The Politics of Prize Money

Chick's CornerA couple of weeks ago social media started buzzing with the news of probably the biggest performance incentive (Comrades excluded) in ultrarunning up for grabs: run the Indiana Trail 100 miler next April faster than 12:44:33 (the current North American-soil 100 mile record set by Ian Sharman at Rocky Raccoon in 2011) and win yourself $25, 000. Now that’s serious money. The ‘rules’ seemed pretty straightforward and clear: only one prize up for grabs (in case multiple runners beat the record), if the record gets broken before race day then the current 100 mile record is the time to beat, all regular race rules have to be adhered to. Wow, what an incentive and surely great news for ultrarunning? I mean if this sort of money is slowly becoming available then it can only possibly increase the level of high-end competition in our sport, allow more runners to quit their day jobs and garner more attention to ultrarunning.

Or is it all good news? The first possible sign of a problem was the question “What will a woman get if she breaks the women’s record?” (Jenn Shelton’s 14:57:18). At first the answer was very straightforward: nothing. Well, okay, she would get $25, 000 if she beat Ian’s record and the entire men’s field on race day but let’s be honest, that just isn’t going to happen. So in reality when the performance incentive was first announced it was basically exclusively for men, with women being totally sidelined. This, not surprisingly, caused quite a stir and I myself was not going to just sit back and accept it: one of the reasons I love ultrarunning is that I feel it is a sport that both men and women can compete in and are encouraged to do so and this sort of unequal incentive was going totally against that philosophy. It seemed that I was not the only one to think so and it was encouraging that many men seemed to be rather put out by this, too. I had no intention ever to compete at Indiana Trail 100 in 2013, but that was beside the point, this was about simple right and wrong. Remarkably quickly, much to the race director’s credit, he has now announced an equal performance incentive for women ($25,000) for breaking the women’s record (and kudos to him for being able to secure this from his sponsors which can’t have been an easy task).

So is it end-of-story? I think not. To me this is just one example, which will likely not be the last, of how very careful we will have to be if big money like this starts becoming more common in ultrarunning. Let me give an example: one year when running the Orcas Island 50k (a race I can highly recommend), I went off course, it seemed that someone had removed flagging, I carried on unsure if I’d gone the right way or not but ultimately got DQed once I got to the finish line after my unintentional short cut. I was marginally disappointed, but not really; I’d had a fun day out on the trails and that was that. Had money been involved, I may well have felt differently. Or, in a recent 50 miler a friend prepared a drop bag only for it not to be at the expected aid station. He, therefore, had none of his expected extra food and drinks, and had he been in competition for placing and winning money, would he have had good reason to argue that his race performance, and thus earnings, had been negatively affected?

Although I am not arguing that big prize money and big performance incentives are a bad thing I think there are likely going to be some hiccups (and upset runners and RDs) along the way as mistakes are made and all in our sport learn from those mistakes. Right now the vast majority of races are organized by volunteers or people making a very modest income from the events; we are in essence still very much an amateur sport. The more money that becomes involved, the more professional our sport will have to become because it is the way of the world that money makes things more serious. Had Indiana Trail 100 offered a trophy or medal to whomever broke the male record but nothing to the women I would have thought it odd and rather sexist, but I wouldn’t have got so heated up as I did when it was in fact a cool $25,000 of inequality.

My other concern of this type of prize money/performance incentive is will it compromise the quality of events? I think (though may be wrong) that Indiana Trail 100 is a brand new event. I have no reason to think that it will be anything other than a really well organized and quality event, but do we really want our sport to possibly evolve to the level where ‘elite’ runners are simply choosing their races based on the potential earnings rather than the quality of the event. Where will this leave classics such as Hardrock and Western States, where there is, at present, no money up for grabs? Will they fall by the way side and have less participation by top level runners? Hopefully, this is where sponsors will step in and support their runners financially so they can chose their racing calendar based on prestige of events just as much as possible financial gain.

Already, we have seen events such as TNF EC 50 miler in San Fran, the UROC 100k, and the Run Rabbit Run 100 spring up and advertised to many on the basis of the prize purses. Yes, the money is only up for grabs by the faster end of the field, but many other runners are drawn by wanting to participate in events with the likes of Anton, Hal, and Dakota. What if any of these events lose their sponsor support after a few years and thus can no longer offer up the same level of prize money? Will the ‘elites’ move on to the next big race with big money and races without money fall off the radar? I personally think this would be a really sad thing for ultrarunning.

To me it’s more exciting to watch and see if a 20-year-old course record will be broken than to see who will win the big prize money at a brand new event. I, for one, will be racing JFK 50 miler this November. I have no idea if there is any prize money and if so I’m guessing that it’s not a lot. But I’m excited to go race an event in it’s 50th year where there is so much tradition and where so many amazing runners from the past have set foot and recorded inspirational times on the same trail that I’ll have a chance to run on. I’m proud to have my name on the Western States trophy because it’s alongside the likes of Ann Trason and Nikki Kimball, okay – that doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s that sort of thing that makes ultrarunning meaningful rather than just money-driven.

Oh, and I won’t even open the ‘doping’ can of worms. Safe to say, I can’t see anyone doping for the sake of a cougar trophy, a silver belt buckle, and, possibly, a resulting better sponsorship deal. But how much money do you have to start offering before someone starts thinking that a little extra assistance might be justified…

Let’s support the competitive element in ultrarunning by allowing competitive runners to make a good income, but let’s not close our eyes to the challenges and changes this may cause to our sport.

There are 147 comments

  1. Gerell

    For the love…My comment about certain elites not being legends is grounded on the fact that these ELITES have been ELITES for how many years????? A legend is someone I believe, and over time it seems has been most clearly defined as, has dominated their respective sport for more than lets say 3 or 4 years. The elite trail runners that are racing today are NOT legends in my eyes…they are simply ELITES. I was a professional soccer player for 10 years, and consider myself to have been an ELITE soccer player, but not a legend. Pele was a legend because of what he accomplished over an Extended Amount of Time. We so quickly, in our present day society, throw the term LEGEND out there to anyone that has shown that they are really good at something. Let's not be so hasty about labeling people. Lebron james is NO legend, as of yet. Michael Jordan, YES!!!! There is a difference. I do not see Killian or Geoff or Tim O. as legends, yeah my opinion, but I'm also realistic in the sense of what I define as a Legend. We hype people up so quickly for winning races…give them time and that, I feel, will dictate what we want to label them.

  2. Charlie Montana

    Nicely said Dan, I was thinking similar thoughts. The amount of dialogue on this topic demonstrates its importance to the ultra community though, so some amount of respectful bantering on the subject is probably healthy for the sport. What I really liked was your compliment to Ellie! She may not consider herself to be a professional runner but she is a first class role model for the sport in my eyes.

  3. brett

    coincidentally there is a similar discussion underway regarding prize money in tennis. some of the comments are interesting and worthwhile to read (many are not). the nuances of tennis prize distribution is interesting. tennis is an interesting case study partly because the sport is actually different between genders.

    lastly, for those in favor of equal prize money between genders in tennis (or ultrarunning for that matter) what about equal prize money between singles and doubles players? does the same logic apply to both cases? why or why not? just trying to get people to think about the core issues…

    http://www.tennis.com/news/2012/09/bjk-federer-sh

  4. Sam

    "At first the answer was very straightforward: nothing. Well, okay, she would get $25, 000 if she beat Ian’s record and the entire men’s field on race day but let’s be honest, that just isn’t going to happen."

    You were half right…she did not beat the record…but she did beat the entire mens field ;)

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