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. Deb

    I think a big misconceiption is what type of support top runners get. Many sponsored athletes are only getting some help with product and still incur a great deal of product costs as well as travel costs, race fees etc. You may have a few athletes who have become ambassadors of the sport and do a great deal of writing, coaching, endorsement of products, etc who can make a living off of ultra running. However, in general I would guess that is after success in the sport over a period of years. But how is that different than working in other industries? They are supporting themself by use of personal time and talents.

    Ultra running due to restrictions on the number of people that can run a race don't have huge sponsorship dollars available to them. Western states had 382 starters Hard Rock 140 starters versus some of the big Marathons such as Chicago or Boston that have 20,0000 to 40,000 starters.

    In my opinion this will help maintain the tradition of the sport that many are so afraid of losing. .

  2. Eric

    @ fred p,
    Why should men/women be penalized if fewer male/female participants decide to compete? That's out of their control. It would also cause the amount of prize money distributed to change frequently, as the number of participants can change drastically in the days and weeks prior to a race. I can't imagine sponsors would want to play that game each time someone dropped/entered the field. Also, what if there were 25 male runners, and 100 female runners, yet all 25 males were top runners and 2 of the females were top runners. Would the males be entitled to less prize money despite facing much fiercer competition than the women because fewer men entered the race? It's not as black and white as you make it out to be.

    1. Fred Abramowitz

      Geoff, I said WE, not ME … lol. But you correct. I need to have my head examined. And if I could figure out a way of blaming it all on you, I would ….lol

  3. Anonymous

    Why does giving money to a few fast runners improve anything? They show up? They put on a better show than if there was no money? They talk up the race more?

    Seems to me the sport could do just as well without the prize money.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Anonymous, I'm not sure if the lack of name was accidental, but it's probable that you're someone who regularly comments on iRunFar. If that's the case, it'd be awesome if you'd make such statements with a name attached. No, it's not required, but it'd be nice.


  4. Dean G

    I'd put the likes of Kilian Jornet on par with Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, or Jerry West…

    All are Athletes who were considered (by their competition) to be awe inspiring, at "another level", won multiple championships, and helped spread the appeal of their sports…

    Sure, the ultra world is tiny compared to the NBA… But that doesn't make the comparison any different. People are either legends in their sport or they aren't. Do you really think Jordan would be less great if he played 30 years ago and you barely knew him today?

    Would comparing MJ to Pele be a joke because, in relative terms, Pele was a legend at a sport played by 10 times as many people?

    Would say Ann Trayson is no MJ or Babe Ruth?

    Because it sounds like what you are saying is "easy Bryon, there are no Michael Jordans in Ultras" — which is as arbitrary as saying MJ would have been an also-ran if he played against Bill Russell. Or that Oscar Robertson was no Michael Jordan because BB players are so much better now that the sport is more mature.

    At Western Stares and a host of other events, you can actually talk to, question, and even run next to (for five seconds) the actual athletes. You can feel how fast they are. You can crawl up the hill they run…etc.

    That is clearly something unique to Ultras at this moment in time.

  5. Andrew

    Slightly different angle. I was very surprised in my first WS100 this year to discover that the elite runners get boated across the Rucky Chucky river whilst us mortals have to wade through the water over waist high. Furthermore the elite runners are crossing in the heat of the day and often welcome a dunking, whilst most others are crossing in the cool of the night (and it was cool this year I can tell you).

    This seems utterly ridiculous to me, and i'm moderate Englishman! Surely should be a level playing field for all competitors

    1. Bryon Powell

      Andrew, the elites were boated across the Rucky Chucky this year as the river, the flow of which is control upstream at a dam, was kept high early in the day to allow paid rafting trips in the river. Due to the very fast times, the planned flow reduction was not at low enough level to allow the first runners to safely cross. (I was in the river's edge at that time and can vouch for that!) Runners were allowed to cross once the level was low enough for a safe crossing. This wasn't a special privilege of the elite runners (most of who would have welcomed the crossing), but a safety concern.

      1. Mike Hinterberg

        True, I thought it was weird until I learned the real reason (which made a lot of sense) that Bryon mentioned! Then I bragged about the fun of being able to cross it on foot rather than being transported.

        In general, I'm not a fan of big distinctions /during/ the race between "elites" and everyone else, except for prize money and all deserved accolades and entries for impressive performance. When things are differentiated /during/ the race, I feel less like I'm sharing the trails with "elites." (Also putting the word in quotes because even some of the fast folks are hesitant to embrace it! We all know who's awesome in other professional lines of work based strictly on their performance).

  6. Dan C

    I am really surprised to see so much back and forth bickering and complaining about a topic like this. We’re out there running in some of the most amazing places around. Lighten up, breath deep and run on… Exposure to nature is a proven antidepressant. As such, ultra trail runners should be the happiest group of folks ever!

    And I would like to mention that Ellie has maintained her composure quite well. I am surprised to see that she’s responded at all to some of these inconsiderate and rude comments. I would have told some of you to ef off by now.

    Rock on Ellie!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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…

  10. 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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