Running brand Tracksmith has a magazine for the anti-Nike hard-core runner crowd

Unlike most sports, running comes with an extremely low barrier to entry. So, major brands like Nike, Reebok and New Balance can make money by marketing to the “casual” runner, and athleisure acolytes are eating it up. Trendy patterned spandex show the world that they just went running, or plan to maybe run later.

Running’s most die-hard crew, however, wants to break away from the pack of neon-clad 10-minute-milers and go deeper. At least, that’s what Tracksmith’s CEO Matt Taylor’s belief was when he founded his apparel brand in 2014, and later, Meter, a quarterly magazine. The print-only publication is produced in-house at Tracksmith, but rather than brand content, it’s more like a literary publication for runners: long-form articles and photo features from exotic races fill the pages, giving it a more high-brow feel than a Nike blog.

“Tracksmith comes out of a culture of competitive running,” said Taylor. “That spirit exists in that world, but running as a brand is so big that it’s been watered down into general health and wellness. We’re staying very true to the competitive part of the sport.”

Today, running as a fitness trend is all about mass participation. But rather than target the casual runner a la Nike, Tracksmith’s demographic is the classic, cultish runner who would likely be more at home in short shorts in the 1970s than at your typical modern charity fun run. That idea is reflected in both the brand’s direct-to-consumer apparel — including tank tops, zip ups, mesh shorts and collegiate-style singlets — as well as its content strategy.

Taylor calls Meter, which sells for $12 an issue, a natural extension of the brand. “We don’t consider ourselves an apparel brand, we’re a running brand,” he said.

Unlike most running publications, Meter’s content isn’t focused on lifestyle content. In lieu of cute listicles like Runner’s World’s “4 Fall Superfoods to Fuel the Long Run,” Meter is more interested in appealing to the hollowed-cheek athletic aesthete by diving deep into the culture and the people that make up running’s long history.

Such articles explore topics like New York City’s underground midnight half-marathon, races through The Fells in Northern England’s terrain, and 2014 Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi a year after his race. A video, article and photo feature followed New Zealand-born twins who moved to Africa to train as distance runners.

“There’s a massive hole that exists in running,” said Taylor. “It’s the oldest, most accessible sport in the world, but stories past and present don’t have a home where they can be told.”

The magazine’s one editor wrangles freelance authors and photographers to contribute articles and photo features. Taylor said that when an upcoming issue is being planned out, it’s a full team effort for the brand. Right now, the content for each magazine doesn’t exist online, besides a handful of features from past issues uploaded months after, and a few videos that complement offline articles. Taylor said that the brand wanted to do the magazine in print, to have something physical people could hold on to, but that the team is working on building out a digital strategy.

Unlike other brand blogs, Meter doesn’t feel like branded content. That’s because it’s not — there’s no Tracksmith product promotion or sponsored advertisements to be found in the issues. Meter, which is currently in its third issue, is being funded by a $4.1 million Series A round Tracksmith raised in April, led by Pentland Group. It printed 2,000 copies of the current issue.

“It’s a beautiful, tactile thing,” said Hilary Marsh, a Chicago-based content strategy consultant. “This is a creative move on their part as it’s not pushy marketing content — it’s the opposite. It’s essentially another product that they’re selling in their store.”

Marsh said that for a small, niche company like Tracksmith, it’s smart to find the empty space in the market that it can fill. Tracksmith’s audience isn’t Nike’s audience, even if both brands sell running gear. While Nike, according to its September earnings call, is focused on the “casual runner,” Tracksmith is for the athlete who wants to “nerd out” about running, according to Taylor.

“Tracksmith is meeting the need of a specific population of runners,” said Marsh. “These aren’t fashionable runners; they’re the type of runners who pretend Nike doesn’t exist.”

The brand has sold each issue online under the “accessories” tab and at running events, like the New York City Marathon. Taylor admitted that the magazine is harder to find, but he believes that if they continue telling the stories they’ve been telling, the audience will grow.

“It’s about being entrenched in the running subculture and telling the stories that bigger brands shy away from because they’d be alienating their less involved customers. We can do things that bigger brands can’t,” said Taylor. One Meter piece that might scare away the big brands: “All the Soul’s Endeavor,” a poem from the current issue that explores the connection between running and “the arts, from the ancient Olympics through to modern times.”

Marsh said that sustaining the publication depends on whether or not it continues to make sense for the brand, but she added that it’s not crazy for Tracksmith to charge for its content.

“It’s like a literary publication about running,” said Marsh. “It would undermine the value to give it out for free.”

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