Jackrabbit/Boulder Running Company
By: Brian Metzler
Altra founders Golden Harper and Brian Beckstead didn’t set out simply to build a nifty new running shoe more than a decade ago, they actually wanted to change how people were running.
After their initial start-up phase and two corporate buyouts, they’re still on that path. Owned and operated by VF Corporation since March 2018, the brand relocated to Denver in 2019 and finally moved into its new corporate offices and adjacent design center late last year.
Altra Running is now among the top eight running shoe brands in the U.S. and growing globally, too. Its Lone Peak model is the No. 1 trail running shoe at REI and many other retailers across the country. It stuck to its roots of building shoes with a zero-drop or level platform, a concept that has resonated with retailers and consumers.
“But you know what the funny thing is? We’re not as big as we’d thought we’d be,” Harper said on Aug. 9 in Denver as the brand celebrated its 10th anniversary in business. “We’re big, but we can get bigger because there are a lot more runners we can help.”
Over the past 10 years, Altra has found success because it remained true to its unique design principles. Altra believes that a level or zero-drop platform is inherent to better running form and a reduction of overuse injuries. It quickly grew into one of the biggest brands in the trail running world and has since seen its road running shoes and lifestyle footwear make big strides, too.
With 17 percent year-over-year growth from spring 2020 to spring 2021 and 161 percent growth during the height of the pandemic thanks to new digital strategies, the brand appears to be thriving. It has also taken significant steps to bring diversity to its elite athlete and ambassador teams while showing support for women and BIPOC runners.
“We are clearly outpacing the market in growth,” Todd Dalhausser, Altra president since 2018 told Forbes recently. “The brands offering uniquely different propositions, a different direction, those are the brands growing the fastest. What we are seeing is that through the pandemic we are still growing at a faster percentage than the traditional brands.”
Harper and Beckstead met as high school cross country teammates in Orem, Utah, and forged a bond as running shoe geeks. They eventually began working at The Runner’s Corner, a Utah shop owned and operated by Golden’s parents. Soon Golden was tinkering with ways to help improve the customers’ running mechanics by tearing apart and rebuilding shoes without a lift in the heel. Instead of the traditional 10-14mm heel-toe offsets, he began “zeroing out” shoes on a level platform.
It was never a barefoot or minimalistic approach, but an effort to help runners move naturally through the gait cycle. Thanks to a modest amount of seed investment from Beckstead’s dad in 2010, they officially launched Altra Running, along with Jeremy Howlett, in the spring of 2011 with some unique, albeit awkward-looking models at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City.
After the show, Beckstead filled his car with shoes and hit the road, visiting every running shop he could on the way to the Boston Marathon expo and back. The rest is history, although truth be told the brand has endured many production and distribution issues amid its massive growth.
Like contemporary startups HOKA One One and On Running, Altra grew quickly from 2011-2016, thanks in large part by being gobbled up by Icon Fitness in 2011. Altra improved its fit, materials and marketing along the way, not to mention its color schemes and overall aesthetics, and really found a niche with its zero-drop geometry — though it now refers to that concept only as a balanced cushioning platform. That unique design feature allows the heel and forefoot of a runner’s foot to always be an equal distance from the ground and provides for optimal foot alignment and low-impact foot strikes.
In addition, all Altra shoes are built with a “Footshape” toe box design that is wider and more rounded than most other shoes, allowing a runner’s toes and transverse arch to naturally splay and flex to allow for more effective muscular output for inherent stability and optimal propulsion at the toe-off phase of a stride.
Although many big brands and a handful of other startups briefly followed the zero-drop trend and also began building shoes with wider toe boxes, Altra is the only brand that kept those features at the bedrock of its design ethos. It’s also the only major brand that hasn’t created a marathon racing shoe with a propulsive carbon-fiber plate embedded in the midsole. (It says it will be launching its own modern road racing shoe in 2022.)
“There’s too much of a focus on marketing bullcrap, as an industry, and not enough focus on scientifically-based principles of biomechanics,” Harper said. “We need to be talking about running technique and injury prevention, and right now we’re just talking about running fast but not running better. The expense of running fast is running wrong.”