Under Armour & the Cool Kids of Mountain Running

Under Armour is making a bigger play in the running space, starting with the trail and mountain running community.

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In the last couple of years, Under Armour has been making a play in the running industry to remind consumers that it is a major player in the game. Known for its star-studded athlete roster that includes names like Steph Curry, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Lindsey Vonn and Misty Copeland, it’s running sponsorships have to this point, held less prominence than those of their competitors, where athletes like Shalane Flanagan, Eliud Kipchoge and Des Linden have become synonymous with the brands they represent. But Under Armour is ready to change that.

According to industry analysts at NPD Group, the U.S. athletic footwear industry grew by two percent in 2017, generating $19.6 billion in sales. Last year, Under Armour—along with Nike/Brand Jordan, Adidas, Skechers and New Balance—was one of the five top-selling brands based on dollar sales.

To boost its running profile even more, this past February, UA launched its Hovr athletic footwear line in two models: the Phantom and Sonic. Both are road shoes and feature the brand’s new Hovr cushioning that promotes a more cushy, responsive ride. They also boast a connected option which allows runners to see their data (which is transmitted from the shoe itself) on the MapMyRun app.

“This was the single largest footwear launch in Under Armour’s history, with the Hovr launch, with the Sonic and Phantom,” said Topher Gaylord, senior vice president and general manager, Under Armour Outdoor. “And we have seen an incredible response globally in terms of sell-through. We did one of the best sell-through product launches we’ve had in the company’s history.”

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Although the Hovr road shoes were just released, it’s the trail and mountain running niche that UA seems to be focusing on as it turns its attention back to running. With ultrarunning athletes such as Kelly Wolf, Cody Reed, YiOu Wang, Kyle Dietz, Brian Tolbert and Sarah Cotton on its roster, the brand is ready to be taken more seriously.

This year, Wolf was crowned champion at the 2018 Tarawera 102km Ultramarathon, the Lavaredo 120K in Italy’s Dolomites on June 22 and most recently took home the win during last weekend’s Under Armour Mountain Running Series 25K race in Copper Mountain, CO. For Reed, a relative newcomer to ultrarunning, his wins are proving he’s a new force within the community as well, having won The Ultra Race of Champions 100K, finishing second at the Tarawera 100K in New Zealand and placing 7th in this year’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. “We look for athletes that really look to challenge themselves every day in the way they live their lives, to be better human beings and to be better athletes,” Gaylord said.

Photo Credit: Nikolaus Jung
Photo Credit: Nikolaus Jung

Over our three days on Copper Mountain, we got a firsthand look at how the brand is nurturing the trail community, spoke with some of its sponsored athletes and had the chance to test out their newest product: the Horizon BPF. “The event was really to bring all of the communities in running together; not just to be a sort of ultrarunning event for niche trail runners, but to combine urban runners, city runners, 5K runners and ultradistance runners together,” Gaylord said. “I think we’re really happy; really energized about how the event is bringing the different cultures of running together. And how we’re opening the experience of the trail to a lot of people who haven’t ever run on trails.”

Ray Hailes, a New York resident who logs most of his miles on the urban streets of Manhattan, explained, “I always get this emotional attachment whenever I run trail, it’s just because of the nature around it.” The NY co-founder of Resident Runners and UA ambassador went on to say, “I understand what these guys go through, and anybody who runs the trails—it’s an incredible, emotional experience. For me, just being a part of somebody’s else’s culture, and throwing myself in there, is just an experience on its own.”

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And it’s definitely “a culture.” Unless you’re a part of it, being amongst these outdoor warriors can feel like being in a foreign country, even to other runners. “Trail runners can quickly identify other trail runners on the streets” a co-worker once said. During the weekend, this was evident; but what stood out was how easily Under Armour seemed to fit in with the “cool kids” of trail.

Among the 700 runners there for Saturday’s race, many knew the brand and its products well, effortlessly describing the best features of UA’s shoes while boasting which mountain races they’ve competed in while wearing them. Even as a fly on the wall, it’s clear that the brand’s running side is doing its job, and doing it well.

Along with the weekend’s events, a part of the draw for participants was the chance to test out the Horizon BPF trail shoes ahead of their August 1 release. “BPF stands for ‘Bulletproof Feather.’ So the concept behind it is really all about lightweight fast, but still rugged enough for those technical trails,” said Barry Hewitt, product manager-athlete services, Under Armour Outdoor.

“If we look at the upper, the base layer is a really lightweight mesh and then on the top, you get this single, one-piece [polyurethane] cast over the top that really acts as durability, support and protection,” Hewitt continued. “Some of the details that we like to try to obsess, that some other brands may forget about…you look at the tongue, we made the tongue really, really breathable. Really lightweight in the mesh, to let some air flow into that foot.”

Photo Credit: Cody Mann
Photo Credit: Cody Mann

If you’re already familiar with UA’s Horizon RTT kicks, the BPF’s utilize the same platform but are more breathable and lightweight. Thanks to athlete feedback, there’s more of a suppleness in the upper that also promotes support and protection on the trails.

As Under Armour vies for the attention of runners in the coming years, it’s evident that they are using this growing trend of trail running as their starting point. While road, specifically the marathon, has been America’s favorite for some time, we could be seeing more track and field collegiate athletes making the transition into trail at a younger age. If that’s true, UA is here to support them.

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“I came from a road-running background, doing a lot of 5K through marathon racing for 10 years and at that time, I didn’t know anything about trail running or mountain running or ultrarunning,” said Wang, an ultrarunner who spent the last nine months running through 30 countries around the globe. “I really had to go seek out the people to talk to and the information. For me, it’s really cool now to see more and more young athletes get involved in trail-mountain ultra, early in their career.”

But for now, we’re interested in sitting back to watch how this plays out for a company that doesn’t initially come to mind when thinking about running brands. Of course, Under Armour is already confident in what they’ll be bringing to the table next year. “In 2019, we’re planning on bringing a significant number of high performance run product for road in the first half. And then we’ll look to bring additional trail product in the back half of 2019 on the Hovr platform,” Gaylord shared. “There’s more coming on our connected footwear in the future. We really believe that connected footwear can be a way to provide coaching and connectivity to this community.”