Running: Are Brands The New Countries?

O no, a thinkpiece. What about reviewing expensive waterporous socks you hate again just to make a point?

Running the half-marathon today, sandwiched between questions of “how much faster can I run without throwing up before the changeover zone?” and “would I be faster at this distance in less couchy shoes?” was this much more interesting question: “Are sports brands the new countries?”

My teammate and I were both in a shoe that we’ve been given free and asked to test which in part is probably how the rhetorical question arose. But more interesting and infinitely more relevant to the notion was Team Salomon’s 5-continent blitz on ultrarunning over the past few months and year to come.

In Australia, their runners fired our imaginations and their campaign so enlivened the sport of trailrunning and ultramarathon globally that its impact will only become clear over the next 3-5 years.

spoiler alert: It will manifest in the continued acceleration of the sport’s growth, greater participation more broadly, increasingly competitive front ends in all races worthy of note, higher quality performances, development of new training and racing techniques more broadly, a different approach to the development of technical clothing and equipment, and – of course – more brands doing their best to make an impact by association with sponsored athletes and probably, eventually, bigger purses too.

Team Salomon was Spanish, French, South African, American, but more than anything, they were Salomon. We identify Kilian Jornet as Spanish because we’ve seen his videos and hear him speak of his home, but he and Salomon are inter-related in most minds more closely than he and Spain, I think. So too, The North Face 100 was not about any nationality (as opposed to country) versus another, it was about one brand very deliberately dominating another’s party. Hopefully both North Face and Salomon benefited, but it’s surely food for thought.

North Face runner Ian Sharman’s race report on the recent Western States 100 probably planted the seed a month ago. Apart from being a great review, check out how each ranked athlete is paired to their sponsor. Even in a year where the men’s top 5 was notably dominated by Europeans, nationalities are of less interest than shoes and puffy jackets.

Perhaps even now, in an era where the globalization project still warrants a shipload of suspicion and cynicism, these transglobal brands have become postnational, or are they in the midst of inventing postnationalism? (tempted to put ‘po$tnationali$m’ but to do so just seems a bit grim…)

I was too busy gawking at his epic landscapes to think for sure whether Geoff Roes is Canadian, Californian, or rest-of-American, but I know he’s Montrail. Dave Mackey – laid back dude, could come from either side of the border – am not sure which but he’s definitely Hoka. I think Brooks for Scott Jurek and New Balance for Anton Krupicka before I think of either in terms of continent or nation. The brand new superbad Nick Clark is definitely Pearl Izumi, but I’m not sure if he’s Welsh, Cockney, or Celtic.

On the one hand, nationality as an identifying trait too frequently becomes the weapon or target of nationalistic fervour – perhaps less so the further we get from beer-fuelled dull-eyed masses sunning themselves like the walruses they dwarf, spread out on grassy hills and beige seating around the cricket grounds of the world, bloated, burnt, zinc-painted, flag-clad, anthem-flogging, sad, stupid, and threatened. On the other, does a brand erasing that artificial division between people of all nations simply set up a new divide rooted in purchasing decisions, or is it something better because it’s divorced from traditions of ignorance-based fears turning rapidly violent?

Perhaps division by brands’ purported ideals has more merit than nationhood because at least it’s by choice rather than decree or accident.

Perhaps the simple fact that most ultrarunners would make sure a downed competitor isn’t life-threateningly damaged before continuing with their race is the key ingredient to the sport of ultrarunning’s continued good natured rivalry unfuelled by any genuine ill will. Maybe brands deserve some thanks for that. Maybe they’ll have a responsibility in future as the sport of trailrunning continues to explode to make sure it stays that way.

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