Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Running is the most pure, democratic sport. No refs. No parents needling coaches for playing time. No equipment. Just a clock. Technically, you don’t even need shoes — just your own two feet. For years, this myth of the loneliness of the long distance runner — picture a stoic man with a cup of black coffee lacing up shoes and throwing on an old cotton shirt — defined the sport. But with the American running boom and the rise of the hobby jogger, the sport shifted — it went from weathered gray shirts to gaudy race tech T-shirts plastered in logos overnight. And as companies like Nike and Adidas watered down their running divisions to appeal to a larger health and wellness audience, everything started to look the same. It was all ugly as hell.
Which is why I was thrilled when Tracksmith launched in the summer of 2014. The independent New England running company ditched the NASCAR-inspired color palette favored by Nike and New Balance for understated blues and regal reds. Tiny shorts were replaced with a more functional and modest inseam. Synthetic, tech-y fabrics that hold stench gave way to lush, high-performance mesh.
But beyond the actual gear, which doesn’t sacrifice function or performance for fashion, Tracksmith spoke to me. (I will admit here that I am a sucker for a well-executed ad campaign and dramatic black and white photos of runners suffering.) It traded big city marathons — the bread and butter for running companies these days — for images of backwoods jaunts and dudes hanging out drinking post-run beers. It trafficked in the history and tradition of running without feeling like hokey faux-nostalgia.
Every fall, after my coach distributed our simple black cross country uniforms, me and a few of my high school teammates would sneak into the athletic equipment room and rummage through boxes of shorts to find the few remaining pairs of ultra-rare (and extremely faded) SUB-4 brand shorts our school wore in the late '80s. There was something about those shorts — with a logo simultaneously vintage and futuristic, like Steve Prefontaine resurrected in Tron — that made us feel like we had this unfathomably cool connection with the past (we were teenagers, give us a break). Tracksmith, with its classic designs and throwback to running’s halcyon days, gave me that same feeling.
Matt Taylor is the prototypical runner: He’s tall and thin and, after several beers, will start to regale you with tales of his faster days. Tracksmith’s founder and CEO talks about running the way bartenders tell you about a crazy shift — high on the excitement, with a touch of reverie and well-earned cynicism.
"It’s one of the last remaining meritocracies!" is how he explains the sport as we make our way around Central Park’s Reservoir on an idyllic fall day, passing by Columbia’s cross country team, an old foe from Taylor’s days running competitively at Yale, in their sky blue short shorts. "There is no other evaluation standard, other than your time or your place."
A running industry veteran and the former head of global marketing for running at Puma when Usain Bolt rose to fame, Taylor was always hell-bent on changing the sport. "In my younger days, I was like, 'I want to make the sport cool,'" he says later over post-run burgers and beers. "I want to present it in a different way. Then reality sets in and it’s like, Nike’s got billions of dollars."
His years at Puma were formative — it’s where he learned about supply chain, process, and product calendars, and it’s where the idea of Tracksmith was born. He just had to figure out how he could quit his job and buy himself a year’s time to get Tracksmith off the ground. So, in the summer of 2011, he flew down to Bolt’s house in Jamaica. He told the star that he eventually wanted to start his own company, but to bridge the financial gap, he really wanted to do a video game with the charismatic Olympic champion. Bolt, a video game aficionado, loved the idea. With Bolt on board, Taylor cold-called video game companies and managed to coordinate a deal with RockLive to develop a game for iOS devices. Bolt! was released in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics in London. Taylor had already left Puma to throw himself into Tracksmith full-time in August 2011.
At first, it was just Taylor, working in coffee shops, Whole Foods cafés, at his kitchen table with his kids hanging onto his legs. Then he cold-called Luke Scheybeler, a British creative director and one of the cofounders of Rapha, the high-end cycling brand. Scheybeler came on board in August 2013 and left in December 2014, which was all by design — Taylor brought him in to help hatch Tracksmith as a cofounder on a contract basis. Scheybeler even stayed in Taylor’s basement when he came to the states in the company’s early days.
When Tracksmith first launched, it couldn’t escape Rapha comparisons. (I’m guilty!) Journalists are lazy and it was an easy parallel: Rapha makes sharp, high-performance cycling gear and was cofounded by Luke Scheybeler. Tracksmith makes sharp, high-performance running gear and was cofounded by Luke Scheybeler. Rapha’s signature is a thick stripe on the sleeve; Tracksmith uses an Ivy League-inspired sash across the chest.
"I sort of got a reputation as the guy that put stripes on stuff, right?" Scheybeler says with a laugh.
I bring this up because while "Oh, kind of like Rapha?" might be a super annoying refrain for everyone at Tracksmith HQ, I think it’s more than just the bougie, elegant athletic gear. It’s the explicit emphasis on the culture of sport. It’s a shift away from the bucket list marathoners to people who have been running their entire lives — it’s the anti-Nike approach.
Since its launch in 2004, Rapha has focused on highlighting the history and aesthetic of cycling: the mid-ride espressos, the pain and glory of riding in the rain, the romance of the road. In its first two years, Tracksmith has done the same with running: black and white photos from training camp, mid-run cannonballs in a nearby river, treacherous hill repeats. And both brands use citizen runners and cyclists for their shoots, which resemble reportage photography more than advertising.
"Rapha was quintessentially European, and Tracksmith is quintessentially North American," Scheybler told me. "It was a completely different aesthetic and a completely different sport, but some of the same ideas. Tracksmith's mission is to re-brand running. It has become all about marathons and running in a hot dog costume. All those things sort of devalued what we thought was the simplest and the most straightforward sport in the world and the oldest sport in the world."
Tracksmith’s launch was modest with just a few men’s pieces (women’s gear and a full men’s line wouldn’t come until 2015), but runners are an insufferable, opinionated lot, and the backlash was swift. The popular LetsRun message boards, the running community’s dingy dungeon of opinion, were not a fan, to put it lightly. "It [sic] too up it own rear end," user Lamerthanlame wrote in a thread titled "Tracksmith: too expensive?" "Clothes for hipster runners who have a hot rod for the east coast."
Lamerthanlame was not alone: Many runners felt that Tracksmith was contrived or postured or just too bougie for their tastes. "It’s too expensive" was the most common complaint. "Who would pay $80 for shorts?" others asked.
Perhaps it’s the menswear effect finally having an impact on running, or the buy nice versus buy twice argument, but a certain consumer is more willing to shell out cash for a premium good. (It’s not just Tracksmith: Nike Running is charging $80 for T-shirts, and New Balance wants $84.99 for a "Precision Run Short Sleeve.") After running for two decades, I was finally able to buy some gear that wouldn’t make me look like an Oompa Loompa on race day. It felt good to toe the start line at a marathon in shorts with a proper fit. As Deion Sanders once said, "Look good, play good."
And over the last three years, I’ve seen more and more Tracksmith on runs and in races, from Brooklyn to Chicago to my small hometown in northern Michigan. The company, which has raised $5.7 million in funding, is clearly resonating with an audience that appreciates the heritage and doesn’t mind the hit on their bank account. The brand would not divulge any earnings or sales numbers — since it's not a publicly-traded company, there is nothing in the public record — other than it has grown "100 percent year-over-year." But it recently hired two running industry stalwarts with decades of experience at Nike, New Balance, The North Face, and Saucony, which at the very least indicates competitive salaries and an expectation for more growth.
"I think where we really can win long-term..." Taylor says, pausing to emphasize his point. "Internally, we like to call it 'the running class.' Not the elite professionals, and not the hobby joggers, but the people who have had a long history with the sport."
It’s a celebration of the sport, not a glossy catch-all trying to sell it to newcomers. Tracksmith likes to talk about how its offices are at the exact halfway point of the Boston Marathon. This summer, it offered anyone who could set a personal record in a race over 800 meters — while wearing Tracksmith gear, of course — a $250 store credit. Its magazine, Meter, which launched in November 2014, is filled with stories on unsanctioned urban nighttime races and historically difficult trail racing in Northern England — the kind of stories Runner’s World would have published 30 years ago before marathon madness gripped the country and they had to court new readers with general interest stories. Everything it does is for runners. Not fast runners, Taylor is quick to say, but core runners. "We're for the runner that is committed to it, and wants to get better," he explains. "They understand it, they're passionate about it."
Call it a lifestyle brand, if you like. But Tracksmith has injected some style and sophistication into a sport that was in desperate need of a makeover. In two years, it has slowly and methodically built a brand for runners, by runners (Eric Ashe, Tracksmith’s head of logistics and a 2:17 marathoner, ran in this year’s Olympic Marathon trials). Sure, some people think it’s absurd and artificial and expensive. But there are also plenty of people who have fallen head over heels for the gear, the same way runners did for Nike in the '70s. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a run in $80 shorts.