Reflections on The Running Event 2023

The Running Event – known by its acronym “TRE” by industry insiders – took place in Austin, Texas at the end of November. The exhibitors and speakers sought to educate, dazzle, and present all the new, improved, or tried-and-true running products, trends, and services to running retailers and industry professionals alike.

The Running Event always serves as a sneak peak at products and services, where brands showcase the next year’s new tech or innovation to retailers and journalists who will share it with the masses. 

I happened to run into Colorado Springs-based ultra running coach, Jason Koop, on the show floor and he begged the question: “Is there anything that is uniquely new?” It was a very interesting question and one that made me sure there had to be something “new” amongst the massive 300 exhibitors in attendance. There had to be some type of new wearable tech or new shoe technology. Maybe a supplement or method of fueling. So, I did what any inquiring mind would do and explored the convention floor in order to find out.

The new NNormal at The Running Event

By now you have probably heard of the new shoe brand which made a huge splash in the trail shoe market last year and which no one seems to be able to pronounce because of the double consonant. I always try to stutter a little when I utter it, and now you will, too. You’re welcome! 

The brand is none other than NNormal, the brainchild of ultrarunning legend, Kilian Jornet, created with an emphasis on commitment: to sports, to nature, to social and environmental actions. In a time where shoe brands are creating controversy-stirring single-use shoes (see the Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1), NNormal is attempting to do the opposite, by normalizing and minimizing their environmental impact on the running shoe industry. 

One way the company is putting their motives into action is by making their products more durable, more repairable, and recyclable, thus decreasing one’s carbon footprint. They even have a “No Trace Program” which will take back used products, regardless of brand, and repair or recycle said products to give them a second life and prevent landfills of the world from further expansion. NNormal are now adding “more functional” to their motives.

Enter the NNormal Kboix, a modular trail shoe with three distinct interchangeable inserts/midsoles. The first insole is a soft material made of EVA for the comfortable underfoot cush, the second, a more reactive PEBA for races and faster efforts, and finally the TPU material which will be the your everyday training with a nice balance of responsiveness and cushioning. The outsole, with its high sidewalls and Vibram MegaGrip rubber ~4-5 mm lugs, is securely stitched to the upper, a durable, kevlar-looking material. 

The modular shoe has been attempted a few times in the past, most recently by niche brand, Speedland. Will it be the three-shoes-in-one that they intend it to be? Only time–and testing–will tell. But it’s definitely a stride in the right direction for SSustainability.

A nutrition bar with soul

There were numerous nutrition companies present at TRE, but it was one that caught my eye with its playful, Grateful Dead-esque artwork of cartoon characters and musical notes on the packaging. It worked well with the name of the product: JAMBAR.

After sampling JAMBAR, I had a sentimental feeling that I had tried it before. It was a particular taste, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. For some reason it reminded me of the 1990s. In particular, the Malt Nut Melody flavor. After speaking with Adam Smith, an employee of JAMBAR, the pieces of the puzzle quickly started to come together.

The flavor profile finally hit me! I ate my fair share of the original Malt Nut flavored PowerBar Performance bars in the 1990s into the early 2000s, especially since I was a poor graduate student and the cases I received as an ambassador kept me from starving. That malty, malleable rectangle that came in the shiny, foiled wrapper that had to be at an optimal temperature, otherwise it would adhere to the wrapper if too warm, or be a tooth-cracking brick if it were too cold. If you know, you know.

In fact, the founder of JAMBAR is none other than Jennifer Maxwell, the very same Jennifer Maxwell who, in 1985, co-founded perhaps the most influential energy bar company in history, PowerBar, with her late husband, Brian Maxwell. After his sudden passing from a heart attack in 2004, Maxwell took up music in order to get her through the mourning process. She also ventured back into the sports nutrition market with some of the nostalgic flavors of PowerBar (Malt Nut Melody and Chocolate Cha Cha), this time with only the highest quality, organic ingredients.

More impressive than just making high-quality nutrition bars is the impetus behind it. Maxwell believes in promoting a positive outlook through healthy eating, active living, and the healing powers of music. This is exemplified by JAMBAR donating a very generous 50% of all profits to support music, active living, and community connections.

Smith informed me that the current facility in San Rafael, CA, where JAMBARs are produced–in small batches, of course–is a former recording studio of one of the most influential bands of all time, The Grateful Dead. Some of the original murals from that era still exist and add a perfect backdrop to the music-focused company. Perhaps it’s serendipitous, but a recent large order was placed by the perennial musician himself, Willie Nelson. If that is not a karmic appraisal of the brand, I don’t know what is.

Pickleball is everywhere, even at The Running Event

What does pickleball have to do with running? If you answered nothing, I would have tended to agree with you. That is, until the multiple pickleball booths, instructional sessions on a regulations-sized court on the convention floor of the 2023 TRE made me reconsider.

Pickleball vendors were on hand at The Running Event this year.

Pickleball is not a new sport, far from it. It was first created in 1965, however, in recent years it has skyrocketed in popularity. In fact, according to the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) Topline Participation Report, pickleball continues to be America’s fastest-growing sport for the third year in a row, out of 124 sports tracked. That translates to an average growth of 158.6% in 2023! Imagine if trail running had that level of growth, it would be as if a huge corporate entity took over smaller races and expanded dramatically. Oh, wait….

Pickleball seems to have a cult-like following amongst its participants. Those who play are very enthusiastic about the sport. Perhaps the tagline of the sport is true: “It’s easy to start, but hard to stop.” If you don’t believe me, just ask the Executive Director of ATRA herself, Nancy Hobbs. She has become fully immersed in the sport and raves about the enjoyment it brings her.

A conversation I had with an employee of a large running shoe brand made me understand why running and pickleball are so intertwined. He informed me that with the meteoric growth of the sport in such a short period of time, there has been a lack of locations to get one of the necessary pieces of equipment: shoes. This is where running specialty stores, along with larger big box retailers, have come into play and are now carrying shoes specifically for pickleball.

In conclusion, pickleball does have something to do with running. If you would like more information on the subject, contact Nancy Hobbs.

The killer whale

We all remember the explosion of CBD products in the running market. Everywhere one looked, there were salves, creams, roll-ons, pills, and products infused with the benign cannabinoid. It was difficult to avoid. In fact, in very recent history–the past 5 years–at TRE there were presentations, panel discussions, and experts discussing all-things CBD. Based on the number of CBD-related presence in 2023, it is safe to say that it may have been a fad, as I don’t recall seeing any exhibitors. 

I did happen upon a brand by the name of ORCA by Hometown Hero, which was advertised as a product that is, “microdosed THC and CBD for precise Endocannabinoid system activation without overstimulation.” ORCA offers a line of wellness and performance products targeting runners and those with active lifestyles. The offerings microdosed THC and CBD energy, recovering, and relaxation pills, along with a topical roll-on.

As an Austin-based company, my first question to the co-founder of Hometown Hero, Lukas Gilkey, was, “Is this legal in Texas?” Laws and rules tend to become tightened once the acronym “THC” enters the conversation. He assured me it was, and, in fact, his company has been instrumental in “hemp advocacy,” by lobbying the state of Texas and the federal government.

“We have lobbyists working in multiple state legislatures and Capitol Hill to ensure that the interests of the hemp industry, hemp jobs, and customers are protected and fought for,” according to their website.

As a US Coast Guard Veteran, Gilkey noticed the struggles and challenges that veterans faced after their services. That was the impetus to create his company in the hemp industry. Now with the ORCA line for runners, the specific regimens of Energy (caffeine, B-12, zinc, biotin, thiamin), Recovery (riboflavin, L-Thiamine, manganese, magnesium), and Relaxation (CBN, CBD, lavender oil) are set up to help athletes. Will it make a splash?

FYI: “Hemp and marijuana are the same species—cannabis. Their only difference is a legal distinction. Hemp is cannabis with a 0.3% or lower concentration of Delta-9 THC on a dry weight basis. Marijuana is cannabis with any concentration above that.”

Shoes, shoes, shoes at The Running Event

There was an increased presence of shoe companies at TRE. All the usual suspects: Hoka, Nike, Altra, Mizuno, Brooks, The North Face, ASICS, and on, and on. There were also a large number of new shoe companies I’d never heard of, such as Ulysses Running Co., Hettas, and UYM, which – I would venture to guess – is a big step into the already saturated running shoe market. This must be a demand present otherwise the economic principle of supply and demand would cease to be true.

Shoe technologies have been at the forefront of news the past few years, with the continually growing stack height, carbon plates, supercritical foams, and rockered soles that would put Shape-Ups to shame. However, not all companies are following the normal trend. Here are a few I spotted on the showfloor.

Merrell – An industry standard brand that has been around for over four decades in the outdoor space. With the original emphasis on hiking, Merrell has evolved with the Merrell Test Labs (MTL) line of performance trail running shoes, gathering input and feedback from athletes who are putting in the miles out on the trails. The sleek new lines, industry leading Vibram rubber outsole, and performance-based minimalism makes a shoe like the MTL Skyfire 2 very exciting. After all, their tagline is, “Same is Boring.”

NNormal – See “The new NNormal” above.

Inov-8 – The fell running brand from Northern England has gone through a lot of changes since its inception in 2003, most notably its sale in 2015 to the high-end Japanese ski brand, Descente, then the buy-back of the trademark in 2020 by founder Wayne Edy. Inov-8 has enjoyed a cult following from a niche market of functional fitness athletes and trail and mountain runners alike, using the grip, fit and functionality of their specific footwear as the epicenter of their DNA.

In 2024, the brand will be totally revamped: all new branding, no more confusing weight/number system, new model lines, a replacement of the logo from a foot to a bird’s talon, and completely new aesthetics. The name has even been officially changed from Inov-8 to INOV8. Although, you may not recognize the shoes the next time you see them, the grip will remain some of the best in the market.

Vimazi – Vimazi is the brainchild of Scott Tucker, a past Montrail, Pearl Izumi, and SCOTT Sports shoe designer (you all remember that N2 model, right?), and he has created a shoes that has been biomechanically-tuned to control forces from heel strike to toe-off  during a variety of paces. From the most supportive and highest cushioned Z70 to the lightweight and stripped down Z20, there are six models ranging from pace-tuning of 10:00-13:00 min/mile pace down to 4:30-6:00 min/mile.

The density of foam is different within each specific pace range and the magic is their FastPod design, which ensures reduced shock and increased control during push-off. There are also two offroad models (Trail Z2 and Trail Z3), with a performance Trail Z1 coming in the near future. Has the pace-tuned revolution begun?

Mount To Coast – Of all the unheard of brands at TRE, this one stood out because of its simplicity in design…and thought-provoking name. Mount To Coast is a Hong Kong-based shoe brand  slated to launch in April of 2024 with three models: S1, R1, P1. The overwhelmingly white with subtle gray highlights could easily be overlooked, however, once they are slipped on the supercritical Pebax foam impresses the wearer with a soft, plush ride. The target market of these shoes is also a niche market: track and road ultrarunners. Perhaps a better name to attract the market would have been Road To Track.

So, whether or not anything is uniquely new for 2024, Coach Koop will have to decide for himself.

Editor’s Note: Read about some of The Running Event education sessions here.