Ultrarunning Sponsorship Love/Hate

Ultrarunning SponsorshipSponsorship. We all love it, but we also love to hate it. Some see sponsorship corrupting our sport, while others see it promoting the sport. The only right answer lies within the values of each person, because just like any question of right or wrong, the true worth of sponsorship in ultrarunning is an opinion. However, we believe the interplay of opinions creates a more educated, open-minded population of people who want to do what’s right. Hence this article, which discusses the state of the sport as it stands in the year 2011 and tries to mediate some of the conflicts taking place within.

As the sport stands today, I like sponsorship. It’s a way for me to practice the sport of ultrarunning at very little cost to myself. I receive certain amounts of gear for free and enjoy the support of the companies I run for when racing abroad. Through my sponsorships, I’m given the opportunity to meet many successful, motivated people and I have a clearly defined title to feature in my resume. Although I don’t receive the huge checks of elite marathoners, I do have the ability to train and race at very little cost to myself, which is a major benefit in a sport like ultrarunning. Sponsorship is a very good thing for me.

One of the problems with sponsorship is the implied commercialism. When sponsors become involved in a sport like ultrarunning that is grounded in ideals like solitude and introspection, a certain level of hypocrisy becomes apparent. People draw a black-and-white line between those who run for the experience and those who run for money. But the simple answer is that both camps are valid simultaneously, because each supports the other. At the most basic level, everybody likes to earn money doing what they love. In ultras, only a small percentage of runners are being paid, especially when compared to the number of ultrarunners who have the ability to, and regularly do, compete at the front of the pack. The majority of ultrarunners pay out of their own pockets to compete. At the same time, any logical person would jump at the opportunity to be paid to compete in a sport on which they spend hundreds of dollars every year. In this sense sponsorship is a uniquely 21st century way of making ends meet for someone who loves running through the mountains. Most top athletes are willing to endorse a company if doing so means they can run for free. Top performances breed sponsorships, which allow athletes to train for more top performances. Sponsorship is a way for an athlete to be financially responsible while practicing his passion to the fullest degree.

On another level, sponsorship is a way for an athlete to promote a brand he supports. By aligning himself with certain companies he views as “good” in light of his personal values the athlete can both publicly support a company and influence the operations of that company. Personally, my two stipulations are that the companies I run for make the highest quality gear in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. But this is not to say that I refuse to run for companies who do not live up to that ideal – the cool part of endorsing a brand is that an athlete gains a small voice in the operations of the company and can influence somewhat the direction that company takes. Sponsorship allows an athlete to promote his values within a company. My sponsors reflect the qualities I strive for in my own life, which means that even though they aren’t perfect, they are at least working toward improving.

The influx of money into the sport is an oft-debated topic with no clear answer. Some people like what can be done with larger funds in terms of traveling, training, racing, etc, while others fear a corruption of values that can undermine the reasons many people began in the sport. The increase stems from a rise in popularity. This brings along many ancillary effects often scorned by ultrarunners as the trappings of other, more commercial sports. Money creates media exposure, sponsors, wait lists and celebrities. Our sport has at least two magazines, several how-to books and even a movie. In many respects ultrarunning is no different from football or baseball; the only difference is scale.

The gear and shoe companies love this exposure because it creates a much larger market for them to make money. So for them, the larger the market the better, which is why many people fear the sport will “sell out” and turn into corporate marketing leverage. Purists fear the lure of money will compromise the natural qualities of long distance mountain running. But the best part about ultras is that, at least to this point, their inherent intensity limits the sport to those who are truly dedicated.

Ultras demand a much larger commitment than most sports, because to even be an “ultrarunner”, one has to at least be able to run 26.3 miles. That’s a long way. At the same time, more people run ultras today because they’ve run shorter distances and want a new challenge. Media exposure and increased popularity have brought the sport from being almost taboo twenty years ago to a more generally accepted level of insane. People see that running 50 or 100 miles is not impossible or detrimental and decide to jump in themselves. This is much like a “positive feedback” response, in which something happens (people run ultras), that impels more of that thing to happen (other people see ultras are possible, and get into the sport themselves), thus creating a continuous and accelerating trend away from the original. The end result is yet unknown, but as long as money and sponsorship are used in the aid of mountain running, and not the other way around, purists have nothing to fear. Perhaps in the future people will begin using mountain running merely as a stepping stone to sponsorship, but right now this is not so. Thus, the reasons remain good – money has effects but has not transformed the nature of the sport. Will it eventually? Undoubtedly. But change is inevitable, so the important thing is to shape that change in the right direction.

The best answer is for people to follow their own paths. If ultras become too inculcated by media and celebrities, stop competing. Conversely, if ultras don’t have enough exposure, start running marathons. The ultra world is full of wonderful people who love doing great things. The media and money are present, but they still take a backseat to the quality of the sport itself. The vast number of ultras means some races are going to generate a huge amount of interest, while others remain unknown. Most races fall somewhere in between, and these are the ones that comprise the true value of ultras. They’re the core groups of people trying to provide for a cool experience, and maybe if they’re lucky even make some money. But, if not, then so be it – the mountains are still there.

There are 41 comments

  1. Martin

    My impression is that the time when someone will be able to make some serious, a full-time white collar job equivalent, money is still fairly afar.

  2. solarweasel

    Well put, Dakota.

    Sponsorship is something of a given. Whether you like it or not, it's a form of marketing that finds its way into nearly every sport and recreational activity (heck, Purina sponsors "Skijoring" athletes/competitions, the sport of dog-assisted nordic skiing).

    Compensation to ease the (minimal) costs of ultrarunning must be great — many of us love this sport because it's so simple/inexpensive to begin with (and we don't like parting with large sums of money).

    That said, I've seen athletes who indiscriminately accept sponsorship and try to leverage themselves into races or otherwise self-promote, and those who simply believe in a product so much they truly want to promote its use and guide its development.

    I guess I hope that in ultrarunning, which is so gear-unintensive to begin with (as opposed to, say, triathlon), the emphasis never rests on the shoes or products someone chooses to use, but instead on the comeraderie and closeness with nature that characterize the sport the way it currently is.

  3. mylesmyles

    I'll start by saying that my opinion is probably skewed a little by the fact that I work in Manhattan and work in an office tower, but I find it had to believe there is much concern over the sport "selling out". Something like 50,000 people ran an ultra in the US last year, that's less than .1% of the population, not exactly the masses.

    In addition, the money the sponosred athletes in our field make is far from paying for them to live a life of luxury.

    If anything I'd like to see the sponsorship and money increase in ultra running, to see what limits the sport can get to.

    I was recently at an event before the NYC Half Marathon which had a number of the elites as guests, and I asked a number of them if they had any interest in running an ultra. The most common answer, after a quick no, was that they would like to run one once they finish running competitively/ retire. (And most sited Comrades as the race they would want to run).

    To this point Ian Sharman recently ran a blistering pace at the Rocky Racoon but I saw in a picture that he was wearing a pair of road running shoes. From a few race reports I read the course was not overly technical and didnt have much in the way of vertical change. This had me thinking, could an elite marathoner who trained for the distance crush the time Ian ran (not to take anything away from his effort), and for him to do so wouldn't the prize need to make it worth his time?

    Be honest – you'd love to see how that race would play out, but for it to ever happen the prize money/ sponosrship money needs to be there.

  4. olga

    I am not sure what Moogy meant, because nobody gets richer in ultras, and I don't think anyone is rich to begin with. Somehow, vast majority of ultrarunners are quite average financially.

    What is sponsorship to me? It's a way to widen the circle of people I know, a way to not slack while training, a way to expose product I happen to enjoy to others (and hope it'll work for them too), and a way to set goals a touch higher than I would have otherwise.

    Sponsorships are ok, money prizes are fine where they are (frankly, anythng bigger and we are talking greedy, IMHO), competition is awesome, and everybody where they want to be and do it for their own personal reasons. The sport is still humble, modest and fun.

  5. dogpaddle

    Sponsorship may also help reduce the cost to run an event which helps all us "average" runners. Door prizes, gels, various drinks may be donated to the event to again, help keep the costs down. These are all forms of sponsorship. I have been involved in every kind of running event, and I can't remember a single one that did not have some form of sponsorship…….except my training runs :)

  6. MikeC

    Ultra Runners are a long way from selling out. There are maybe a dozen ultra guys that make more money running in a year than a high school kid working at a coffee shop.

    The races will 'sell out' first. Leadville may have allready done this, but not entirely off ultrarunning.

  7. typerun

    What a genuinely interesting article. It's funny how quickly we can turn into snobs when it comes to activities that are there for everyone. I was a total newb to ultra about a year ago, have run over 100k four times since and have hopefully got the evangelised purist thing out of my system by now.

    Not sure what sponsorships you're rocking Dakota, but a friend pointed out that Karl Meltzer has his shoes and his hi-stimulant carbs-in-a-can sorted. That's pretty much living the dream, because with fuel and footwear, you CAN run forever.

    Everybody who's actually running knows also that it was running 160km a week in sunbaked mountain ranges that put Gebrselaisse under 2:04, not 'the world's fastest shoes'.

    Sponsorship can make everything bigger, but also better, especially if runners in positions to influence what's going on create positive influence on the situation. Like you say, every ultrarunner works pretty hard and doesn't take mistreatment of the setting too lightly.

    One issue that doesn't get talked about enough in this regard of the sport growing rapidly is the level of appreciation and respect that the runners, not the sponsors, bring to it. We experience awesome sunrises and views rarely seen, run through all extremes of temperature and headspace and environment, and mostly we do it all leaving little trace.

    But I do think that a "negative feedback response" the sport's growth might breed and needs to be avoided is bigger, selfisher impacts on these awesome places we get to run.

    Bored Road Runners + Pristine Wilderness = Gel Wrappers In Streams + Closed Forests

    Instead of bitching and pointing fingers, too much, let's just keep it clean when we're getting dirty.

    ; )

  8. Fitz

    I believe elite athletes should be compensated if they're bringing attention to a particular brand. If you're winning races or placing very high then you can generate some great exposure. The trouble (for sponsors) is that the market for ultrarunners is so small so the exposure is tiny compared with marathoners and especially with other sports. As ultrarunning continues to grow in popularity, I think you'll see more sponsorships and higher dollar values on those sponsorships. Why not be paid (well) to do something at an elite level that you love doing?

  9. Tom

    We can all be thankful that, at least so far, sponsorship is small scale and generally limited to companies that offer quality products that legitimately support performance in the sport. We don't have ultra's sponsored by McDonalds yet, and when we do we'll all be running for the exits.

    In the meantime, sponsorships allow us all to pay a little less for events and for the best performers in our sport to enjoy a little extra – can't argue with that.

    And we're all fortunate to enjoy a sport where on any morning we can still dive into the woods for a good 2 hour run and not see a single advertisement.

    1. Faceless

      I'd happily for McDonald's if they wanted to sponsor me. Then I wouldn't have to pay a dollar for my pre-long run Dr. Pepper. And I could live with free post-run burgers

  10. Bryon Powell

    My apologies to anyone who commented between about 2:20 and 2:40 MDT on April 6. I had issues with the website upon making some changes and had to restore it from a backup.

  11. Mike

    Very interesting, I'm new to ultra's, and too running for that matter, but the main thing getting in the way of BIG dollars for ultra runners is that it would be hard to put it on tv, and it would be horribly boring! It really is one of the few sports thats fun to do, not to watch. I don't want to see people running really slowly for a long long long time! Marathoners get money because i) the cameras can follow them, and you see the race play out on tv for 2 hours, and ii) they are still running faster that average joe blogs can run for 200m.

    When I was younger, I was sponsored in windsurfing, money for travel, gear and competing. I knew 2 people who got actual money in their pockets (they still had to work though). From this the sponsor is getting a 5-6m^2 brightly coloured banner sailing close to the beach looking exciting. We never had tv, but were in the public eye, I think anyone who lives by the ocean notices when windsurfers are out.

    Later on, I raced and working in push bikes. Thats money town for a few reasons i) its relatively easy to do and look professional ii) its expensive to get into, meaning people who ride also usually have money iii) tv coverage is HUGE, look at the tour de france! iv) there is a lot of exposure in the public eye while training.

    Compared to ultra running, which is, cheap, hidden, and hard to televise, and while we may get more sponsorship, I doubt we'll ever go down the McDonnalds route. I think highly doubt that the sport will see much, if any, out of industry sponsorship (when I raced windsurfers, out of industry sponsorship meant you really made it).

    This brings me to the last point of my rant… most sponsorship in ultras will be from within the industry (shoe and clothing companies, and gel companies). Its in there best interests to make sure the sport attracts more people to buy their products, not to make the sport look cool so you go and buy a hamburger.

    My prediction is that sponsorship and participation will peak in about 5 years, and then most people will realise that it is REALLY hard and time consuming and give up. Within 10 years it will be back to a dedicated band of runners (this will be bigger than it is presently though).

    As an aside, I gave up windsurfing when I realised that I was 'training' instead of going windsurfing. For me, sponsorship turned something I loved doing, into something I had to train for, and made it not fun. The pressure ruined it for me, and I was no longer having fun.

  12. AJW

    …still waiting for a reply from Sierra Nevada…:) Does anyone have a beer sponsor? Now that's putting money where the mouth is

    ajw

    1. Geoff Roes

      i'm still waiting for a reply from Alaskan Brewery. I thought it was a great idea, but I guess their 6 months of silence indicates otherwise. This would be one deal where I would be completely happy with a product only deal.

  13. Justin

    I'm not an ultra-runner, but I am working towards that goal. I also am a marketer by profession, so can see it from both angles.

    Yes, too much money in sport can be corrupting. But look at it this way – for a manufacturer to produce 'specialist' equipment, it needs to expand the customer base to make it financially worthwhile, hence the sponsorship and related advertising. It's a symbiotic relationship. Purists may dislike the comercialisation, but it results in lighter packs, better shoes etc which enable runners to go further and faster and explore their personal boundaries.

    The involvement of manufacturers also means greater access to information and media regarding the sport, great if you are a newcomer or are looking for inspiration.

    Having said that, I would hate the sport to attract the really big brands, because then events will become more 'packaged' in order to conform to the requirements of TV etc.

  14. Ned Barrett

    Dakota,

    I always appreciate reading what you have to say–well thought out and well written. I want to let you know, though, that there may be questions about Clif's organic-ness. Check out this article about hexane in soy, and Clif's use of soy that has been processed with it. I am no expert in this field by any means, but the accompanying list of energy bars and veggie burger-type products that likely contain and do not contain hexane is very interesting. http://www.cornucopia.org/2010/11/hexane-soy/

    1. AJW

      Truly, we'd all be happy with just the product. Where is the love? The triathletes and marathoners don't even touch the stuff. Don't they see the everyman appeal:)

      AJW

  15. georgio

    You wrote:

    "Personally, my two stipulations are that the companies I run for make the highest quality gear in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. But this is not to say that I refuse to run for companies who do not live up to that ideal – the cool part of endorsing a brand is that an athlete gains a small voice in the operations of the company and can influence somewhat the direction that company takes."

    Thus, your two personal 'stipulations' don't seem to be mandatory, merely exhortatory. You can take their money if they are high quality and environmental, but if they are polluting sweatshop mongers, well,you can still take thier money so long as you use your small voice to somewhat influence the company. just out of curiousity, how are Montrails manufactured, and are you using your small voice there?

  16. George O

    In the scope of things, I am convinced that there is nothing to worry about as far as the sport of ultra running being corrupted by big name companies marketing their product at events or sponsoring ultra runners. The true fact is that most people are just not willing to spend the amount of time and energy to train day after day, rain, snow, shine and everything in between and then go out and run for 6, 14, 16 or even 24+ hours. In my opinion, ultra runners are a humble, green crowd who enjoy the sport for the challenges it presents and the comradery. One does not have to participate in the bigger, faster selling ultras and one can choose to participate in the more obscure local ultras that probably receive little to no attention from big name companies. After all, this is the reason I do not do road marathons, too many people, too much hype and marketing. I would rather participate in an event where a hand full of ultra runners come together and the only aid station is a few gallons of water at the halfway mark.

  17. Neal Gorman

    Bryon,

    Regarding your post, good stuff. Conversations of change and money always stir the emotional pot. So many opinions to go around. As you say, people must follow their own path.

    Speaking to the beer comment[er]s, I have seen Long Trail as a sponsor to/for runners. (Ironic?) I wish I were on their list!

    If I may…Ah' hem…."Long Trail: it tastes great, fuels recovery and cuts down on lactic acid."

    Wait…only one of those might be true.

  18. LMyles

    Modeling my concept off of the professional skateboarding industry I grew up in:

    Imagine walking out of your favorite local Running Shoe store after buying a pair of brand new Dakota Jones (version 4.0) signature trail shoes. Then when newbie young runners see you (average runner) running the trail confidently with color matching shoes and gloves they will stop you to ask if you are sponsored. If you are, then they will want your autograph. Make sure to run with a sharpie!!

    Local Running Shops will pay professional Ultra running teams to demonstrate their running skills on local trails near the shop. Fans will line up to watch the pro's run, who will all go crazy when they see how fast their favorite runner sprints up that 15% grade. After the demo the pros will autograph team posters and give away free swag to the crowd. Then the running team will drive away in their team van across the country stopping at dozens of running shops for more demos along the way. The road-trip tour will appropriately be named "Run Ultras or your Sh*t".

    Top Ultra athletes would need their own private trails for training. Sponsors will spend big bucks to helicopter top runners deep into exotic jungles to run freshly made trails.

    How many running bums would surface who have no job, sleep on sponsored friends couches and hope to one day achieve big time professional Ultra running status.

    I think sponsorship can help bring new performance levels to the Ultra sport. It would be interesting to see how fast some Ultras can be ran if more runners were given greater training opportunities. Maybe more jobs can be created to stimulate the economy. Sponsored runners require photographers, photographers require magazines, etc.

    Not sure this is how I want to see the Ultra scene. But it is just how I see it happening if it got very popular.

  19. Goji Yerba Wong

    When the PBS series on National Parks came out, someone asked Ken Burns about whether it is good for the National Parks with all these new exposure (ie, more new visitors to the Parks after watching the series). He didn't hesitate to admit it is positive to the Parks. If I'm not mistaken, he meant the more people are educated about the National Parks, the more people will cherish our national heritage – "America's Best Idea".

    Same to ultrarunning – the more runners run ultras on trails/mountains, the more people will cherish our sports and its parks & mountains. I do!!!

  20. Paul

    There is room for the simultaneousness existence of sponsored top runners competing while I experience a beautiful place in my own zen-like way. And even the experiencers need the infrastructure of an organized event for some of these 100 milers. I just hope this promotes the protection of natural areas.

    The complication may be coming in the lottery systems. Personally I like the idea of an auto-entry for the top ten runners wanting in events. The board can figure out the criteria for picking the top 10.

  21. Ben Nephew

    I can't even imagine a future where sponsorship in ultrarunning is pervasive enough to have negative effects such PED's. The only likely scenarios involve positive effects, such as increased national and international competition and higher quality events. The increase in popularity seems to be more of a problem, with more races filling up months ahead of time and sky high entry fees. Race sponsorships could potentially ameliorate the negative effects of increasing popularity, but it doesn't seem to have worked that way with marathons. Even with major sponsors, big city marathons are incredibly expensive. My favorite recent race fee is Mount Washington, which is $80 for 7.6 miles, you have to buy food at the finish, and you are on your own for the trip down the mountain. I'd like to see sponsors ensure moderate race fees and create elite fields at the larger ultras.

    1. Speedgoat Karl

      pretty ridiculous for Mt. Washington…..sounds like a money maker, a greedy one. Must also be the east coast. C'mon 10 bucks a mile? :-)

      1. Ben Nephew

        Once you get over $100 I'm not sure per mile cost matters much. I'm pretty sure there are some pretty expensive ultras out west. The reason for the high cost at Mt. Washington is simple: outsourcing event management.

        As to why people sign up for it, it's the cheapest 7.6 mile run at an average 12% grade on the east coast. I've just been told the bike race up Mt. Washington has a $300 dollar entry fee, so I guess the run is a good deal….

  22. Tony Mollica

    I enjoyed the article. As a back of the packer I won't ever get the chance to be sponsored (although since it takes me longer to finish sponsors would get more time exposure of their product). Who can begrudge a runner from trying to get their expenses covered? As I've moved into ultra running I put more miles on my shoes, and therefore the shoes wear out quicker. If I could get free shoes it would definitely ease a source of friction with my spouse.

    Dakota have you ever been using a sponsors product in running; and quit using that product because it wasn't helping your running? If so did that cancel your sponsorship?

  23. Ben Nephew

    You never know until you try. Companies don't just sponsor fast runners. What they often want is increased exposure, or possibly a broad range of feedback on their products.

    I'm not sure about Dakota, but I have a couple stories of trail sponsorships that didn't work out, at least initially.

    There was this crazy minimalist company that tried to sign the top mountain runner in the US. He was already with another company that was supportive of his running so he ended up passing on the offer to me. Ironically, that top mountain runner ended up switching to that odd minimalist company that ended up becoming pretty popular with mountain runners.

    That same minimalist company initially only made shoes that were not the best for larger runners that ran the rocky trails of New England. One of the top trail ultrarunners accepted a sponsorship, but the shoes did not work for him, and he went to a company that worked better for him. The company received similar feedback from other runners, and responded with several models that were ideally suited to rough trails.

    As far as ending sponsorships, if you don't wear sponsor products, or talk about them in blog or race stories, the end is near.

  24. Moogy

    No disrespect meant to anyone. Just tired of being broke all the time. Had to cancel my last two races because of lack of funds for hotel, car, etc. Rationing food for couple of weeks to be able to afford a new pair of kicks, skipping out on long runs because of cost of buying my fav supplements. Think I need to try to make my own. Hope to see ya out there SOMEWHERE!!

  25. Jim Skaggs

    I heard that one guy wrote Budweiser and they actually sent him a bunch of clothing, gear and beer. Don't remember his name but I met him while we were doing a Zion traverse last fall. He was wearing his Bud fishing hat. Oh, and a local brewery is sponsoring our little beer mile in a couple weeks. Not an ultra sponsorship, but we'll take it :-)

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