Finn Melanson charting a path for ultra running growth
By Henry Howard
A self-professed “late bloomer” to running, Finn Melanson is quickly making up for lost time.
Melanson grew up playing basketball, baseball, football and tennis. “Running was never part of the equation for me. Running started for me when I graduated in 2014. I was pretty immersed in the graduation experience and it never occurred to me that I had to have a plan ready for graduation.”
Without any prospects, he sought out a “rite of passage that signifies I’m an adult and independent now.” While watching a documentary about the Appalachian Trail, he found his inspiration.
The day after taking his last final, he flew to Georgia and began his quest, walking north. Little did he know where that decision would bring him. “I didn’t want to do it forever but you do realize how good it is for mental health and feeling alive.”
After living a couple of years in Portland, Maine, he moved to Utah where his ultra running journey began with the JFK 50 in 2016.
Another source of inspiration was “Why We Run,” written by Bernd Heinrich.
“He painted such an incredible picture of trail running being the most essentially human thing you could do. That really struck me.”
Podcast with a purpose
Now, Melanson is trying to inspire a new wave of trail and ultra runners.
He started the Single Track podcast in June 2021 as a way to create a niche in the growing space which focused on elite runners and training tips.
“Initially, it was to publish conversations that I thought were ether being neglected or being minimized until recently in the sport,” he explains. “For me, it was conversations about the business side — how and why some people are deciding to make some form of trail and ultra running their life’s work, how does race directing work, how does running a brick and mortar running store work, how does running a coaching business work? What goes into the calculus of being a full-time athlete? I am just fascinated by that part of the world in our sport.”
Melanson notably is among the most prolific podcasters. In just over a year, he has published more than 100 episodes. Some interviews go deep with top athletes, others feature those who work full time in the industry while others comprise a special series before a major race like Western States and the Speedgoat 50K. He’s grateful for the increase in interest and participation in the sport.
“I’m in the right time in the right place to be supported in this journey.”
So that begs the question, “What goals do you have for Single Track?”
After a pause and an audible exhale, Melanson comes clean. “I would love to do this full time. If we talked six months from today, I would hope this would be my No. 1 thing. I would be completely devoted to being a media outlet in the sport.”
Part of that vision includes expanding the job board he recently created for positions in the industry. “It would be awesome to be one of the first full-time podcast hosts out there. Bryon Powell and Meghan Hicks of iRunFar are the OGs. I am super impressed with them. Because they started doing this 12 years ago when resources aren’t what they are today.”
Not only does iRunFar represent a throwback to how ultra running used to be, it is a prime example of the ongoing media transition. iRunFar, which was bought by Lola Digital Media in January 2021, is producing more content now, including live coverage of the top trail and ultra races.
Powell and Hicks have maintained their roles for iRunFar. Still, one has to wonder about further consolidation within the industry and how it will impact independent voices like Melanson.
“That's a great question. And I think it's a fair thing or a fair phenomenon to be concerned about,” he says. “I am of the mindset that there's still plenty of room, even beyond somebody like myself, to be a personality in the sport, that a critical number of people turn to, that I have the attention of on a consistent basis.”
Melanson sees the sport’s continued expansion fueling those opportunities.
“I still don't think it's a crowded field because I think that the sport is still growing,” he says. “I'm of the mindset that we're nowhere near the growth trajectory potential that we saw in like the early 2010s. We're going to way surpass that this decade. And so, yeah, I think that for the vast majority of people that are in the media space in our sport, it's either still a side hustle or a hobby. And given that, I think simply going full-time at this instantly becomes a competitive advantage.”
Just like any startup, finding that advantage — a niche — is critical.
“My strategy has been to come in acting like an ethnographer, using the podcast as an outlet to get to know people, ask questions I'm curious about, see where there are gaps, try to address them in the most generous way possible,” he explains. “When you do that, it's surprising how fast you can grow when you're public about how you want to help the community, the difference you're making. Things turn inbound really quickly.”
Jobs, jobs, jobs
One way in which Melanson is demonstrating his entrepreneur mindset and helping fellow outdoors enthusiasts is his recently created jobs board. He credits fellow ultra runner Jimmy Daley for the inspiration.
“He runs a content marketing community called Super Path that has a jobs board,” Melanson says. “I watched him build it from afar and saw just how much he enjoyed the process. It’s a great business model. If you can be a multi-sided marketplace, if you can be the person or the website or the resource that connects runners that want jobs and companies in our industry that want to hire those people, I just realized that nobody had built it yet.”
Melanson sees it as a way to illustrate that there are opportunities for middle-class jobs in the sport. A recent podcast series also addresses the issue, interviewing athlete managers at different brands.
“That was motivated by the fact that I have a lot of friends who are sponsored runners or aspiring sponsored runners,” he says. “They've always complained about this black box where they feel like they don't have all the information they need to come to the negotiation or bargaining table in their best interests. They feel like there's a lot of insecurity associated with being an athlete. They wonder about social media obligations and exactly what type of work they have to do to fulfill their end of the bargain.”
In the episodes, Melanson talks with reps from adidas Terrex, Solomon and others about what goes into the athlete-sponsor relationship.
“Hopefully for future athletes who are coming up in the sport, they can reference these interviews and have more information so that they can confidently approach these brands and have a better relationship in the long run and a better career in the sport.”
Looking down the trail
Just like the ultra runner he is, Melanson is taking Single Track one step at a time and building toward his big goal six months in the future.
“I just want to help as many people as I can have an easier time navigating the world of ultra running and participating,” he says. “So making it easier to participate, making it easier to make a living in the sport and just to generally enjoy it. Hopefully the podcast inspires more idea generation. So people think about the way that I think, which I hope is a little bit non-traditional and a little bit out of the box. And they have permission to also think out of the box and non-traditionally, and any idea for how to grow the sport or to improve it is appreciated and there's a marketplace for it.”
At the same time, he is dreaming big.
“I would love to see trail running in the Olympics,” he says, noting Salt Lake City is competing to host the 2032 Games. “If there's a way to make the 100-mile mountain run an Olympic sport, I really want to be a part of that. That would be kind of dusting the cobwebs off of my political background and pitching the Olympic Committee there for the next couple decades. If Salt Lake City gets the bid, there's a provision that allows the local organizing committee to test a sport. That would be super fun.”
Another idea to pursue, he says, is a championship league or series, of sorts.
“From an event standpoint, I would love to see a league or a series that's not sponsored by any shoe brand in our sport, but more independent and that all athletes are incentivized to compete in.”
But for now, Melanson is keeping his focus on the immediate goals at hand. Growing his podcast, jobs board and presence.
“It's hard for me to think past one year or two years,” he says. “A year ago today, I did not have the courage to think in terms of doing this full time. It took a lot of intermediary steps to make it happen. So I'm just going to trust that if I keep applying my full focus to this sport and I allow my mind to be open and I meet more people like you, for example, that inspire me in different ways, that two years from now, I'm thinking of other creative ways to go about work in this sport.”
Wooing the next generation
With the goals linked to making the sport bigger, it’s clear that it also has to be more inclusive and appeal to the currently underrepresented communities.
“I don't have the answer here — but how do we make the sport more attractive for more people? How do we increase representation in non-white communities?”
It’s a question with no easy answers. Most ultra runners, like Melanson and myself, are white, male and come from middle-class families. We hit the trails quite often to find ourselves, improve our mental wellness and give ourselves a challenge to balance the comfort of our lives.
“I was searching for a firm identity when I hiked the Appalachian Trail,” he says. “But I think one of the selling points for ultra running that maybe we invest in a little bit more, is that a lot of the younger generations like the millennials and Generation Z have lost this clearly defined rite of passage that happens in young adulthood that challenges us physically and mentally.”
Clearly there are millennials and Gen Zers who do enjoy such pursuits. There are young elites atop some highly competitive ultras. Obstacle course racing (OCR) is popular among others.
“When you look at OCR, there's a similar promise in trail and ultra running," Melanson says. “To test yourself, to reconvene with nature, to cleanse your soul. I think that desire is only going to get stronger as our day-to-day lives are increasingly filled with digital time and in relative ease of existence.”
Yet it comes down to the marketing, using modern media tools to reach, encourage and inspire the next generation.
“I would be nowhere from an inspiration standpoint if it wasn't for the builders in our sports,” Melanson says. “People like you, Ethan and Kim Newberry, Dylan Bowman and Free Trail, Corrine Malcolm, Keely Henninger, Billy Yang, Jason Koop, David and Meghan Roche, anybody who has just been creating content for the last 10 to 15 years.
“We never know who we're influencing. And whenever we see people building on top of what's already been done, I don't see it as a threat. I see it as we've done our work, we've created something that can be improved upon and that's humanity. Right? That's how evolution works. It's just super cool. I just want to say thank you to everybody out there who has been involved in that process for our sport.”
Name: Finn Melanson
Hometown: Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Number of years running: Six
How many miles a week do you typically run: “I prefer to track time on feet and vertical ascent, but if I had to ballpark it, 60 miles.”
Point of pride: Salt Lake City
Favorite race distance: “A point to point mountain 100K or 100-miler. It's important that there's a distinguishable starting and ending point.”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Oatmeal with a lot of additional fixings mixed in - banana, peanut butter, etc.
Favorite piece of gear: “Apple Airpods - they are surprisingly durable and sweat resistant and running with cordless headphones is a game changer.”
Who inspires you: “Neil Young because he has always relentlessly stayed true to the muse.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Eminence Front” by The Who.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “All things in moderation, including moderation.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: