The Cost of Doing Business

AJWs TaproomOn the eve of the world’s largest 100-mile trail race and in the aftermath of the Leadville 100, the largest 100-mile trail race in North America, I have been thinking about ultramarathon races and money. And, in particular, how the growth of the sport has both impacted cost and altered expectations.

From my perspective, as the number of runners entering the sport has increased, the impact on the sport has been overwhelmingly positive. Marketing dollars have been infused into trail running which has increased exposure and inspired thousands. Awareness of wild areas has increased exponentially as, quite simply, more people have taken to running in the woods. Individual runners have been able to devote themselves full time to training and racing as companies have started to provide modest income to elite runners. And, perhaps most significantly, high-profile events have hit the mainstream, making ultrarunning more accessible and less the realm of a subset of the general running public who some consider, quite frankly, a bit off. In short, the benefits of this explosive growth are extensive.

However, these benefits have come at a cost. Pressure on the environment has caused many to reconsider the impact of large trail running events. The cherished egalitarian, we’re-all-in-this-together culture that has characterized ultrarunning for a generation is, in the opinion of some, under siege as a result of growth and change. The corporatization of some events has created a backlash to what some perceive as a faceless, nameless, business mindset where once there was an old guy in shorts with a megaphone, some yellow streamers, and a bag of flour. Growth, in all of its forms, has stretched the culture of ultrarunning. And, in the midst of that expansion, the issue of money deserves a place in the discussion, perhaps at the top of that discussion.

Certainly, there are many places where runners can still show up on a random Saturday, plop down a few bucks, and run an ultramarathon trail race with a marked course, a few aid stations, and a nice post-race party. These events, in fact, still form the core of the ultra experience for many and will always be a part of the sport. That said, there is no doubt that a subset of marquee events have come to represent the gold standard and many of those events have seen demand far outstrip supply in ways that have, paradoxically, threatened the sustainability not only of those events but perhaps of the sport itself.

To put it simply, as demand has increased, so have expectations. And, along with those high expectations, these marquee events face challenges that many of us on the outside looking in have no knowledge of and, in fact, may not really care about. From a runner’s perspective, if we can run the race on a marked course with some aid stations, perhaps receive a medal at the end and a bit of swag, we’re good. But perspectives on the sport have changed dramatically, and along with the growth, expectations vary tremendously from runner to runner and from event to event. Therefore, in many cases, particularly in the marquee events, expectations management costs more money. And, this is a massive conundrum facing several of our most storied races.

Not a season goes by these days where a discussion emerges among ultra participants about race entry fees, application surcharges, quality of aid station, food, and swag. While most of these discussions are typically respectful and good natured, from time to time they get ugly and begin to threaten the we’re-all-in-this-together ethos. In the end, the equation is simple, the larger the event, the more difficult logistics become. Then, a bigger challenge emerges which impels race organizations to manage those logistics through an influx of some combination of time, money, and man hours. It may not be fair but it’s the truth: the bigger the race, the bigger the cost and, thus, the bigger the threat to our cherished community.

As a long-time participant, I don’t have an easy answer to this problem other than this: as we experience this growth and the bumps in the road inevitably occur, the same values that have drawn us to this sport should, in my opinion, inform our constructive dialogue. Little change will occur as a result of poorly informed, anonymous criticism or back-room deals. The way to move our sport forward and grapple with the growth and change that has inevitably come upon us is for open, transparent, and clear discourse. Considering the pros and the cons of all situations and understanding that, while we all have vastly different opinions of what we want and need, the values underlying those are perhaps our most common trait and we are much better working through these issues as a unified whole rather than a fractured bunch of wayward wackos. Remember, that’s what the general public thinks we are anyway!

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

Bells The Oracle Double IPA AleThis week’s Beer of the Week is Bell’s Oracle Double IPA. A whopping 10%, it somehow is not boozy and tastes quite smooth. It’s certainly a sipper’s beer that requires a measured approach but is really worth it in the end.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • In light of AJW’s encouragement toward “open, transparent, and clear discourse,” what do you see as the main pros and cons of trail and ultrarunning’s rapid growth?
  • And, where do you think our community needs to direct its attention in the near term so that we stay on a sustainable path?

There are 20 comments

  1. Charlie M.

    Transparency starts with you AJW.

    Tell us all the back-room deals you have been a part of….Come clean, while there is still a chance to save the sport! :)

    1. AJW

      Charlie, I wish I had more dirt to share on this but, to be honest, I have not been privy to any back room deals (at least in my running world, my work world is another story:). However, if you are referring to my Special Consideration Entry into the 2013 Western States 100, while that appeared, to some, to be a back room deal it was not. Here's how that happened: After not being selected in the lottery I wrote a letter to the Board and asked for Special Consideration. I was granted a one-time special consideration entry for 2013 and was told, explicitly, that I would not be considered for SC entry again. So, after my 10th finish in 2014 I'll be done!

      1. Charlie M.

        Thanks for the dirt. I'm disappointed there is not more to share from the Running world :)

        So tell us about some of the HeadMaster back-room deals! :)

  2. dawgrunner

    Great post!

    I'm new to the ultra running community (one of them new whippersnappers that you ol' timers have had to deal with) here on the southeastern part of the country, and feel I must bolster your faith in the state of the ultra running community here in the American South.

    Perhaps due to the fact that we don't have many of the marquette ultra races like Western States or Leadville, many of our races have not yet shed that cloak of innocence that many in your community complain of. I've been to many a great organized race put on by quality race groups that have started in a gravel parting lot and go right up the side a mountain. For me these races, though competitive in their essence, feel more like group runs through the woods than PED-fueled corporate road race. Plus, young, poor folks (like me) haven't been priced out of these races, and this has preserved the egalitarian quality that I love so much about the trail running community. Young twenty-somethings anarcho-syndicalist can very well end up sharing the miles and their perspectives with 50 year old accountants, both practicing their dialectics and moving each other towards caring, mutual respect. Because, lets face it, when you are on mile 75 of a hundred, you stance on a living wage is much less important than that next aid station.

    So never fear, our cherished community is thriving here in the South and has not yet had to face the problems you described above. I'm sure we will, but I'll simply enjoy the dawning of the sport's Spring.

  3. Surfing Vol

    1. Keep the for-profit promoters out. No "Rock 'N Roll Leadville 100," for instance.

    2. I don't know how the races are managed (I have heard of some really detailed guidelines for at least two of the big races, but have not heard of any group similar to the Boston Athletic Association), but it seems to me that each race should be "owned" by a trust or non-profit with formal boards of directors.

    3. The big races should then form a trade group (not a governing body) for the purposes of (a) maintaining integrity, (b) establishing guiding principles for the sport, (c) joint problem solving and (d) coordinating work with sponsors. I am not proposing keeping smaller or newer races out of this group.

    If done right, this will help ensure that the spirit of the pioneers of the sport is respected and preserved.

    P.S. — Isn't Bryon a lawyer?

    1. AJW

      Surfing Vol,

      Great points herein. In know WS, HRH, many of the VHTRC races and Waldo 100K all have self-governing board and full non-profit status (990s filed, etc…) and I am sure with some organization they could form the kind of group you suggest in #3. In fact, if I had the time I would love to coordinate that with my lawyer friend Bryon:)

  4. Aaron

    I don't see how park services and trails can handle such large crowds. Limits should stay around 200-400 entrants, less if safety and environmental concerns require that. If someone wants to hold a bigger race they should do it on a road course.

    1. Yeti


      Parks and trails can't handle it. Shit is getting way out of control. The same people who are flocking to the larger(even some smaller) races to experience natural, pristine environments are turning them into the exact opposite. Trash, human shit and soiled t.p., as well as miles of trampled vegetation were just a few of the lovely surprises that awaited me after the last race in my town. I won't be a part of it anymore.

      1. Adam

        +1 If you're not tough enough to wipe with leaves or bark and carry your own damn used gel packets to the next trash can, you shouldn't be running in the first place.

        1. Yeti

          Ouch man! I don't know about using bark as a t.p. substitute but packing out ALL trash and at least burying poo is a pretty good start. Also, let's stay off of wet trails, especially when we congregate in large numbers. My local trails have deteriorated into wide paths in many parts in the 15+ years I have been enjoying them thanks in large part due to 100 or more runners crowding them every couple of months regardless of the conditions. Funny, I never see the people who race my local trails at trail work days. They come fuck up the trails, let volunteer labor repair it and clean it up, and then they come back again in a few months and do it all over again.

  5. Jeff

    I hope this is not the standard of debate that is typical of the trail running community … four letter words I could not let my kids read and a bunch of stereotypes.

    Races need to be run responsibly, and racers need to leave no trash and be stewards of the trails. European races can manage 500-2500 participants, even in UNESCO world heritage sites such as the Dolomites. Some of our local trails cannot handle more than a few hundred runners; some can handle more. There is no one size fits all approach, but core principles and a governing body would be welcome.

    At the end of the day, it is about running in nature. As the sport grows, the well-known races will be more like UTMB or Leadville, on the one hand, and Western States, on the other.

    Hopefully some smaller, new events will emerge and even the larger events will maintain the ethos of trail running. It's up to all of us.

  6. Lstomsl

    As ultra-running has grown the number of races has skyrocketed too. We all have the choice between toeing the line against the top competitors at Speedgoat or Leadville, or hitting up a mellow local grassroots type race. Or not racing at all and just going for a run. It will all work itself out.

  7. Yeti


    If you're referring to my post then I guess I should respond…???Promise I'll keep it clean :)

    We seem to have a difference in the way we view "four letter words". I use them quite frequently and very much enjoy it. As long as I am not using them "at" someone, I personally don't see the harm.. I never viewed this forum as something that concerned children considering they don't run ultras and mountain races. What we do is for grownfolks. If irunfar has a policy against it or something I'll stop but otherwise…tough.

    My recent experiences with many runners, races, and the aftermath, I assure you, is not unique and is an accurate description of not only some of the local races in my town but of many others like them across the region/country/globe. Sorry if that sucks to hear but unfortunately it's the truth.

    Discarded trash, exposed human waste, reckless use of trails despite poor conditions, serious damage that often can't be undone, hordes of people trampling through miles of what little we have left, and individuals so focused on a time/mile goal that they could somehow abuse what they thought they loved is all very real and far from a simple stereotype.

    All of this is being done in the name of what? A silly foot race that must go down come hell or high water. That's nothing but selfishness and irresponsibility. I'm concerned for our planet and what is negatively affecting it and why, and in my opinion the race scene is getting out of control big time. I stand for what I stand on and I hope you do too.

    1. Adam

      "Discarded trash, exposed human waste, reckless use of trails despite poor conditions, serious damage that often can’t be undone, hordes of people trampling through miles of what little we have left, and individuals so focused on a time/mile goal that they could somehow abuse what they thought they loved is all very real and far from a simple stereotype.

      All of this is being done in the name of what? A silly foot race that must go down come hell or high water. That’s nothing but selfishness and irresponsibility. I’m concerned for our planet and what is negatively affecting it and why, and in my opinion the race scene is getting out of control big time."

      I couldn't have said it better myself. But I'll try anyway. None of these problems seem to exist in the comparatively non-competitive backpacking, rock-climbing, and kayaking communities, at least as far as I can tell. And I doubt the guys going out for FKTs are the main culprits of trail damage. I suspect the problem is conceptualizing these things as races, of a piece with road marathons, triathalons, and cycling events, and thus inviting many victims of the individualistic culture of "personal achievement" to participate beyond the serious outdoor community who respect and love our shared ecology first, and run and race second. Of course, the best thing for the environment would be to demolish all the roads and trails and keep humans away from it all together, but that's not a realistic expectation (and I'm not sure I want to live in a world where I can't hit the trails regularly, selfish as that may be…but I know you're not advocating that extreme).

    2. Jeff

      I do view four letter words differently. You are entitled to "enjoy" them. I am entitled to discount the point of view of those that employ them. And yes, my children do look at this website from time to time. One in particular is a budding runner, has asked "Is that Hal from the movie [Unbreakable]?" and gone up to shyly say hi to him. This thread is a good topic for him since he is a freestyle skier as well, and I struggle with the environmental impact of that sport and we discuss it.

      I hope to show the community wrestles with these issues and there is an individual as well as collective responsibility as the sport grows.

  8. Marcus

    The guys behind the UTMB and UTMF are trying to tie up approx 14 100milers and 100km races as part of a world series and have approached WSER and Leadville etc to be part of the circuit – problem is they want a wedge of cash up front to be part of the group in order to benefit from the wider marketing noise this will create. Latest rumour is they only managed to secure 6-7 races such as MdS and maybe Leadville in the end as the costs were way too much for some RDs to afford and the return didnt justify the means. Not a good move IMO when the purpose is more commercial for the owners and not the runners.

  9. Jeff

    Junior? Do what? Did I claim Hal was in fact a role model for my children. It was only to illustrate that your comment that kids do not run ultras misses the point. Indeed, your tone tells me all I need to know about you. You are, in fact, tedious … or, as the Bard's text would have it, an ass

    1. Meghan Hicks


      We don't tolerate swear words directed at a person or people in iRunFar's comments. (The occasional use of a non-directed curse word is alright.) Please communicate with folks on iRunFar like you would with them if you were out on a trail run. Thanks.

      1. AJW

        Meghan, thanks for this, but, with all due respect, some of the things Bryon and I have talked about on trail runs wouldn't really fit here in the comment section of irunfar. And, don't even get me started on my conversations with MonkeyBoy:)

  10. Gordo

    I couldn't help but think that this post reads like a nice intro – and then stops. How about some numbers? How much does it cost to put on a race? Where does the money go? We could take Leadville for an example. We know that they took in about $400k. They donated $2k to charity. Where does the other $398k go? How does it break down? Or maybe folks who actually run races could chime in. Then we could talk about something substantive rather than beating around the bush and bleating platitudes.


  11. jenn

    This isn't exactly AJW's topic, but is related to the (what I see as) tension between commercialization and the traditional volunteer-based race model. One thing that has been rankling at me about Leadville is that we have a profit-making corporation in Lifetime that is raking in money off the backs of volunteers. It seems as though this is going to have to be a question for the ultra community to ask itself, if companies are going to turn races into profit-making enterprises, whether we are going to make them actually pay for the labor they use to make that profit, or whether the experience in helping runners (or the value the company provides) is worth the donation we volunteers are making to the shareholders' wallets. I'm not saying that door #2 is the wrong call, but I do think that this should actually be a decision, rather than an unthinking carry-over of the non-profit race model to a for-profit company.

  12. Anton

    I live on the edge of a great state park.

    I'm spitting distance from the Stone Mill 50 mile and Greenway Trail 50k courses.

    Ten years ago it wouldn't be odd to go for a long run on those trails and not see a soul.

    Now? Not so much. Especially as the dates for the two races I mentioned approach.

    I run those trails almost everyday. Not a day goes by I don't pick up one or more discarded gel packs.

    Several times a week I'm accosted by trail runners with dogs off a leash (Required in the park).

    I've run the Greenway, a great race, but have seen folks running ahead tossing gel packs and other trash off into the woods. One time I ran it when it was an oozing, muddy mess and was flabbergasted at the damage a couple of hundred runners caused. (I was out the next few days with some trail crew friends to mitigate the damage)

    For years I've done trail work on the Greenway and in the park. I never seen other runners come.

    Mountain bikers? Yup. They show up. Old folks show up. Boy scouts. Old hippies like me.

    Other trail runners? Never.

    Trail running is "The Next Big Thing." It's promoted by those who wish to make a buck and have no real care for nature. Can't wait till all those inconsiderate types, who really have no sense of the fragility of the out of doors, move on.

    +1 to Yeti. He's spot on.

    1. Adam

      The tossing of gel packs particularly bothers me, because it's such a clear statement that one truly does not care about anything but their time. Coming back down the trail at Sonoma in April, the path was lined with gel packs. Enforcing penalties for tossing trash, or just shifting to refillable flasks (like at Speedgoat) would go a long way to correcting this problem. The little foil 100 calorie packs are already so stupidly wasteful, even when you don't toss them into the woods. Like Yeti below, I can't wait until trail running loses its popularity with the solipsistic "personal challenge of the month" crowd, and they go back to road marathons and Tough Mudders.

  13. David Anthony

    As long as there is no littering, i cant stand how some people just cant carry their own trash until an aid station, & if you want money for running give it to our ancient humans who adapted our species to have us only later enjoy its uses. Im good with my belt buckle and race t-shirt. I think everything else is self explanatory.

  14. Josh

    To those unhappy with a lot of the problems commercialization has caused: (and really, it should be all of us. Nobody enjoys running past human waste on the trail as I did at Leadville this year.)

    EXTREMELY IMPORTANT CONCEPT: find a medium for change. If we don't like something, we have 2 options – to either do something about it or not. Raging on the forums make make us feel better for a few minutes but will most certainly NOT impact organizations such as Lifetime Fitness' decisions about race management and is essentially akin to NOT doing something. (Not to suggest that one can't rail for 10 minutes and be productive for the rest of the day.)

    1. Growth is and has been happening. More races, larger events, more media, etc. It's a fact. Refusal to accept this accomplishes nothing. Having a tantrum accomplishes even less. Our choice is to attempt to manage. Wishing for a rewind is NOT helpful.

    2. Railing against other runners on forums such as this, engaging foul language, etc. only serves to divide. I mean really, do we honestly think a multibillion dollar corporation such as Lifetime Fitness takes any of this seriously?

    3. Recognize that guys like AJW put up columns like this to prompt the discussion: what shall we do? I think we can all assume that nobody here is a fan of poop on the trail, trashed environments, etc. Pointing out that those things suck do NOT contribute to the conversation unless you are using them as a platform to suggest an ACTION. We can ALL accept that those things suck. Let's move on.

    4. Recognize that relying on others for action is equally as impotent. "The forest service should …" is NOT a suggestion. Moreso, if we rely on others to police & monitor us, the likelihood that we are happy with the results is rather low.

    5. So what shall we do? (I've seen/heard a couple of great ideas already – let us actually discuss them!)

    1. Yeti


      Thanks for the lecture(tantrum) on what constitutes an acceptable post. You seem to have the answers, yet aren't divulging them with us…so, please, what is your course of action that would allow hundreds/thousands of runners to pass through wilderness environments without causing severe damage and thereby putting a race over the health of the very places we "love"?

      1. Adam

        One simple response would be boycotting. Volunteers and runners who care could simply refuse to run Leadville. The major voices of trail running, like this website, could do quite a lot to facilitate such a boycott by widely publicizing the failings of big races like Leadville, and encouraging the collective action necessary to impact LifeTime's (and other such organizations) bottom line. That they seem more interested in advertising gear and moving on to cheerleading the elites at the next giant corporate race tells you quite a lot about where their true interests lie. There is nothing unrealistic about the powerless wanting organizations and individuals with power (iRunFar, the Forest Service, the elites) to take actions we cannot take. The question is how we can organize to put pressure on the powerful to do something about these problems.

  15. Yeti

    I hear that brother, I'm counting the days… Like most fads, they burn bright and die fast. When that happens, the profiteers and trend followers move on and hopefully it'll be like all this never happened. Glad to hear there are others who see through all of this and know what is really going down and what is at stake. Big thanks for giving up your time to volunteer, I truly believe it makes a huge positive impact.

  16. Sabine

    Exactly. For me the answer is to support and run smaller, local races. And tell others about it (particularly the newcomers, because for them LT100 is still kind of "THE race").

    1. Adam

      Thanks! To my mind, supporting local races is a good idea, but the most important first step is to boycott huge and destructive races, and to put pressure on IRF to actually publicize the damage these races are doing, both to the physical and mental well-being of the participants and to the environment. We can, of course, make our own efforts at publicizing as well, but IRF and the elites have much louder bullhorns (for his part, Nick Clark pretty unequivocally condemned the Leadville race organization in his report, despite its having no impact on his own day). Considering the fact that these races are all run on public lands, the relevant Forest Service, State, and National park authorities also need to enforce entrant caps, which seems like a very simple policy for producing a positive result. I think in many cases they do so, but that's clearly not the case in the Leadville National Forest.

  17. Jeff

    Peace, indeed. Perhaps it was a poor joke, but the Bard reference is to Much Ado about Nothing (which is where I felt our repartee was going), and is not, for the record, a four letter word in the literal or figurative sense:

    Con. Away! you are an ass; you are an ass.

    Dogb. Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! but, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow; and, which is more, an officer; and, which is more, a householder; and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any in Messina; and one that knows the law, go to; and a rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath had losses; and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!

  18. Yeti


    Thanks for cut and pasting like half the play. Shakespeare sucks anyway dude, or as the great Wayne Campbell would have it, "he blows goats, I have proof"

  19. Raton del Desierto

    In an earlier comment it was stated: "None of these problems seem to exist in the comparatively non-competitive backpacking, rock-climbing, and kayaking communities, at least as far as I can tell. "

    I can only speak to rock climbing; however, this has been a HUGE problem with rock climbing areas both in the U.S., and internationally. State parks and wilderness areas are banning climbing. Here in the Southwest, Hueco Tanks, an international destination, has severely curtailed access for the last ten years. The Enchanted Tower was effectively closed because people could not bury their used TP and poop. Rocklands South Africa has just restricted access to several climbing areas for the same reason.

    The two solutions in the climbing arena have been lawyers suing for access and a real campaign to EDUCATE. There has been an ever increasing pressure to teach wilderness ethics and just plain ol' sanitation to climbers.

    There are real consequences for all of us who play in the outdoors and peer pressure and education are the cheapest, and probably most effective, solutions. Call people out on their poop! Literally!

    1. Adam

      That was me! Thanks for shedding some light on my naivete. I've done quite a lot of backpacking/back country camping, but have only a very limited experience with rock climbing and those other activities I listed. I'm sad to hear this is a problem beyond trail running, but happy to be a little less ignorant then I was when I wrote that first post.

  20. brew davis

    Couldn't agree more, AJW… Bell's Oracle Double IPA is an impeccable beer. :) The best I've had on the Midwest stretch of Jen's book tour. We're visiting Tin Man in Evansville, IN, tomorrow and I have high hopes for their dry irish stout and dipa.

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