Prize Purses in Ultras: Leadville 100 Next?

A look at the possibility of the Leadville 100 offering prize money and the role of prize money in ultramarathons.

By on September 7, 2011 | 58 comments

A few weeks ago I was running with Nick Clark in Chamonix, France when he mentioned the possibility of the Leadville 100 offering prize money next year. I’ve yet to hear any further details on the possibility, but the possibility alone highlights the increasing significance of prize money in ultrarunning. What’s particularly telling are the circumstances surrounding Leadville’s possible cash purse next year.

[Sept 8 Update from the Leadville 100:

Any speculation or rumors around prize money for any of 2012 Leadville Race Series events are just that – hearsay. The Leadville events have a long-standing tradition centered on challenging one’s limits, accomplishing a goal and celebrating with hardware once completed. There are no plans to mess with that tradition by offering a purse of any kind.]

On one hand, Leadville is one of the classic ultramarathons and is one of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning races. It’s also the largest 100 miler in the US and its fame has only increased with the race’s prominence in Born to Run.

On the other hand, it has a history of strong, but not championship level competition. I say that all due respect for a race that I actually enjoy quite a bit. However, the fact is that I’ve twice placed in the top 10 there (6th in ’06 and 10th in ’09), while never placing in the top 20 at Western States despite equally strong races there. What’s worse for Leadville is that Western States has been building its competitiveness and, now, The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is turning into the de facto 100 mile world championship only a week after Leadville with at least the latter race is drawing top competitors from Leadville.

What’s a top race to do in such a situation? If the rumors are true, then, apparently, adding a significant prize pursue is seen as a way of upping the competition in a hurry. It’s yet to be seen what that money may be. I suppose that a $1000 top prize wouldn’t change things a whole lot aside from maybe getting a few more flatland specialists to toe the line, while $10,000 would instantly bring three or more international level stars to the race.

I’ve got no dog in this fight (I’ll never contend for cash purses at an ultra) nor do I have anything in particular against Leadville adding a prize purse. In this day and age of ultrarunning, cash talks. Big money was the spark that made The North Face Endurance Challenge championships an international caliber race in just a few years. A total of $10,000 in prize money is sure helping the Ultra Race of Champions launch with an all-star field in a couple week. Even races as venerable as Western States have at least considered prize money. [broken link to Sacbee 6/23/11 article “Others Will Compete But He Runs…” removed] Then again, I feel confident that UTMB will never offer prize money so long as the Polettis are its race directors and it’s become the most competitive trail ultramarathon in the world… so maybe cash isn’t king after all.

Call for Comments
What do you think about increasing prize money in ultras? Is it a good way to support the inspiring elites in out sport? Is it counter to the roots of the sport?

Will this trend of more prize money continue? Will it manifest in even bigger purses at a few select races? Will prize money start to trickle down to smaller, local races?

Are there other likely consequences that come with prize money and, if so, how can we avoid or at least limit them?

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.