In so many ways, elite trail runners are extremely fortunate folks. They spend a lot of their time on a sport we all love. They compete in bucket-list events on breathtakingly beautiful routes.
Occasionally, the rest of us get to peek behind the curtain at the highs and lows of life as an elite athlete. Within the last year, two top athletes posted on social media about the financial burden of competitive trail running in ways that stayed with me.
First, in August 2023, Dave Stevens announced his decision not to race UTMB, despite gaining automatic entry as the winner of the 2022 Puerto Vallarta Mexico by UTMB 100 Mile. The cost of traveling to Chamonix, France, he pointed out on Instagram, meant that racing there would require him to make too many other sacrifices. He instead opted to race the competitive Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile in Colorado, finishing first, ahead of Jimmy Elam and Arlen Glick, all of whom earned prize money.
In January 2024, Grayson Murphy shared on social media how her business, creating runner-specific training logs, provides her with financial stability when her sponsorships change. Murphy was the U.S. national champion in two mountain running distances in 2023 and then earned two medals — one of them gold — at the World Mountain Running Championships that year, and that’s not even the full highlight reel for her season.
These stories were sobering.
Many of us were initially attracted to running because of its simplicity. “All you need is a pair of shoes,” we’ve heard. It’s true, running is not inherently expensive. But the costs can quickly escalate. Among competitive runners striving to maximize their performance wherever possible (and sanctioned), the financial implications are significant.
In this month’s article, we estimate the individual costs of competitive trail running. It’s a thought experiment, so I’ll emphasize that these are estimates and that, where possible, I try to skew my estimate toward the lower end.
This analysis applies to any runner with competitive aspirations, who is willing to invest significant time and money into their races. Therefore, a runner of any speed can qualify just as easily as a podium finisher at a major race.
We do, however, use the top 10 men and women from the 2023 Western States 100 to average how many races each completed in a season, and to calculate the annual value of coaching services the athletes received. We also use the Western States 100 when estimating racing costs.
Since competitive athletes train in different ways and locations, the actual cost for each athlete varies widely. Wherever possible, we estimate an average cost per line item, or take the lowest practical cost. This means that some athletes probably spend less per year, but many athletes spend more.
Some competitive athletes have costs offset by sponsorships, health insurance (e.g., for physiotherapy), and other resources.
But it’s worth noting many competitive athletes are fully self-funded, or receive only modest support in the form of free gear or subsidized race entries. For years, a confession from Scott Jurek’s autobiography stuck with me: he essentially bet on himself at the outset of his career by accruing some credit card debt.
As I understood it, he was willing to take the risk that he could deliver exceptional performances and, presumably, get sponsored accordingly. Jurek indeed had many exceptional performances to show his self-belief was well placed. But how many runners bet on themselves and only see returns in the form of experiences, not compensation?
First and most importantly, this article assumes that we can talk about dollars and cents separately from the concept of value for money. For this thought experiment, let’s pretend an athlete aspires to be a competitive runner and, for budgetary purposes, wants an estimate of what it may cost to do a competitive circuit for a season.
Whether our final estimate is cost prohibitive, a great bargain, an investment in future earnings, or simply worth it for the life-changing experiences will be a subjective judgment based on the runner’s priorities and life circumstances.
For this exercise, we create budget estimates for a hypothetical American runner whose goal race for the season is Western States 100, the most competitive and prestigious 100-mile race in North America.
The runner races their way into the Western States 100 by getting a Golden Ticket at the Black Canyon 100k. These are the first of many assumptions built into our estimates. We also presume the runner gets into the Western States 100 on their first attempt at a Golden Ticket, and that this is the focal point of their competitive season.
We originally hoped to include similar estimates for a non-North American race, to provide a more global scope. However, this article is already lengthy enough for this time.
We break down the expenditures for a competitive runner by category. Again, you may disagree on some of the expenditures or their amounts, and we look forward to that discussion. Our currency conversions are based on a Google calculator, as of January 10, 2024.
Let’s get started! The following sections each represent a line item on the hypothetical budget of our competitive athlete. We start with the universal costs that our athlete incurs regardless of their goal race. Then we look at costs specific to training for the Western States 100.
Shoes, Apparel, and Gear Expenses
Our hypothetical runner buys best trail running shoes at what I estimated in a previous article to be the average price in 2023: $160.20 per pair. Our runner is thrifty, eco-conscious, and never gets injured, so they get 650 miles out of each pair of shoes. If our runner averages 50 miles per week over the course of the year, they’ll wear through four pairs of shoes.
Our runner doesn’t care about keeping up with the latest fashions and minimizes their consumption. They replace apparel at a rate of two items per year, for an estimated total cost of $150. Yes, this is low and there are sponsored athletes who receive a whole new wardrobe every season. But we’re aiming for a low estimate.
Let’s take the same approach when it comes to gear. We’ll assume our runner needs one new item in terms of a headlamp, a hydration vest, trekking poles, or whatever else they might need to complete their kit. This costs $200.
Running Fuel Expense
We remind you this is a thought exercise, because it’s tough to estimate fueling costs.
It’s possible to rely on aid stations for race fuel, and some top runners like Nick Coury and Pam Smith have said they fuel for runs with some simple and affordable items such as granola bars and fruit snacks.
However, competitive runners commonly bring their preferred foods to races and use them in training. It can save time at aid stations, and reduce the likelihood of gastrointestinal issues during races.
Let’s do our best attempt at a lowball estimate of fueling costs, though. As established above, we presume a competitive runner averages 50 miles per week over the course of the year. That yields an annual total of 2,600 miles. We will assume the runner consumes calories on all of their runs at a rate of one energy gel for every three miles, for 867 energy gels per year.
I opted for Hammer Gels for this study, as the cheapest gel that doesn’t make me, personally, gag. If the cheapest acceptable gel is $1.60 per unit, then 867 gels per year amounts to $1,387.20. This is an imperfect measure because it assumes the competitive runner consumes all of their calories from gels, and only from a single brand. Bear with me.
Run Coaching Expense
At least some of the top finishers at the 2023 Western States 100 were self-coached, so please take this as a reminder that you can have competitive aspirations and performances without a coach. We assign a cost to coaching because self-coached runners invest significant time and effort into planning their training.
Plus, the work of preparing a training plan and revising it on an ongoing basis is similar to cleaning your home — if you outsource that labor, it’s going to cost you.
Ultimately, it’s challenging to prepare an estimate for annual coaching costs. Of the top 10 finishers at the 2023 Western States 100, I found three whose coaches were named in the media, but for whom pricing information isn’t available online. I believe at least six of the 20 finishers in the men’s and women’s top 10 are self-coached.
Of the remainder, I made my best guess based on the coaching packages advertised on their coaches’ respective websites. On average, coaching fees came to $261 per month. If you excluded the highest and lowest fees from the dataset, the average cost was fairly close at $275 per month.
Gym Membership Expense
Some athletes may have well-equipped home gyms where they can do strength training. It would be difficult to estimate the cost of purchasing equipment for a home gym, or the cost per square foot of having space at home to maintain a personal gym. So, for our purposes, we’ll look at the cost of an annual gym membership.
Gym access supports runners’ ability to do strength training, rehabilitative or pre-habilitative exercises, treadmill runs, and cross training. We base our estimate of the cost of a membership at a chain of gyms whose locations generally include saunas, so that competitive athletes have their heat-training needs covered as well. That’s a cost of $72.50 per month.
Running Community Stewardship Expenses
Some might argue these expenditures are optional, but I’ve yet to meet a competitive runner who doesn’t spend at least this much on the following costs.
Trail Association Membership
These are annual fees to membership groups that support and maintain trails that are near and dear to our runner. We’re setting this amount at $45 per year, as it’s the lowest annual membership amount for the Superior Hiking Trail Association.
Running Association Membership
Active memberships are generally required for runners to be eligible to represent their country at world championships, and provide valuable support and advocacy to runners. The annual fee for the American Trail Running Association is $25 per year.
Can you think of a competitive trail runner who hasn’t been described as “a student of the sport?” My experience with top runners is that they eagerly consume trail running media as part of their continuous learning and connection to a larger community. I am estimating this at $96 per year, which is enough to support at least one of your favorite trail running media entities.
Western States 100 Golden Ticket Race Expenses (Using the Black Canyon 100k As an Example)
Now, onto the Western States 100-specific costs of our thought experiment.
Before anything else, our runner needs to qualify for the Western States 100, and as already mentioned they will do so via a Western States 100 Golden Ticket race, with the Black Canyon 100k being the race we use for illustrative purposes. Here are the costs associated with competing in this race:
Local 50k Training Race Expenses
The Western States 100 top 10 finishers I used as a sample set generally had at least one local race, typically a 50k, under their belts during the lead-up to their goal race. Some runners participated in international races or even stage races as part of their build-up, but we’re focusing on local training races because our goal is to arrive at a conservative cost estimate.
I looked at the actual 50k races that the Western States 100 top 10 finishers ran during their build-up, then took the registration fees for a few of them and selected the lowest. This was the Way Too Cool 50k, which Katie Asmuth ran as part of her build-up to an eventual fourth-place finish at the 2023 Western States 100.
Western States 100 Training Camp Expenses
The Western States 100 offers a training camp on a long weekend in late May each year, where runners can run the final 70 miles of the course. The weekend is popular with runners who want to spend time on the course, either as preparation for the race or to spend time on an iconic route. The registration cost for each of the training camp’s three days totals $170.
The estimates below assume the runner is traveling to the event by plane and staying in Auburn, California. A runner may be able to save on the cost of attending camp by driving to the camp in a personal vehicle and then finding more affordable accommodations by camping or sharing with more people.
Western States 100 Expenses
Competitive runners commonly arrive at least a few days prior to the Western States 100, which can increase accommodation costs. To keep this estimate conservative, we’ll base this budget on the assumption that the runner is camping at one of the free campsites along the course for any extra time they spend in the area of Olympic Valley, Foresthill, and Auburn, California.
This estimate likewise assumes the runner has only one crew person or pacer. This would not reflect reality for many competitive athletes, as it isn’t practical for a single crew person to arrive at each checkpoint before their runner does in the earliest miles of the course. It would also require some creative logistical planning if the single crew person acts as pacer and must therefore either leave their vehicle at an aid station or get a ride to one.
Total Annual Cost of Being a Competitive Trail Runner
Based on each of the categories above, our estimated annual budget is as follows:
Potential Additional Expenses
At this point, you likely have one or both of the following reactions: sticker shock at the combined costs of our “simple” sport, and/or protestations that the above total is unrealistically low. If you feel the estimate so far is too low, this section is for you. We want to keep the costs in this section separate from the costs above, because we classify the following expenditures as optional.
This thought experiment is based on a hypothetical runner whose primary goal is to race their way into the Western States 100 and finish in the top 10 on race day. Everyone who races their way into and competes in the Western States 100 will have to pay registration fees for a Golden Ticket race and the big dance itself. However, our hypothetical runner has a choice regarding other races they do in the season, and their strategies to improve their fitness and the quality of their training and recovery.
The top 10 finishers in the 2023 Western States 100 raced, on average, four times in 2023. On average, they each did two international races. Therefore, the totals below reflect a very general estimate of the cost to do an additional race that requires overseas travel. It’s a very conservative estimate, depending on the location of the race.
I’ve included very general estimates for other possible expenditures, too.
Spending across these categories probably varies widely by individual. Additionally, there are certain products whose advertising promotes regular use to runners, but the cumulative annual cost makes me uncertain just how many competitive runners utilize those products and services regularly while paying full price.
Potential Expenses That Are Excluded
This is not an exhaustive list of the possible expenditures a competitive athlete might incur in the pursuit of their sport. For example, individual runners may also spend money on any of the following:
- Lost income as a result of time away from other work in order to train, travel, or race
- Childcare to support them taking the time to train, travel, or race
- Pet boarding while they travel for races
- Costs associated with traveling to locations for training runs, such as gas money or bus fare
- Accommodation costs for extended visits to training- or running-specific destinations
- Fees paid to agents, which reduced the full value of sponsorships received by sponsored athletes
- Costs incurred to support content creation. I didn’t include this cost because it’s not necessary for competitive performance, but it increasingly plays a role in the sponsorship landscape. These costs might include buying the latest phone for taking high-quality photos, or other costs related to personal fashion and grooming that I deem to be optional and discretionary, like getting haircuts, shaving your legs, or wearing fashions from this decade.
A recent article by Jeffrey Stern for “UltraRunning Magazine” reported the results of a poll of sponsored ultrarunners. Most interestingly, the athletes were asked to anonymously report the value of their sponsorships. Of the nearly 200 respondents, 48.7% stated they received $10,000 or less per annum in sponsorships.
That means that, in this article’s thought experiment, over half of those respondents would spend thousands of dollars out of pocket to race their way into the Western States 100 — even if they got a Golden Ticket on their first attempt, and didn’t race again all season after June.
Looking at our more generous estimate of spending over $19,000 per year, only 34.9% of these sponsored runners would have sponsor dollars left over to pay some of their daily bills like groceries and housing.
The high cost of competition has a variety of implications. There are exceptional athletes who race less frequently and more locally than they otherwise might, because they have bills to pay and modest or non-existent sponsor support.
Furthermore, competitive running also pairs well with adequate recovery time. Competitive runners often work less than full-time and/or be in a phase of their lives when their family, personal, or professional commitments are relatively flexible.
There are absolutely exceptions to this: Kilian Jornet won the 2022 UTMB while helping to raise two small children and leading the fledgling footwear brand, Nnormal. But I’d contend there is still a financial “opportunity cost” that most elite athletes face by, at least at times, prioritizing training for trail races over other possible opportunities to generate income.
The ascetic lifestyle of an elite trail runner can sound appealing for its simplicity, especially to those of us who have embraced — not always by choice — the “hustle and grind” culture of working multiple jobs to pay for our cat’s lavish lifestyle, or daycare, or all of those damn bills. And yet, we are struck by how often these elite athletes who are living out our daydreams are facing immense logistical and financial challenges, on top of the performance challenges they are best known for.
We created this article because we see value in discussing the challenges facing competitive runners and aspiring competitors. Incoming younger athletes are increasing the competitiveness of trail running, but very few people graduate from college with enough money in the bank to launch into a competitive trail running career.
We hope these figures don’t scare anyone away — please don’t think of these as “the price of admission” to competitive trail running. Rather, these estimates give us renewed respect for races and organizations that reduce cost barriers for competitive athletes to participate.
For example, some national teams subsidize the cost of racing in world championships. As we’ve noted previously in this column, the Golden Trail World Series offers complimentary race entries and assistance with travel costs to top series participants.
Programs like the Trail Team, which iRunFar profiled in January 2023, offer valuable coaching and mentorship opportunities to promising athletes for whom professional coaching through established coaching businesses might be cost-prohibitive.
These estimates also raise concerns that current sponsorship levels are insufficient to cover training and racing costs for most professional athletes. This presents a challenge to the continued professionalization of trail running.
Finally, this article drives home the point that elite athletes are not the only ones struggling to remain invested in the sport amid the increasing costs of training and racing. This article illustrates that, to even participate casually in the racing portion of the sport, we must commit significant resources.
Many of us are making these investments — to some degree — year after year, as we participate in qualifying races to maintain our eligibility for popular bucket-list events that use lotteries to select entrants.
One of the beautiful things about our sport is that competitive athletes and passionate amateurs are on the same start line for most races. It appears we share the same budget headaches, too.
Call for Comments
- Would you have higher or lower estimates in any of these areas?
- Are there any other line items you would add to this hypothetical budget?
- What does the cost of trail running mean to you as a participant or as a fan of the sport?