Puma Jumps Back Into Distance Running with North Carolina-Based Pro Group Led by Alistair Cragg

By Jonathan Gault
March 8, 2021

When was the last time Puma sponsored a relevant distance runner?

That’s what I asked myself in December when I first heard rumblings that the German brand was pursuing American marathoner Molly Seidel. I’m 30 years old and have covered professional track & field for seven years, and I was struggling. Finally, a name came to me.

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Pierre-Ambroise Bosse was with Puma, wasn’t he?

Yes, the 2017 world champion from France was a Puma athlete. Certainly he was relevant, though as an 800 man, it’s debatable whether he met the “distance” criteria.

And that was about it.

It wasn’t always that way. Around the turn of the century, Puma had a top distance spike, the Harambee, and sponsored some of the biggest names in distance running: Noah NgenyWilson KipketerDaniel KomenMoses KiptanuiBernard Lagat, and of course, the LetsRun.com singlet.

But in the mid-2000s, the company pivoted away from distance, slashing the research and development budget and pouring the majority of its sports marketing money into sprinters. They were still active in track & field — Puma sponsored Usain Bolt, after all — but by the time Norwegian Bjørn Gulden was appointed CEO in 2013, the third-largest sportswear manufacturer in the world was a nonfactor in distance running, with no top pros and an uncompetitive product.

Gulden, a former professional soccer player, wanted Puma to become more than just a lifestyle brand. He craved performance as well, and while the company didn’t have the budget to overhaul its distance running division early in his reign, Puma’s fortunes eventually began to turn, creating the opportunity to invest.

“A few years ago we really set our mission to become a well-known running brand,” says Erin Longin, global director of running and training at Puma. “The Puma brand has been experiencing several years of growth and momentum…So we definitely felt the time was right to start to expand our brand presence to include both distance and road running.”

That expansion appears to have happened overnight as part of a brand-wide push in track & field. It felt like every day in January, another athlete announced they had signed with Puma. Gesa Krause. Aisha Praught-LeerSandi MorrisRenaud Lavillenie. Molly Seidel.

In reality, it has been a longer process. Nike’s introduction of its Vaporfly shoe in 2017 spurred a footwear arms race. Rather than enter the space right away, Puma poured time and money into its research and development department in an attempt to catch up to the other brands. Now the company believes it has a product that can compete with any other shoe on the market; two weeks ago, the brand unveiled its new line of distance shoes, headlined by its carbon-plated racing shoe, the Deviate Elite (Editor’s note: The shoes aren’t available in the US until mid-March).

The PUMA Deviate nitro

“We’ve definitely caught up to what are the best leading, cutting-edge technologies in the industry,” says Todd Falker, product line manager for running footwear at Puma.

Puma also has something that has become an important part of building a brand’s reputation in distance running: a professional training group. Seven years ago, HOKA ONE ONE was a virtual unknown, but the company quickly grew its credentials by signing pros like Leo Manzano and inking deals with training groups Northern Arizona Elite and NJ*NY Track Club. Those investments showed two things. First, HOKA ONE ONE was committed to the sport. And second, top athletes were willing to use their product.

That model has since been adopted by any company looking to expand its presence in the increasingly-crowded running shoe market: in the last three years, Reebok, On, and Under Armour have all established pro training groups in the United States.

Now Puma has entered the fray with an as-yet-unnamed professional group based in the Research Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) of North Carolina. The group, which began in December, is coached by three-time Irish Olympian Alistair Cragg and currently features four athletes: former Arkansas star Taylor Werner, the 2019 NCAA runner-up in the 5000 (15:11 pb) who led Arkansas to its first NCAA XC women’s team title in 2019; Stanford alums Fiona O’Keeffe (15:31/32:12) and Steven Fahy, the 2019 NCAA steeplechase champion; and Frenchman Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse, who ran 2:11:20 at the Marathon Project.

O’Keeffe, Fahy, & Werner are the first members of Puma’s new pro group in North Carolina (courtesy Taylor Werner Instagram)

For now, Cragg is hesitant to use the word “team.” A team has an identity. Cragg’s athletes are still finding theirs, and he’s okay with that.

“We’re here to create a system and environment of true professionalism where everything is done right,” Cragg says. “And as people come, it’s going to become a group, and the more people we get, each person brings a different personality and eventually all that stuff is going to come together and we’ll understand what we represent.”

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In 2021, it is a challenge to build a training group from scratch. Each new sponsored group — whether it’s Reebok, On, Under Armour, or Puma — may have its own culture and identity, but ultimately their corporate backers are providing support for the same reason: to sell shoes. And while that investment is a boon for the sport and its athletes, it presents a challenge to individual companies and groups. The more brands and groups there are, the harder it is to stand out and recruit top talent.

Cragg isn’t worried about any of that. His aim, ever since his competitive career finished, has been to help athletes become the best that they can be. That’s why he began working for Kimbia Athletics, the agency run by Tom Ratcliffe, after his competitive career drew to a close in 2014. And the way he sees it, leading a group gives him an opportunity to help even more athletes to an even greater degree. That is why, Cragg says, he believes he will be able to navigate the conflict of interest of fulfilling dual roles as agent and coach.

“I don’t decide where an athlete goes,” Cragg says. “Never have. It’s no one’s job [at Kimbia] to decide where an athlete goes. We’re just providing options. I’ve just got more of a chance to help people personally here [with Puma]. That’s how I approach it.”

Born and raised in South Africa, Cragg came to the United States for college, enrolling at Southern Methodist University before transferring to the University of Arkansas, where he won seven NCAA titles from 2002-04. As a pro, he won the 2005 European Indoor 3,000-meter title for Ireland (he qualified for citizenship through his mother’s ancestry), qualified for two Olympic 5,000 finals, and still holds the Irish records at 5,000 (13:03.53) and 10,000 meters (27:39.55).

Taking the job as head coach of a pro group is a significant step up for Cragg, but he has been around elite coaches his entire life. His father, Ray, was a top coach in South Africa, and since moving to the United States, Cragg has picked the brains of coaches such as John McDonnell (who coached him at Arkansas and for the first five years of his professional career), Terrence Mahon (under whom Cragg trained as a member of the Mammoth Track Club), and Ray Treacy, who coached his wife, 2017 World Championship marathon medalist Amy (nee Hastings). In 2016, when the Craggs moved to Portland so Amy could be coached by Jerry Schumacher, Cragg began going to practice to learn from Schumacher and help in any way he could.

“Jerry, he’s my role model,” Cragg says. “I learned his patience is most important. As everyone knows, he’s not in a hurry to get people out there. And the other thing I learned is keep trying to figure out how to be better. No one’s better than Jerry at that.”

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As much as Cragg enjoyed his time with Schumacher, he felt it was time for a change. He turned 40 last summer, and Amy’s competitive career was winding down.* Around the time of the 2019 World Championships, Cragg decided he’d like to explore creating his own group, and shortly thereafter was able to connect with Puma, who were looking to do the same thing.

“I’m ready to take ownership and just have something with my own personality,” Cragg says. “…I felt like I was getting comfortable and I don’t like being comfortable. I want to keep chasing and keep growing.”

Just as important to Cragg is sharing the knowledge he gained under McDonnell, the man who revived his career at Arkansas in the early 2000s. Last year, Cragg and fellow Arkansas legend Frank O’Mara made a couple trips to visit McDonnell, who is 82 and not in great health.

“I said to Frank, ‘I’ve gotta do more. I’ve gotta give back. We’re watching a guy like John age, and we’re not sharing it,'” Cragg says. “…We’ve heard of Bill Bowerman and all these guys, even Jerry and people learning from Jerry. I know Kim McDonald in the UK was using a lot of John McDonnell workouts with [Daniel] Komen and stuff that Frank O’Mara had taken over. There’s a lot of John McDonnell in the sport today that doesn’t get recognized.”

*(A note on Amy Cragg: Alistair said she is not joining his group but declined to elaborate on her future. In recent years, 37-year-old Amy has struggled to overcome fatigue issues during training; she has not raced a marathon in over three years, and withdrew ahead of last year’s Olympic Marathon Trials. “That’s her business,” Alistair says. “It’s not really my place to talk…There’s an understanding that if Amy wants to plug back in, she’ll be a Nike athlete.”)

***

Cragg’s first task: decide on a location. With literally the entire to country choose from, he landed on the Triangle in North Carolina. Cragg liked that it was affordable, liked the access to the 23-mile American Tobacco Trail and Umstead State Park, and liked the healthcare/physical therapy options for his athletes. (The group will still spend time at altitude and is coming off a recent five-week stint in Colorado Springs).

“Yeah, it gets hot in the summer, but most athletes are traveling in the summer,” Cragg says. “…I think the running here is supreme and the medical environment is the best I’ve seen in the entire country between Duke and UNC and NC State, the PTs and the chiropractors and the brains around that.”

With the location settled, Cragg had to start recruiting. One of his first targets was Werner, 22, coming off PBs of 8:51.91 and 15:11.19 during the 2019-20 indoor season (had Werner not redshirted that season, those times would have ranked her seventh and second on the all-time collegiate indoor lists).

Cragg had a few advantages in his pursuit. For one, he is friends with O’Mara, the 1983 NCAA 1500 champion and two-time World Indoor champion, whose son Colin just so happens to be Werner’s boyfriend. Of course, Cragg himself is one of the most decorated athletes in Arkansas’ storied history.

Werner recalls meeting Cragg for the first time at NCAA outdoors in 2019:

“You walk into the outdoor track facility [at Arkansas] and the first thing you see when you turn around is these banners of past Olympians at Arkansas, and his is the first one,” Werner says. “I had never seen him in person before, but when I saw him, I was like, Oh my gosh, you’re the guy on the banner.”

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After COVID cancelled the 2020 outdoor season, Werner wanted to turn pro, but wasn’t sure if the opportunity was there. She remained in limbo over the summer, but after meeting with Cragg in a Fayetteville coffee shop in October — who assured her there would be interest from sponsors — she made the decision to forego her remaining eligibility (she had one indoor and two outdoor seasons remaining).

Initially, when Cragg pitched the idea of joining Puma’s new group, Werner resisted. She had grown up dreaming of joining an established group like the Bowerman Track Club. But she quickly warmed to the idea.

“The thing that got me was, okay, these groups start with one person,” Werner says. “With Bowerman, it was Shalane [Flanagan] and then eventually it was Emily Infeld that started that [women’s] track background at Bowerman. These other groups, same thing. It starts with one person. You have the ability to be that person if you want to be, and the more I thought about it, I thought this is awesome, I can help create something new.”

Was she worried about the fact that Cragg had never led a group like this before?

“I think initially, when I was first considering everything, that was a question I had for him,” Werner says. “The thing with Alistair though is — I think anyone that knows him knows — he’s so determined. I mean you could see it in him as a runner. Look at all the stuff he did in the NCAA. He’s just so driven to exceed these expectations of himself. And so just talking to him, I knew that even if he had no coaching experience, I knew he’s the kind of guy that’s gonna do everything in his power to get things right.”

Cragg offered Werner the chance to speak with Schumacher, but she opted against it. She signed with Puma and moved to North Carolina in December, joining Fahy, who was already in the area training under UNC coach Chris Miltenberg. Two months in, she has no regrets. She has developed a rapport with O’Keeffe — a rival dating back to her high school days — with the strength-based O’Keeffe towing Werner along in longer sessions while Werner leads the way on speed days.

Working with those two on a daily basis has allowed Cragg to find his own voice as a coach.

“These two girls have definitely molded me in that I talk to them in no way that I’ve seen a coach talk,” Cragg says. “And that’s not to say I’m different. But I’ve actually been able to find my own breath and way of communicating, which has been awesome for me. When you’re working around Jerry or Tom Ratcliffe and you’re helping athletes or around John, you’re kind of taking their voice and projecting it.”

According to Werner, that voice has been surprisingly forthcoming. If Werner is doubting herself in a workout, Cragg can tell — and he’s not afraid to let her know.

“At first, I was kind of shocked because I’ve never had that before,” Werner says. “He’s just brutally honest with us and I appreciate it, because I want as much communication as possible. And now that I have that, I don’t keep anything from him. So I think it’s made that coach-athlete experience so much better.”

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Cragg’s candor appealed to Werner. She is not one to shy away from sharing goals publicly.

“I want to win medals,” Werner says. “I want to do it all, and I’m not afraid to say that, because the minute I don’t think I can, it’s not gonna happen. I want to make Olympic teams. I want to break American records. World records. Heck, why not?”

Of course, you cannot talk about records these days without wading into the Great Shoe Debate — a topic Werner does not enjoy discussing.

“No disrespect to any of the shoe companies, but I hate that this is an issue in our sport now and it’s such a big controversy,” Werner says. “It sucks that when I go run a PR or I go run something really fast, I have to think about, oh maybe it’s the shoes.”

Cragg isn’t worried about his athletes being at a disadvantage in terms of shoe technology as Puma now has both a carbon-fiber plated road racing shoe as well as a new racing spike. Cragg believes the road shoe is “as good as I’ve ever put on my feet” and that the spike is “excellent” — though Puma is already working to improve it.

“I’m confident in the spike,” Cragg says. “There is a plate in there and I’m guessing that’s the thing to be in the future. I’ve seen the ideas going ahead, and soon they’re gonna have a super spike and I’m pretty excited about it.”

Whether this project works — whether Cragg turns out to be a great coach, whether Puma can crack the distance running market — could, understandably, be the source of some stress. But Cragg says his new role feels natural, as if it is where he is meant to be.

The only pressure, he says, is ensuring he continues to give 100% to every athlete he works with. Cragg enjoyed success in his professional career, but he made plenty of mistakes as well. Sometimes, he lost track of his dreams in the sport. Those dreams, Cragg says, should always be an athlete’s North Star, not to be eclipsed by the other obligations or responsibilities of being a professional athlete. He hopes the lessons he has learned will guide him as athletes like Werner and O’Keeffe entrust him with their futures.

“Every athlete, this is their one shot,” Cragg says. “And I’ve gotta do it right.”


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