletics, and social justice” that aims to “inspire, cultivate and motivate communities throughout the world to activate their lives,” and a podcast about the “unique relationship between the runner and the land,” intended to “uplift Indigenous runners.”
I’ll confess here that I’ve always been rather lukewarm about self-conscious activist art, all the more so when the concept is green-lit by a boutique clothing brand. That isn’t to suggest that the Tracksmith fellowship is doomed to be nothing more than a woke marketing scheme, but I’d like to think that I still live in a world where creative endeavors aren’t required to justify their existence with some kind of lofty utilitarian purpose or preapproved moral vision. When I asked Journét why, from a business perspective, Tracksmith would be incentivized to play fairy godmother to these would-be auteurs, she told me that, first and foremost, Tracksmith believed it was “the right thing to do.” (Journét: “Why wouldn’t you want to simply extend a hand to those that might not have previously seen themselves represented in the sport that we’ve all grown to love?”) Maybe Journét is just very good at her job, but I found her straight-faced idealism both disarming and vaguely disconcerting in its suggestion that those who are skeptical about corporate do-goodism are the real villains here. Excuse me, the right thing to do?
At first glance, Tracksmith might seem an unlikely candidate to be a progressive force in the running world; it can be hard to disassociate that throwback Ivy League aesthetic from a certain hoity-toity elitism. Taylor resents the “retro” label that is frequently used to describe his brand (he thinks “classic” is more accurate), but there is nevertheless something blatantly anachronistic about the whole enterprise. The store on Newbury Street, named the Trackhouse, has strong aristo-locker-room vibes. There’s a library upstairs, where you can read copies of Meter magazine, Tracksmith’s quarterly broadsheet. Tom Derderian, a longtime coach of the Greater Boston Track Club and former marketing manager for Nike’s running division, says the store reminds him of an “old-timey Boston Brahman club.”
“It’s the kind of place I imagine the Boston Athletic Association was in 1900,” Derderian says, “when it was all these rich guys who go on safari to Africa and sit in their club in overstuffed leather chairs and smoke cigars and have a wine room. That’s the feel.”
And yet, Tracksmith has at times managed to merge its retro—sorry, classic—aesthetic with a more inclusive conceit. In October, the company collaborated with coach, writer, and high-mileage fashionista Knox Robinson to release a “time capsule” collection inspired by the late Ted Corbitt and the New York Pioneer Club, the nation’s first integrated running team, which Corbitt joined in 1947. The first Black runner to represent the United States in the Olympic Marathon (Helsinki, 1952), Corbitt was also the inaugural president of the New York Road Runners, and a trailblazer of the ultra scene.
Robinson told me that he regarded the project as a form of service, both to New York and to the Black running community. It drove him crazy, Robinson said, that a towering figure like Corbitt wasn’t more widely known.
“I’m super stoked that the Tracksmith customer is going to add Ted Corbitt to their wardrobe and to the narrative, but I’m also excited for Black folks—to see an icon from our culture elevated to a couture level is deserving,” Robinson says. “That’s what the culture demands. We want to see our icons revered. We want to see our pioneers elevated, respected, and saluted.”
Although nobody would contend that elevating a neglected icon of Black running culture “to a couture level” qualifies as an act of reparations, it can’t hurt. Celebrating the legacy of Ted Corbitt is also the right thing to do—even if certain curmudgeonly types might see the New York Pioneer Club collection as just another way to commodify a sport that, at its most romanticized, was never about the gear.
More than any other running brand, Tracksmith has successfully built its image around evoking the sport’s quiet, intangible moments: Weird race-day rituals. Interval sessions that leave you lying trackside with a feeling of indescribable contentment. Vanishing notions of bliss on a September afternoon, when the light reminds you of cross-country practice from lost years. Whether you believe that these moments can somehow be enhanced by buying expensive stuff depends on whether you think that finding a new way to promote and sell running culture is ultimately to celebrate or degrade it. Of course, it’s possible to be ambivalent.
“The noise in running over the past five years, I mean, it’s been great,” says Robinson, who is also a longtime Nike ambassador and Nike Run Club coach. We were talking about the way the sport seemed to be getting more attention, thanks to a breakthrough in shoe technology, the emergence of Eliud Kipchoge as an international celebrity, and the pre-Olympic hype that had been crescendoing before COVID shut everything down. If you were inside the bubble, you could be forgiven for thinking that competitive distance running was even starting to become trendy. “The extent to which brands caught up to running culture and then started to market to it has really made running unrecognizable, I think, for a lot of us who have been doing it our whole lives,” Robinson told me. “Every cross-country kid’s dream is for running to be cool. But now that running’s cool, it’s kind of a nightmare.”
But what are you gonna do? I head out the door in my new Tracksmith shorts, modeled after a pair worn by the Oxford graduate student George Dole when he raced Roger Bannister on May 6, 1954, and lined with “performance mesh” named after that dumpster shirt Bill Rodgers wore for the ’75 Boston Marathon. The inseam is an immodest four inches, but short shorts are having a moment.
It wasn’t always this way. I remember an old high school teammate who, way back in the nineties, insisted on wearing a cruddy pair of miniscule Mizuno bottoms to cross-country practice, only to have the varsity soccer team heckle him for his chicken-legged flamboyance. Those shorts sure as hell weren’t cool either. Or, rather, they were extremely cool in the sense that they conferred a certain rebel status—the kind of authenticity that money can’t buy.
Correction: A previous version of this story included a misspelling in one instance of Kamilah Journét's name. The story has been updated, and Outside regrets the error.