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Does this star-studded team of athletes—brought to you by a Mexican distillery—have the coolest sponsorship in trail running?

Sombra athlete Joe Grant. Courtesy of Joe Grant

On his way to shattering the course record at this year’s Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, Spanish ultra star Kilian Jornet paused to drink a shot of mezcal at the top of 13,100-foot Virginius Pass. Roch Horton, manning the aid station at the pass, was serving the Mexican liquor in an old tin cup in honor of the region’s mining history. Engraved in the bottom of the cup were the words: “Fine grain men seek high places where the juices of life run a little richer.”

That could be the slogan of the fun and very fast team of ultrarunners sponsored by Oaxaca-based distillery Sombra and the mezcal it produces (which is what Jornet and other Hardrockers were drinking at Virginius this year). Mezcal, a Mexican spirit distilled from agave, encompasses tequila as well as other regional varieties.

While most prominent ultrarunning sponsorships tend toward products worn or used during a race—shoes, apparel and the like—a few less traditional institutions are getting into the game with a focus on the post-race party. Pro ultrarunner Sage Canaday, of Boulder, Colorado, has a sponsorship deal with a hometown microbrewery, the Avery Brewing Company. Alpine Wellness, a marijuana dispensary in Telluride, Colorado, supports local ultra athlete Erich Owen.

Karl Meltzer’s 100-mile training secret? Courtesy of Rickey Gates

But Team Sombra may be the most ambitious alcohol sponsorship yet. Its roster reads like a who’s who of American ultrarunning: Rickey Gates, Dakota Jones, Karl Meltzer, Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Joe Grant, Jenn Shelton and Dylan Bowman all run (and drink) for Sombra’s 2014 squad.

“The model I came up with is the ‘drinking team with a running problem,’” says Gates, a noted mountain runner and Contributing Editor at Trail Runner.

Team Sombra grew out of a three-month stint Gates did as a company rep a few years back, when his friend (and fellow ultrarunner) Richard Betts first opened the distillery.

Gates soon tired of the drinking and travel and hotel living that life as a Sombra rep entailed, but eventually he and Betts discussed the idea of a mezcal running team.

“[We were] hoping that it would get the attention of people as something strange,” says Gates of the Sombra sponsorship. Plus, he says, it was “a way to bring together my more like-minded runner friends.”

Team Sombra’s arrangement is simple: athletes receive a case of mezcal from the distillery each year; in exchange, they share it with friends. Ultrarunning wunderkind Jones, for instance, donated the bottle of Sombra that Horton served at Hardrock this summer, and plans to bring minibar-size bottles of the stuff to The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco this weekend.

Gates brought a case of Sombra along on Hut-Run-Hut, a running tour he and Sombra teammate Shelton guided from Aspen to Vail this summer. The 11-runner group managed to down a bottle of Sombra every day—and only five or six of them were actually drinking.

Erik Skaggs and Ron Braselton enjoy Team Sombra’s largesse. Courtesy of Dakota Jones

As of 2014, Team Sombra is largely an ad-hoc proposition, a collective of runners sharing drinks with friends and weary racers. But organized events may be in the cards. Inspired by the concept of the beer mile, in which participants down a beer every quarter mile, Gates says the group is toying with the idea of a mezcal marathon that would require a shot of Sombra every mile.

While the prospect of slamming 26.2 shots of mezcal may sound more daunting than challenging Kilian’s course record at Hardrock, Sombra athletes say that the drink isn’t always an impediment to running hard. Gates doesn’t drink Sombra before runs—at least, “not with the intention of going running later,” he says. “But sometimes I drink it and then I feel the need to go running.”

Similarly, Jones does not imbibe mid-race, but stresses that Sombra is a key element of his training plan. “If you’re training all the time, going to bed at 10 and getting up at 6, you’ll be fit and fast,” but not all that contented, Jones says. “I just think being happy with all aspects of your life makes you a better runner.”

Sombra runners Jenn Shelton and Dakota Jones “hydrating.” Courtesy of Rickey Gates

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