Every training group needs somebody who makes sure everybody sticks together. For Dark Sky Distance, the Under Armour–sponsored professional running team based in Flagstaff, Arizona, that’s Sharon Lokedi.
“Sharon is our glue. She has no problem holding back a little on a tempo run just to help the other person she’s training with,” says Shayla Houlihan, coach of the team, along with Stephen Haas. “She’s very selfless.”
Lokedi, 26, represents Kenya in competition and joined Dark Sky Distance after graduating from the University of Kansas, where she was the 10,000-meter NCAA champion in 2018. She’s one of six women and four men on the squad, officially announced on Wednesday, focused on middle-distance and long-distance events. Other members include Baylee Mires, Emily Durgin, Courtney Barnes, Taryn Rawlings, Rachel Schneider, Patrick Casey, Blake Haney, Brandon Doughty, and Stephen Scullion.
Training with women who bring a variety of strengths—some who can lead the way during speed sessions while others help out on longer, sustained efforts—attracted Lokedi to Dark Sky, she says. And the camaraderie away from practices also helps her feel grounded in a community.
“It has worked out exactly as I had hoped after college,” says Lokedi, who won the 2019 Falmouth Road Race and more recently ran her first 10,000 meters as a professional at the Sunset Tour meet in Santa Monica, California, where she finished second in 32:14.75. “Even just life outside of running. You know, just talking and smiling and laughing and cooking. Just small things like this just help us be stronger together as a group.”
From football to golf, Under Armour has its imprint on most major professional sports, but it’s new to track and field. Over the past five years, the company has sought more standing in the sport, and while developing its strategy, noticed that the majority of the 2016 U.S. Olympic qualifiers trained with teams like the Bowerman Track Club, the Nike-backed group in Portland, Oregon.
Jami Crist, sports marketing senior manager of the run division at Under Armour, says it became clear quickly that recruiting high-performing athletes “is key to being an authentic and credible run brand.” These runners are helping Under Armour design better running shoes and spikes—and Crist also believes that carving out more ways for post-collegiate runners to pursue their careers is just generally good for the future of the sport.
“If we wanted to be serious about this category and be a key player in this space, we needed to invest,” she says. “There’s only been a few key players in this sport for so long, and now you’re seeing these other brands and opportunities come up.”
On, a Swiss performance shoe brand, also announced this month a new elite training group called the On Athletics Club, based in Boulder, Colorado, with three-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein as head coach. Women on the team include Alicia Monson, the 5,000-meter NCAA champion; Polish steeplechaser Alicja Konieczek; Leah Falland, steeplechaser with a 9:18.85 best; and Emily Oren, an NCAA Division II steeplechase standout at Hillsdale College. The men’s team includes Joe Klecker, Carlos Villarreal, Oliver Hoare, and Geordie Beamish.
For Under Armour and On, developing the teams was in the works long before the COVID-19 pandemic caused economic uncertainty across the country. However, neither brand considered delaying or scrapping plans. Both groups have laid out goals of making world stages, but expectations go beyond podium finishes.
“On will not only measure success by performance on the track but the quality of fan engagement and contributions to the run community as a whole,” said Steve DeKoker, On’s global sports marketing manager, who answered questions from Women’s Running via email (he did not elaborate on specific ways the athletes will achieve these goals).
Community is also important to Dark Sky, whose team name is a nod to the place in which the group is based. Flagstaff is the world’s first “International Dark Sky City,” a designation bestowed upon towns that take exceptional steps to preserve the night sky through outdoor lighting ordinances.
“We wanted to tie back to the community that supports these athletes, where they live, where they train, where they spend most of their time working to reach their goals,” says Hannah Tropf, senior sports marketing specialist at Under Armour. “‘Alone a star’s impressive, but together the dark sky is unstoppable,’ is the idea we were going for…anything is possible with a team working together.”
As coaches, Houlihan and Haas bring unique personal experiences to their leadership styles. Houlihan is a former professional steeplechaser for Brooks and Team USA Arizona, while Haas was an Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon with Team Indiana Elite. Houlihan went on to coach at the University of California, Berkeley, and on top of coaching, Haas remains an agent at Total Sports Management, representing a long roster of top track and field athletes.
The duo’s background informs how they create a culture and mission for Dark Sky Distance. For Houlihan, it means more hands-on than hands-off coaching—because Haas travels (in non-pandemic times) for the majority of the year for Total Sports, Under Armour wanted one coach who stayed local and consistently available to the athletes.
“Some groups that you see out there go to altitude training and they’re out there by themselves,” Houlihan says. “I know as an athlete I always wanted more interaction and more access to my coaches as much as possible, because they were such big pieces of my life…I think that’s something unique for our group.”
Haas says the full-time training at 7,000 feet and the expertise that Under Armour gives the team in areas like weight training, recovery modalities, and nutrition and fueling are critical.
“I think I represent an athlete with every group in the country,” he says. “Hearing the good and the bad, I have a pretty good idea what makes these groups successful and building this structure in Flagstaff was important.”
On and Under Armour also have the benefit of seeing where other long-established brands have fallen short in framing athlete expectations and contracts. In the past two years, track stars like Alysia Montaño and Allyson Felix have called out Nike and Asics for lack of maternity and family leave protections, for example, while other runners have said that they’ve been compelled to compete through injuries and illness (and a pandemic) to avoid reductions in their pay.
While neither brand disclosed the terms of their contracts, DeKoker said in an email that On will “support our athletes through training injuries, pregnancies, and other potential life factors that arise.” Under Armour has already seen Natasha Hastings, 400-meter Olympian, through the pregnancy and postpartum recovery of her son, born in 2019, and says that athletes will continue to receive support through injury, pregnancy, and family leave.
“When I was coming into this role, I just realized how much the sport was not funded or set up for these athletes and that was big for us—these are pro athletes who didn’t have access to many of the things they should be having,” Crist says. “It was eye-opening.”
Under Armour–sponsored runners also receive periodic mental and physical check-ins from the company’s Human Performance Team.
“We know we have people right behind us in every step that we take and I think that’s the one thing that makes us get out the door every day to get better,” Lokedi says. “We’re very grateful.”
As any pro training group can attest, the right mix of members, not only in terms of ability but personality, ultimately defines the success of a group. The On Athletics Club also recruits middle- and long-distance specialists and DeKoker wrote that in addition to demonstrated work ethic, On wants people who seek a culture of “playfulness and unity.”
Dark Sky Distance aspires to attract runners with a wide range of skill sets and personalities they’re willing to share for the benefit everybody. As it develops more products for runners, Under Armour is also relying on the group to do a lot of testing and needs pro runners who are willing to provide consistent, professional feedback.
“We want people who are not only great athletes, but good people, too,” Crist says. “When you think about a team overall, you don’t want somebody who maybe is one of the best [athletes], but isn’t the best teammate. That brings the morale of the team down.”
Aside from COVID-19, the year has also brought attention to the lack of diversity within U.S. distance running—many pro teams include few Black, Indigenous, and people of color. When On Athletics Club announced its roster on September 1, for example, some observers on social media questioned the absence of Black athletes on the team.
“Our primary goal was to recruit the most exciting up-and-coming mid-distance runners right now,” DeKoker wrote in an email to Women’s Running. “That said, championing diversity and equality for all has always been central to our core mission. It’s something we believe drives innovation. But what these past few months have taught us is that we have so much farther to go.”
DeKoker said that On has a new board for diversity and inclusion and aims to increase diversity internally and on the elite team. Similarly, Under Armour has outlined steps the corporation is taking in diversity and inclusion efforts.
“It’s important to have different backgrounds and perspectives to help create a competitive advantage for the team,” said Sean Eggert, senior vice president of global sports marketing, in an email to Women’s Running. “We also find it important the team is diverse so fans of the sport can relate to the team, where they can see someone who looks like them and who can compete at that elite level.”
And as the sport continues to navigate its way through COVID-19, pro runners are trying to keep an open mind about what opportunities will be up for grabs in another uncertain year ahead. For now, Olympic officials are pushing forward with plans for the postponed Tokyo Olympics next summer.
Although this season offered limited options for showcasing what Dark Sky Distance has been building for the past year, Lokedi still came away with a nine-second personal best at 5,000 meters (15:18.03) at another Sunset Tour meet. Everybody wanted more out of the summer, but Lokedi says her performances validate the decision to join the Flagstaff group.
“Now we’re shifting to next year,” she says. “The main thing for now is just be ready mentally, ready to react when the time comes is what I’m really working on right now. That’s what we’re doing as a group.”
Editor’s note: The author of this article is also the executive director of Team Run Flagstaff, a nonprofit community running organization that is supported by Under Armour.