Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Win a Free Trip to the UK For Some Crazy Fell Running!

Have you ever wanted to race in the historic Lake District of the UK, the true home of fell running? How about an all-expense-paid trip for FREE?!? Well, you are in luck...

My shoe sponsor, inov-8, has recently launched the GET A GRIP COMPETITION where seven lucky winners will get a 5-day trip to the UK to race the 9-mile Skiddaw Fell Race. And yes, US runners are eligible! Just fill out this form and share your favorite trail running experience, and you are entered to win to be a part of Team Get A Grip for the June 30th-July 4th extravaganza.

The steep and challenging Lake District is where inov-8 was born in 2003, and quickly became a favorite brand for tackling the unique rocks, trails, and mud of the area. Since you are in inov-8's backyard, you can expect far more than a race entry - you'll get a tour of the company, a chance to run with the international inov-8 team, hob-knobbing with plenty of record-setting locals, and probably plenty of free gear and beer too. It sounds like an amazing experience!

So what are you waiting for? GO FOR IT!!!

I will be the first to tell you how jealous I am. ;-)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Practicing Joy at the 2017 Marin Ultra Challenge 50k

"Practice Joy"

That was my goal at the 2017 Inside Trail Marin Ultra Challenge 50k last Saturday. No time goals, no sprints for podium finishes, not even a watch or headphones to distract me. Instead, focus on being in the moment, appreciate the glorious Marin Headlands with all my senses, and share the experience with my favorite tribe of people. A perfectly chill complement to the fast and furious FOURmidable 50k a few weeks ago.

JOY IS...the stillness of a moonlit morning at Rodeo Beach, listening to the waves crash, my warm coffee mug snuggled close. A snake of cars slither down the dark hillside, filling the parking lot with headlight nods and hugs.

(Starting under the fog, the moon lights our way)
(Varying moods at the start line)
JOY IS...the warmth of the collective passion and courage in the starting corral. First timers meet locals who could run these trails in their sleep (and just might given that yawn), and 50k and 50-mile runners sigh with the anticipation of the final countdown. We stare at a trail that leads right into the heavens.
(Ted Knudsen shares a laugh)
(Well worth the climb!)
JOY IS...a sunrise welcome at the mountain top, illuminating clouds as thick as marshmallow soup. We dip in and out of its tasty goodness as the trail rambles along the ridge.

(A great day above the clouds)
(Surfing the clouds)
JOY IS...the kinship of shared adventure, and appreciating the multitude of paths that brought us together on this day. In one hill climb, I meet a guy from Florida, another from Mozambique, and a woman from San Diego who signed up for the 50-miler the day before. Differing paths, yet similar smiles and wide-opened eyes that embrace the mountain spirit.

(This Floridian was in town for a Google conference and decided to throw in some hills)
(A perfect day!)
JOY IS...realizing all woes can be cured with salt water. Sweat, tears, or the ocean...all have healing powers. We embrace the saline holy trinity as we climb out of a foggy Pirate's Cove, boosted by spurts of cool air from crashing waves a shadow away. I grab not one, but a handful of Nutter Butter cookies at the aid station and cram them into my maw like Cookie Monster.

(Racing clouds that pour into the valley)
(It was nice to dip down into the clouds and cool off)
(Volunteers get a nice view too)
JOY IS...volunteers who get an epic day in the mountains after all those rainy days they have stood there for us. Set up, aid stations, sweepers, and the other elves who make every race flawless deserve a little sunshine. Even the flowers sprout up to greet them, dotting the hills with poppy orange and cornflower blue, and filling noses with rosemary and honey.

(Chicken lady!)

(Jenny Capel and Mark Tanaka take on the 50-miler)
JOY IS...friends I recognize from their signature strides a half mile away, but have rarely seen in everyday clothes. Ted, Chris, Penny, Jenny, Tanaka, Emily, Kevin, and many more...a quick hug, a few words, a smile that speaks volumes...the silent bond built from hundreds of shared miles.

(Getting warm up top!) 
(Heading to the final climb)
JOY IS...long moments of solitude, sprinting the big climb only because it dared me with its punishing incline. I stop at the top, still licking Nutter Butter residue from my hands, and finger trace the route on the horizon as I catch my breath. One, two, three climbs...just one more.

(There's that finish!)
JOY IS...that familiar sound of cowbells, cheering, and clapping at the finish line that relaxes the body instantly. I don't want it to end, but then again, beach/BBQ/beer sounds pretty good too. I cross the finish, and the fulfillment washes over me. We switch to flip-flops, exchange water bottles for beer, and laugh and cheer in the sun as a steady flow of delighted runners race down the hill. It's not even noon yet, but we have claimed the day, victorious. My college classmate Andres Kohn finishes his first trail 25k with a smile as big as the waves. We all knowingly grin...his journey has just begun.

JOY IS EASY, FOLKS. Look around and be present. Invite adventure into your life. Laugh and strive together so you have stories to share. It's a simple recipe.

I drive home, windows rolled down to cool my sun-kissed arms, savoring this early touch of Spring. Mother Nature is awesome in every sense of the word. I am grateful to Tim Stahler and the volunteers of Inside Trail for giving us this glorious excuse to inject some adventure and accomplishment into our lives. With their help, practicing joy is as easy as breathing.

Monday, March 06, 2017

How To Be A Sponsored Athlete - Commentary on Ambassadors, Elite Athletes, and Professionals

Last week, a few people forward me a Trail Runner Magazine article entitled "Getting Sponsored Isn't Just About Being Fast (Pro Athletes Offer Their Advice)", and asked me "is that how you got your sponsors?".  Ummm, sort of?!? The article had a lot of great advice, but I feel it missed some opportunities that non-pro level runners (like myself) can easily tap into. I thought I would share some insights here in case you are looking to create a relationship with your favorite brand.

Caveat #1: My day job is as a marketing executive in Silicon Valley, so my very biased perspective is (1) based on an understanding of what makes a corporate brand thrive, and (2) uses a lot of digital marketing. I'm sure there are many other ways to slice this apple, but this is the recipe I know.

Caveat #2: I am not a professional athlete. I cannot set 50k course records at national championships when it is 17 degrees outside (that's Tyler Jermann's 2:48 at the 2017 Caumsett 50k), nor can I hang with the group that hits the opening mile of Way Too Cook 50k in 4:48 (Cody Reed, Chris Mocko, Patrick Smyth, etc.). Those guys are the real deal, and should have their own Jerry Maguire agents prancing on the sidelines ("help me help you!"). But there is room for a lot of evangelists beyond professionals.

Ambassador, Elite, or Pro - Which One Are You?

Marketing is all about "authentically amplifying the brand", and there are many ways a brand can do that with athletes. In many cases, athletes can tell the brand story in ways that are far more authentic (or outrageous) than the brand itself. Injinji nut-tsak? I rest my case. But a couple of important things to note about that blog story - it got over a million views, and to get the joke, you needed to understand Injinji's unique value proposition.

Ambassadors - The Army of Passion

When you are a new brand, you need to get the word out because many haven't heard of you yet. You need lots and lots of energetic people who love your brand, out in the field, participating with others, and saying "OMG, you've never head of Picky Bars? I love these guys." The best grassroots solution for this are Ambassadors (also called Advocates). Ambassadors don't need to be the fastest in the pack, but they are in the sport all the time. Running, volunteering, directing, at the early morning workouts, in the stores, at the film festivals, in the running clubs, at the parties, encouraging friends, and likely posting online about all of it. As much as I read online, I still hear about great products more through ambassadors than anywhere. It really works.

I've found that most people become Ambassadors just by doing what comes naturally - they talk about a product they love, and why they love it. They link to the brand when they post, answer questions on behalf of the brand, and find fun new ways to express their passion for the sport. Brands in their early stages look for these interactions to understand what is working, and often reach out to these people (or are very receptive when athletes reach out to them).

Typically an Ambassador will sign up for 6-12 months of an "official relationship" in exchange for some free product, unique swag, and a chance to join a team event once or twice a year. As long as the brand doesn't force the interaction ("you must make four posts per month to get your product"), it generally finds a rhythm that doesn't offend the group an ambassador can influence. And you get free product for something you are already using! My favorite brands will also give some product to Ambassadors to give out regularly, such as race prizes, freebies, etc. Free stuff is nearly always welcomed.

For example, I am an Ambassador for Succeed S! Caps. I'm a big fan of their electrolyte solution, and have talked about it online a bunch of times. One day they sent me a case, and it was so much, it will be 2020 before I get through them all. In that timeframe, they will likely get in excess of 30 million impressions of their brand on my blog, with an ad value of $300k.  That's a pretty good deal for both of us.

I am also no longer an Ambassador for Vitargo, although I do continue to use their product. About a year ago, their ambassador program became one of those "you must post weekly to get your next tub of product, please provide all links for proof". Yeah, nobody likes a "shill" post, so this kind of program doesn't work for me. But if you are already posting 10 times/day, then maybe its easier.

Elite Athletes - Amplifying the Brand Through a Following

When a brand has a solid foundation (in stores, mentioned in magazines, at trade shows, etc.), it can then begin to amplify that brand by investing a bit more into a few select people who represent it. One way to do that is to sponsor Elite Athletes. Elite athletes have a very strong commitment to the sport, and their social/digital influence looks more like a "following" than a group of friends. They generally are at a fitness level that they can make a podium finish (overall or age group), and do race often. Many get their following from how they express their passion for the sport when not on race day - a great coach, a book author, a personal trainer, an artist, race director, or someone with a great web site or hilarious podcast (Eric Schranz at, Jamil Coury, Bryon and Meghan Powell at iRunFar, etc.). But in the end, all Elite Athletes do compete and know what it takes to do well in the sport.

There are really three ways you can become an Elite Athlete, and all of them require one thing - you need to authentically use a product along the way and talk about it. With that in the background, you can take one of three tracks:
  • First, you can perform well. You get out there and win or complete something big. Set your goals, get 'er done, then thank the brands that helped you get there BEFORE they become your sponsors. 
  • Second, seek out and meet the people in charge of the team, and build a relationship. In some cases, this is all that is needed. Most teams refresh their rosters in November/December for the following year.
  • Third, work on your "following" so it's easy for them to find you. This was my gravy train when I started trail running a decade ago - I would blog about all these products that worked really well, linking to their sites, and as the blog readership got bigger, the links began sending noticeable traffic/purchases to their site. At that point, it was a pretty easy conversation ("hey Scott, what can we do to have you mention more about our xxx?"). Sometimes it even works the other way - I once had a camera company send me six cameras and say "please don't ever talk about how our camera broke again, just let us know if you need more". You don't need a huge audience if you have the right audience and the right voice, and these days a good Instagram or Twitter account can get a following pretty quickly if you are out racing regularly. But you do have to stay at it, and authentically endorse the brands that fuel your passion.

What do Elite Athletes get in return? Generally you're going to get free product, free swag, some reimbursement for race expenses (typically $500-3,000), and a chance to get early access to products and be involved in the design process. Elite Athletes also often get perks like a multi-day retreat with other athletes, photo shoots, and being involved in advertising, speaking, and other events. I've had the good fortune of some of those events being in Chamonix, Switzerland, and Big Sur....didn't have to twist my arm to go! Elite Athletes can also often make a case for additional resources for a special project, such as receiving some funds or extra products. Elite Athletes typically aren't compensated at a level to focus 100% on racing (unless you're willing to live out of your truck), but it can be a great complement to the right profession.

I'm an Elite Athlete for Team inov-8 (shoes), Team Injinji (socks), and Inside Trail Racing (trail races in California). All of these came from loving their products and races, talking about them on the blog and in social media, and having a ton of respect for how they were building their brands. My favorite part of being on these teams have been helping develop new products and events, and racing with teammates all over the world. Some race expenses are covered, most are not, but I am always flush with products I love in super fun venues. I have to reapply every year like everyone, but that helps me keep my sights high for the following year.

I have been offered far more lucrative deals with other sponsors (particularly those willing to pay the going rate for online ads) but if I don't use their products, I say no thank you. There are a few brands I would love to be a part of, but not sure if they identify with trail running (Lagunitas? Aleve? Ducati?) or if I'm the right brand fit (*LOVE* the Oiselle brand....pretty sure I'm not on their radar until a men's sports bra is in production). That's okay, still happy to show them some love with a few links and mentions.

Professional Athletes - Winning To Get Eyeballs

When a brand has established global presence (Nike, adidas, Salomon, North Face, etc.), they need epic people doing epic things on a regular basis, preferably in a professionally shot video. They need athletes to win races, attempt FKT's, have shoes named after them, scale mountains, and take on the toughest courses the global stage has to offer. They need professionals. If you are in a sport that reaches billions of people, you can get paid millions to do this. We are lucky that trail running in the last few years has now been able to reach millions, so a lucky few can actually make a living.

We all know who these folks are (or have been), because we refer to them by first names or nicknames (Kilian, Max, Sage, Frosty, Magda, Wardian, DBo, etc.) or see them as legends on the walls of retailers (Koerner, Krar, Kimball, Rory, etc). They all have close relationships with the big brands that back them, and work together annually to craft marketing investments that work for all involved. Pro athletes get compensated in a number of ways - annual stipends, matching of purses won, bonuses for national titles or wins at big races, compensation for use of their persona in advertising, etc. I know of many getting $5-10k in comp from a sponsor, am aware of a dozen that have been able to make in excess of $40k/year, and I've met two that have crossed $150k/year when everything goes right. Certainly not "retire early" money, but a way to do everything in the sport you want to do with a full film crew involved. Trail running continues to grow, so I suspect even more opportunity here abounds as broader brands (autos, banks, insurance, etc.) see a selective audience of outdoor lovers.

So What Can You Do To Get Sponsored?

Really, the best thing you can do is express your passion authentically and don't be afraid to talk about the brands you love. Link to their sites, tag them, and see what happens. If your style of evangelism is a good match for what that brand needs at its point of evolution, go ahead and reach out to meet the people behind the brand marketing. The worst that could happen is that you make some new friends.

I'd also suggest exploring your digital marketing skills. Figure out how to take good pictures, understand how to write posts that are fun and uplifting, and tag the brands and people that inspire you.  Even if you don't develop a long-term relationship with a brand, you can use these skills to help out with race expenses. I've been comped free hotel rooms, airline flights, meals at favorite restaurants, and more just for giving shout outs on the blog and social media, or helping link and write reviews that attract people in our sport. In nearly every case, it's because I took the time to email or call the owner/manager and just ask.

A big THANK YOU to my sponsors for sticking with me over the last decade. I honestly never get tired of talking about your products, so I know it's a good fit.

Happy to answer any other questions - just leave a comment!

Thanks, Scott

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