As trail running booms and brands that make products for the sport grow alongside it, so too do the opportunities for athletes to benefit from commercial relationships with sponsors. It’s a natural progression for the sport and one that can be mutually beneficial for all parties. But this rise has coincided with the proliferation of social media. We are currently in a period where everyone has the opportunity to express their opinions on platforms that are freely available to the masses. It’s both good and bad. On the positive it means we can share ideas and experiences, connect with people and discuss topics that interest us. On the flipside it opens the door for keyboard arguments, trolling and loss of privacy. Amongst other things, it also creates a platform for people to have an identity that in the real world is far from their actual persona, and at the same time they can wield influence over their adoring fans.
What I’m exploring in this blog is the price of someone’s soul. The cost trail runners attach to their integrity and moral virtues. For most of the pointy end, it seems it’s quite cheap. It turns out to be the value of a few pairs of shoes and some free trips. Many an elite trail runner will happily pop a flower behind their ear and smile for a selfie and then comment in poor English about their love of playing in the mountains. All the while there’s a strategically placed logo on their top, half a dozen hash tags and plenty of skin on show. Don’t get me wrong, that’s all lovely, but hey, don’t bullshit about your approach to your running as being all about fun or the wonderful new trail friends you’ve made. The reality is you’re fiercely competitive and bitch about half the people you pose in photos with. You also get chaffing from that top and your pack doesn’t fit properly so you’ve modified it. Then there’s the folks who every second week are posting about a new amazing product they’ve been using for all of 5 minutes and claim it to have been a major impact on their performance. And don’t get me started on the pseudo trail environmentalists that bang on about veganism and their love of Mother Nature, yet they frequently fly half way around the world to ‘Play in the mountains’ at a competitive event they’re ‘Just having fun in’, conveniently forgetting about the huge carbon footprint they’re creating in the process. But all these things don’t matter, because that flight they’re on has been paid for by a sponsor. The shoes they’re promoting that are giving them sore feet were free too. Oh yeah, and there’s that stuff they say they eat in races that actually gives them gut issues so they use other products.
At a more sinister level we have cheating. One brand in particular is well known for its athletes not having all the mandatory gear at events and also providing aid for them outside of checkpoints. I’ve seen this firsthand at races both in Australia and Europe. When I’ve mentioned this to athletes that are with said brand, they simply say “I didn’t realise we couldn’t” or “But I didn’t do anything wrong, it was them…” Interestingly, this same company has under its employment an individual that has failed drug tests. This person is in a role that sees them working closely with all of the athletes, so maybe a culture of cheating is inherent within this company? But what really disappoints is that many of the athletes who are sponsored by this brand are happy to say that cheats should be banned for life and that they distain dopers, yet they’ll happily represent this company and spend time with the aforementioned cheat, who by the way competes in trail races!
I’m by no means completely innocent. I’m a North Face athlete now, however was formerly with Nike. Yep, Nike has a terrible track record on the doping front and lets not forget their handiwork years ago with sweatshops and the like. But that said, I have never had any association with cheats and always speak openly about my dislike of dopers even if they adorned the tick. Plus my time with them was once they had cleaned up their act on the manufacturing front. I have also been known to promote the occasional product. However I’ve always thoroughly used them prior and am more than willing to say when I think one of my sponsors makes something I don’t like, such as CamelBak’s older generations of packs prior to them becoming more like vests, and on a similar vein, I’m not a fan of The North Face running packs because the bottles sit too high and I like soft flasks. Another example is that I don’t wear North Face shoes on the road…they don’t make a shoe that’s suitable for me.
What I say to my friends who are willing to give away a little bit of their soul in order to save some pennies is this: “If you want to maintain your integrity and not defraud your adoring fans with statements that you truly don’t believe, work a little harder or smarter and pay your own way.”
By Dave Byrne