Ultrarunning And The Future
[AJW’s Note: For this week’s Taproom, my son Logan Jones-Wilkins has offered up a column. Logan is 14 years old and has been around the sport of ultrarunning literally since he was born. Over the past few years he has become more involved in the sport as an observer and, as you’ll see here, has some strong opinions. I have intentionally not edited any of Logan’s thoughts as I think it is very interesting to read the perspective of a 14-year-old kid without any adult interference. So, here is this week’s column from ‘LJW’s Taproom.’]
Hello readers of AJW’s taproom, get ready for a bit of variety this morning. Today I, Logan Jones-Wilkins, son of Andy or ‘AJW,’ am taking over the wheel to say something I feel has been ignored. As the son of AJW, I’ve been around the sport through its modern development. Now that I’ve come of age, I have come to this simple rationale.
This wonderful, simple, crazy sport that we all love, because of its simple, wonderful craziness, is at a crossroads. The whole concept of the sport is to run insane sums of miles that blow normal people’s minds. That’s pretty dam [sic] simple. The thing is, the future does not seem to have as much simple craziness to make ultrarunning what it is. With ‘professional runners’ and multimillion-dollar companies in the sport, it’s a whole different situation. The truth is, right now, there are problems developing. The problem I see, as a kid who is an endurance athlete and a child of the sport, is too many people trying to direct the sport. With every year bringing new championships/series/events to the sport, it has developed a tangle of leadership that is more tangled than my fishing line at Penny Lake in Idaho.
Big-money sponsors are now influencing the sport and creating events out of nothing. They are saying that they are part of the top races in the world and attracting these professionals who are spending their lives traveling literally around the world on small paychecks searching for prize money and results to keep sponsorships. World ultrarunning has exploded in recent years and has completely outgrown its previous model of sponsors giving runners free products and paid entry into races. That was it. Now these people are pros.
That shouldn’t be a problem, but it is because the sponsors are running the races. Look at the Tour De France, for example. If cycling was like running, the Tour would be “The Tour de France presented by Cannonade.” To me that doesn’t sound right. So then why should “The Western States Endurance Run, presented by Montrail” sound right? To me it doesn’t. Like government, running needs to separate church and state. Competitors and competitions should not both be under the same boss for the same reason why the President should not be on the Supreme Court.
Don’t get me wrong, the sport needs sponsors for races. It is what keeps the races working. What would help this problem would be if the races would get their money from sources outside of the running community. Bring in fresh money, new faces, and new ideas of sponsorship. What if Western States was sponsored by Ford and the winner got a new car? What if Leadville was sponsored by Google and they brought their technology in to broadcast the sport outside of the running world? For me, there are endless possibilities. There is a reason why golf tournaments are not sponsored by golf entities. If John Deere sponsors an event, it brings John Deere’s money into the event and into the golf world. It’s a way to broaden the sport’s economics and creates much more room for growth and expansion than the current economic environment. Running companies and their limited resources ruling over the entire sport and limiting economic growth of the sport just doesn’t make sense.
What all this means is that becoming a professional is very easy to do but very hard to maintain. With the limited economic depth of the current sponsors, the companies will pick up lots of talented runners that get results. They will also cut lots of talented runners who aren’t getting results because there’s not a lot of money to work with. Companies need their brand to be promoted as much as possible to as many people as possible in this relatively small demographic. With races being sponsored by outside entities and money from outside the small economic environment, it will grow the overall pool of wealth in ultrarunning, creating more money for sponsors to spend on athletes to make ultrarunning into a true professional sport. That means it becomes a sport where people can actually be professionals with real contracts and real paychecks.
If the sport can reach this point, which I think could be done with relative ease, then the next issue that would need to be addressed is the fact that this sport has no governing body. This is the biggest problem in elite/professional ultrarunning, because there is no organization to give distinction to elite/professionals and to give them entry into big races. A governing body that is separate of any race or company would make this sport a legitimate sport, not something in the middle. Here are some ways a governing body would help the sport:
One thing the sport has to do, whether we like it or not, is to separate pros from non-pros. Racing for money and racing for the joy of running have to become separate. These blurred lines of professionalism have made races incredibly stressful for everybody and lessened the authenticity of the sport for the other runners taking on the challenge for the challenge. If we separated the starting times between the professionals (who have gained that status by a point system that I will explain later) and the rest of the field who would have elite runners and would still have a race. Not every race would have a pro field, only races with a designated status from the governing body.
That leads to my next talking point: the three classifications of races. This would all be handled by the governing body with the rules and or committees they put in place. They could establish the classification of events based on the level of runners participating. One would be the pro races filled with pro athletes (Pro). One would be other races that meet a set of standards (AB). The third would be races which do not meet standards (US). The pool of races that meet the standards would be decided by a set of baseline requirements (follows all of the governing body’s rules, has a history of good-finishing rates, and has some distance between it and other events that fulfill requirements) that would be generic and would make it possible for new races to become a part of it. Then, from this pool of races, the top Pro races would be chosen by a committee of either randomly selected race directors, or a committee from the governing body.
Races with a designated pro field would have one of three designations: Pro1, Pro2, Pro3*. Pro1 would be an event 50 miles or below with a pro division; there would be 10 of these. Pro2 would be an event over 50 miles; there would be 10 of these. Pro1 and Pro2 races would be scored the same. Pro3 would be 100-mile events. With only four of these events, they would be the premier events in running. They would have the most points and prize money. Only the top-ranked runners would qualify for this along with the top amateurs. One of these would be the championship of the series. This would create a distinct professional series and a distinct championship. Something the sport has been wanting to have for a long time.
The thing that would make the pro races special would be that they would have an exclusive pro field. Only runners with the classification of professional could run in these races. This is modeled after the PGA Tour. You would start out with a qualifying year were there would be no pro events and all events were open to the public. After the year the people with the most points would be included into the professional field for the next year. They would then race throughout the year collecting points in pro races, trying to insure their status for the next year. Their top-five results would count toward their score and rank. The bottom 50% of the field at the end of the year would lose their professional status and would have to try and regain it with a month of qualifying for the status of professional along with the top runners from the amateur level.
The amateur level, which would make up of the rest of the races, would be ranked A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, and B3. A races would be 50 miles or less. B races would be more than 50 miles. The bigger the number, the more people and more points. All of these races would be amateur fields. The runners would be ranked by their results in their best five races. At the end of the year, the top-ranked runners would qualify for the pro level. There would also be an A and a B championship with the winner automatically getting into the pro field.
After a December free of racing, January would be the qualifying month. It would be two sets of races, one 50 miler, one 100 miler, of races all over the world to determine the runners who qualified for the pro level. Then in February, the racing calendar would begin. Winners of Pro events are exempt from qualifying and winners from Pro3 events would get a two-year exemption from qualifying. This would be a great way to have structure to the running calendar and a true off season that is needed.
With a governing body, the sponsors would have less control yet still have influence and it would be profitable. Each pro race would have one title sponsor that would pay a small fee to the governing body for being a title sponsor. This along with licenses would be how the governing body would get money. AB race sponsors would pay a smaller fee. The governing body could also have restrictions on how many runner companies can sponsor and a minimum salary for pro runners. This idea is not necessarily something that has to happen at the beginning, but it would be great if something like this could be put in place later on. All of these things would help limit the power of the sponsors which is something ultrarunning needs, in my opinion. It would also help it be possible for people to be true professionals.
Running also needs written rules. Everything is done on a race level. This means every race is different. What a governing body could do is make a standard maximum distance between aid stations, or to prohibit muling and littering with actual consequences. If the sport got to a point where doping might become an issue, the only way to insure the cleanliness of the sport would be to have a governing body overseeing anti-doping procedures. A governing body would also be necessary if the sport wanted to become an Olympic sport.
With the combination of the separation of running companies and races and the implementation of a governing body, ultrarunning could reach an entire new level of economics and popularity. All of the ideas I’ve put forth are just examples of changes to the current system. These are not the only way to change, they are just possibilities. Whether the sport uses this idea or something like this does not matter. All that I’m asking, as someone who has been around the sport longer than most, and as a kid who hopes to someday compete in ultras, is to have some change to the current system.
The truth is, the sport is not what it once was and is going down a path that is filled with problems that are dangerous to the sport. The truth hurts, but it’s the truth. However, we can change this. So let’s change it.
Thank you for your time and please comment with questions or ideas. Outside ideas are needed for this to happen. Thanks and…
Beer Drink of the Week
Since I am only 14, I don’t drink beer. In fact, I am kind of different than most kids as the only things I drink are milk and water. So, this week’s Drink of the Week is water. With 0% ABV and no IBUs, it’s just about perfect for me.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Okay, phew. That was intense, wasn’t it?
First things first, LJW has introduced topics that are near and dear to our hearts. In order for us to have a conversation, however, each of us must respond constructively. Also, please remember that LJW is a teenager, so be nice to him. We can agree and disagree with LJW and each other in the conversation here, but we must be civil. Thank you.
- LJW tells us that, looking at the sport from a figuratively global perspective, we need to change in order to create a sustainable and functional future. On that figuratively global level, do you agree or disagree? Would you like to see our sport continue on the quirky, oddball path that has largely defined us so far? Or would you like to see some sort of organization and government applied to us?
- LJW has outlined a detailed codification procedure for organizing our sport into professional and amateur categories. Without delving into his details, what do you generally think about such a codification idea? What effects would it have on races and our community?
- Do you agree or disagree with LJW’s hypothesis that our sport’s current dominant sponsors possess an imbalance of power?
- Do you agree or disagree with LJW’s argument that trail and ultrarunning needs a governing body? What are the bases for your thought?