With his rise through the ultra-distance ranks and quirky Instagram posts, Lee Grantham is showing it’s possible for real runners to attract support from big companies

When Lee Grantham completes a lengthy training run up a mountain in the Sierra Nevada of Spain, he often gambles on hitching a lift back down to his home in Granada. With his long beard, scrawny physique and Mancunian accent, he sometimes struggles to persuade locals to stop and pick him up. Yet those same distinctive looks and his unusual lifestyle have helped him attract sponsorship from Nike and MyProtein.

The 35-year-old from East Cheshire Harriers in north-west England has relocated in the Andalusian area of Spain in a bid to fulfil his potential as an ultra-distance runner. He spends his days running and cycling endless miles in a region which, he feels, has an ideal blend of heat and hills.

After years of playing rugby, football, cricket and baseball, he began to get serious about running in 2010 and has been steadily improving since. In 2017 he won the British 100km title and set a course record in the Subido Al Pico Veleta – a tough 50km which starts in Granada before winding its way up the highest road in Europe to a high-altitude finish at 3398m.

Now, on September 8, he will lead the GB challenge at the IAU World 100km Championships in Croatia. Yet his racing targets aside, fellow athletes across every track and field event might be interested to see how he has attracted sponsorship through social media.

Just over a year ago, 1500m runner Ross Murray wrote a big piece in AW about the battle for sponsorship that genuine athletes like himself, a London Olympian, were having with reality TV stars. One of the Made in Chelsea stars, he noted, had been signed by a sports footwear giant while ‘real runners’ struggled for support.

Grantham, however, is demonstrating that it is possible for serious athletes to find sponsorship by showing their personalities – plus the stories behind their training and racing – online. In fact, the ultra runner believes some major companies are now pulling away from backing so-called ‘influencers’ in favour of bona fide sports people.

“Companies are realising that people get fed up of seeing an incredible looking model with a subtle product placement,” he explains. “Now they want real people to tell real stories.

“People are fed up of ‘influencers’ who aren’t actually living the life they’re promoting, or people who look good but can’t run. So I think we’re going to see more real athletes being sponsored and that for me is magic.”

He adds: “The problem we have as runners is that we’re introverted people most of the time. But if we can tell our story through the sessions we do, what we eat, how we prepare, then it will be of interest to people.”

With his tanned, mountain man looks and sun-drenched backdrops, Grantham’s Instagram stories especially have instant appeal. Add to this his vegan diet, eco-friendly lifestyle and his interest in strength and conditioning work in the gym and it’s not surprising his audience figures (almost 70,000 on Instagram as this article went live) keep rising.

Grantham describes social media as a savour when it comes to helping fund his life as an ultra-runner and I reckon other athletes could draw inspiration from his example to begin a success story of their own.

» A four-page interview with Lee Grantham appears in the August 23 issue of AW magazine