Ultra Prize Money Doesn’t Change Why They Run

AJW explains why prize money hasn’t changed ultras for the worse, but how it could.

By on December 1, 2011 | Comments

AJWs TaproomOn the eve of the North Face 50 Mile Championships in San Francisco I thought it would be interesting to share some thoughts on prize money in ultras. Over the past few years this has been a topic of much discussion in the sport and the opinions are as varied as the terrain we all run on every day.

At one end of the spectrum are the purists who insist that ultrarunning does not need prize money. In fact, the purists argue that the introduction of prize money to ultramarathon running would only serve to corrupt our otherwise clean sport and could lead to such unsavory things as cheating, performance enhancing drug use, and corporate greed. The purists point to incredibly successful and over-subscribed marquee events like Western States and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc as examples of why we don’t need prize money to perpetuate our sport.

On the other end of the spectrum are the pragmatists who suggest that the addition of prize money would increase competition, bring increased attention to the sport, and add an air of professionalism to a sport that has been rather loosely organized and administered for over 30 years. Furthermore, the pragmatists note that prize money would allow elite runners to focus more on running thereby adding credibility to our once “fringe” sport. Given the tremendous growth in the sheer numbers of people taking to the trails this credibility issue is, indeed, a valid one.

From my perspective, I think it is excellent that some of the best ultramarathon runners in the world are able, through the combination of prize money and sponsorship support, to essentially run full-time. It is good for them and it is good for the sport. That said, I do worry a bit about the trend toward bigger and bigger prize purses changing not only the nature of ultramarathon trail running but also its purpose. Fortunately, at this point in ultramarathon running’s evolution, the people who are benefiting from the prize money and the sponsorship dollars are running for the same purpose we all run. Ask Geoff, Anton, Scott, Krissy, etc… why they run and I can assure you that none of them would say they do it for the money. Rather, these folks would likely tell you they run for the love of it, for the time it gives them in beautiful places, for the fitness, for the friendships, for the love and joy of competition, in short, they do it for all the right reasons.

My concern is what does the future look like if prize money obscures this sense of purpose? What happens if the ethic of the sport changes and the product outpaces the process? If that indeed happens, I’ll be worried. We have all come to love this sport because it gives our life meaning. In the end, it makes us more human to propel ourselves over the earth under our own power in beautiful places. If money and the motivation to get more ever trumps that purpose and ethos we may head down a road we never intended to go. And the simple sport we love could be changed forever.

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Santa Cruz Mountain India Pale AleAJW’s beer of the week is India Pale Ale from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing in coastal California.

This week’s beer of the week comes from a great little brewery in Santa Cruz, CA about 40 miles south of the Marin Headlands. Perhaps some of the athletes at The North Face race on Saturday will find their way down there after the event. It will be well worth the trip. Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing makes an excellent IPA that has just the right hoppiness if you’re having more than one.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you think are the benefits of prize money in ultras and trail running? Do you think there should be more in our sport?
  • With the experience of a few years of races with significant prize money has it significantly altered the nature of the sport? If not, does it necessarily have to do so in the future?
  • Which of the possible pitfalls are you worried about if prize money continues to increase? Is it the crowding out of the classic events of the sport? The replacement of our beloved cadre of top ultrarunners with professional profiteers? Drug use? “Corporate exploitation” of a grassroots sport?

[Editor’s Note: We’ve temporarily moved the pub date of AJW’s Taproom to Thursday for this week only due to our ongoing coverage of the TNF 50 mile. The Taproom will going back to opening on Friday next week.]

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.