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Is the cost of ultra running getting too high?

By Henry Howard

When runners start out on their journey most bought a pair of running shoes, wore some shorts, shirts and socks they already had, and maybe bought a low-end watch. The financial barrier to entry for casual running is pretty low.

However, as the popularity of the sport increases, major companies are vying for their part of the market share. More runners means more potential sales, after all. And two developments this past week sparked the idea for this post, exploring whether the cost of ultra running specifically is getting too high — especially for those with lower incomes.

The first story that caught my attention was the announcement of Apple’s Watch Ultra, which is available Sept. 23. The watch is marketed toward ultra runners and other endurance athletes, comes in a titanium case and promises up to 36 hours of battery life.

The Apple Watch, previewed by DC Rainmaker, will retail for $799.

The second item that caught my attention was a podcast episode. During my run on Saturday morning, I listened to the Trail Runner Nation podcast. In this episode, hosts Don Freeman and Scott Warr brought on frequent contributor Andy Jones-Wilkins for an audio magazine episode. Among the topics they discussed were the prices of some trail shoes.

Among those cited:

• A Naked Running Band shoe, costing $289.99.

• The North Face Flight Vectiv, which sells for $329.99.

• A Speedland SPLDX shoe, costing $375.

• A Gucci shoe — yes, Gucci — for $890.

Quality gear

Of course, runners don’t need to shell out $250 or more for a pair of trail running shoes. There are quality ones that can cost between $100 and $150.

Still, ultra runners can wear through multiple pairs of shoes each year. Buying a half-dozen pairs of trail shoes in a year wouldn’t be out of line. After all, various shoes are intended for a variety of conditions such as ones that are meant for speedy zips down a groomed trail, while others are intended to be an everyday trainer and still others are ideal for gnarly mountain terrain.

And honestly, shoes (and socks, too) are areas where I would not skimp on. After all runners will be pounding out hundreds, if not a couple thousands of miles annually. And it’s critically important for runners to protect their feet and lower legs, which quality shoes are designed to do.

As mentioned earlier, blisters are problematic and can derail a race or long run. In addition to quality running shoes, I don’t skimp on socks or protective salve either. I regularly use Squirrel’s Nut Butter and Drymax socks. I have literally never had a blister or chafing when using that combination.

The steep cost of ultra running

Shoes are just the starting point. A GPS watch. Running shirts, shorts, underwear, socks, hats, gloves, jackets, bandanas, gaiters and more. And if you live in an area with varying climate, you might need specific gear for all four seasons of the year. Runners doing longer races might also want or need vests, packs, headlamps, handheld bottles and more.

And, as long-distance runners know, the entry fees to races can be steep.

This is not meant to discourage anyone from running. Quite the opposite actually.

The benefits to running are well documented. Beyond the fitness improvement, runners also participate in the sport to improve their mental wellness. And there really is no price one can put on finding a state of wellness.

However, that comes as the runner becomes more integrated into the sport. And that’s where the concern about the escalating cost of entry comes into play. It is well documented that the sport of ultra running needs to bring in more minorities, younger athletes and women into the sport.

The financial commitment can truly be a non-starter for members of those groups who may not have the financial resources for the sport. It compounds a problem that does not seem to be improving sufficiently.

There are efforts being made such as Max King’s camps that offer scholarship for kids. Still, more needs to be done. And with the escalating cost of shoes and Apple’s entry into the market, the challenge has expanded.

Share your ideas

I don’t have the answers to this problem. But I am interested in hearing yours. Feel free to join the conversation on my Facebook page or send me an email about how you would address this issue. Here are some questions to consider:

• Are you concerned about the rising cost of ultra running?

• How do you save money on running shoes?

• How do you save on other costs related to ultra running?

• How should other runners, race directors and brands seek to be more inclusive to groups that are not well represented in the sport?


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