The Western States 100 is an ultramarathon that takes place in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The race starts in Squaw Valley and finishes at Placer High School in Auburn 100 miles later after 18,090ft of elevation gain. The Western States 100 is one of the oldest ultramarathons being run, having been started in 1974. In the last few years, ultralive.net (they cover the race) has been collecting surveys by those who run the Western States 100. The surveys cover gear being used by runners, as well as training methods, and finish times. For this comparative analysis, I’ll be looking at 2014, 2015, 2016.
I cover a lot of ground here at Trail to Peak, but one of my favorite topics to write about is gear, especially trail shoes. I do my best to follow new releases, scour the internet for reviews, and try on and wear as many pairs as I possible. The one thing I’m not able to do is accurately gauge the usage and adoption of certain brands and models. I’m sure shoe retailers have great data on this, but as for me, I’m usually limited to anecdotal accounts of what I can find online or see out on the trail. This is a major reason I love reading these annual reports from Western States so much. It give me a quantitative answer to a question I often find myself asking.
The Western States course is considered “very runnable” by ultramarathoners, especially in contrast to courses with more vert like UTMB or Hardrock 100. I’m sure the shoe and gear choices would be pretty different for those trails. Western States is a great survey to have though, because the trails are pretty similar to what most California hikers and trail runners encounter on a weekly basis.
For the third year in a row Hoka was the most popular shoe brand at Western States. This is no surprise, as Hoka has been growing with incredible pace over the past few years…but have we reached max Hoka? Hoka took advantage of being the first mover into the space of maximal cushion, after the demise of the minimalism movement (championed by Christopher McDougall and his book “Born to Run”). Hoka were on the feet of 34.5% of runners in 2015, a huge jump from 19.5% in 2014. In 2016, Hoka dropped down to 26%.
Why did Hoka lose share in 2016? It’s hard to say, but my guess would be the increase in other shoe manufactures to the maximalism movement. There was a lot of pushback when Hoka released their first trainers, but I think most people realize that max cushion is probably here to stay. Altra, Asics, Salomon, La Sportiva, and Pearl Izumi boast max cushioned trail shoes now, and the offerings continue to grow. The other reason I’ll posit is that adoption asymptotes with market saturation. By that I mean, anyone who will enjoy running in max cushioned shoes has already tried them and adopted, the rest have tried them and stuck to what they know.
Brooks seems to be the biggest loser from 2014 to 2016. They went from 16.6%, to 19.6%, to 9.4%. The reason here is a lack of innovation and a slow adaptation to changing market forces. Brooks used to have a world beater of a trail shoe in the Cascadia. Ever since the Cascadia 8, Brooks has churned out new models that don’t live up to the Cascadia heritage. The 9 was the last model that I liked, with the 10 and 11 too narrow and stiff. Brooks’ other popular trail shoe, the Pure Grit, also seemed to lose popularity amongst trail runners. Brooks seems to recognize that they’re losing share in the trail space, and have the Mazama, Caldera, and a revamped Cascadia 12 ready to hit the market this year.
Altra is a company on the ascendancy. I was an early adopter of the wide toe box and zero drop shoes being offered by Altra. I can only anticipate Altra’s market share growing in the years to come. In 2014 they were on 5.8% of runners, 16.5% in 2015, and 17% in 2016. Altra only has three models: the low cushion Superior, medium cushion Lone Peak, and max cushion Olympus. This simple product lineup makes their shoes very accessible and easy to purchase. I should also mention that Altra became one of the primary sponsors of Western States this year.
Pearl Izumi is an interesting case in the shoe market because this is the last year we’ll being seeing them around. Pearl Izumi issued a press release this month stating that they will be shuttering their running line to focus solely on their cycling products. This will be a huge loss for many runners, as the E-motion technology and comfortable uppers made for great trail shoes. Pearl Izumi also had a great line up of minimum, medium, and max cushioned shoes. Their absence will be missed. It will be interesting to see who stands to benefit most from Pearl Izumi leaving the market.
Like Brooks, Montrail also seems to be losing market share with a hurry. They had a great showing in 2014 and 2015, but didn’t even register in 2016. This was in large part due to the huge drop in quality and innovation of their footwear after being bought up by mega company Columbia. Columbia has been investing a little more in the Montrail trail line with new shoes like the Rogue FKT, Coldorado, and Trans Alps FKT. Hopefully we will see a resurgence of great shoes from Montrail in 2017.
Salomon, Nike, New Balance, and Asics have all held steady over the past three years. I expect Nike to grow a little in the coming years as their Terra Kiger and Wildhorse trail shoes have really caught on. I expect version 4 of each shoe to sell well, and Nike might expand the lineup with a max cushion shoe and a softground option. Salomon is the biggest surprise for me with 6.1% in 2014, 8.8% in 2015, and 7.6% in 2016. I always expect Salmons numbers to be higher because they are almost always the dominant force in every European trail race that I watch. Maybe their shoes are a little too technical and fare better on more difficult trails. I’m not sure, I do know they will be looking to jump into the max cushion market this year with the Sense Pro Ultra slated for release in 2017.
There hasn’t been much of a change in the usage of socks by brand at Western States over the past three years. Injinji has been the dominant force each year, with their virtually blister-proof toe socks. I’ve worn Injinji socks for a while now and really like them a lot. They do a great job of keeping moisture away from the toes on long runs.
Drymax is number two for the third year in a row with an incredible lineup of shows and a lot of celebrity firepower with their sponsored athletes. I started wearing Drymax socks back in 2012 on Camino de Santiago and haven’t looked back. I love Drymax socks for long days on the trail. In my opinion, Drymax has the most durable synthetic socks on the market. If you watched Western States this year, it was hard to miss their sponsored athlete, Jim Walmsley, rocking the Drymax crop top as he lead most of the race.
Brands like Smartwool, Balega, and Swift Wick, make up the bottom half of socks being worn at Western States.
There really isn’t much analysis to look at here for headlamp selection at Western States. The Western States 100 begins early in the morning when it’s still dark outside. The men’s winner usually finishes before the sunset, but the rest of the runners continue on into the night. For this reason a great headlamp is mandatory for the Western States 100. For three years in a row, Petzl has dominated with 44.6%, 55.1%, and 55.1%. The domination of Petzl is something I don’t expect to see changing any time soon.
Black Diamond comes in second at Western States with 29%, 30%, and 26.5%. Black Diamond and Petzl combine to account for around 80% of the headlamps used at Western States each year. That’s a pretty strong duopoly.
The survey question about which brand of pack runner’s were using was introduced in 2015, so there is no 2014 data for this case. Ultimate Direction, Nathan, and Salomon are the brand leaders here. Ultimate Direction went from 37.4% in 2015 to 30.6% in 2016. It’s hard to say who gained from that drop given the data provided.
It’s always interesting to see what kind of gear is being used at huge races like Western States 100. I hope more race organizers begin to survey participants for similar data in the future. Next year should bring another round of compelling data. I’m most looking forward to seeing the expanding trend of maximalist footwear, the growth of Altra, and what will happen with the absence of Pearl Izumi. I’d like to thank Western States and ultralive.net for making this data publicly available.