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.”