Ultra Prize Money Doesn’t Change Why They Run

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.]

There are 36 comments

  1. StephenJ

    I don't buy the argument about adding more credibility to ultra runner. Why do care if ultra running has more, or any "credibility"? Are we trying to impress Bob Costas or something? Will having highly produced races encourage the Forest Service to let us have more races? Companies will still make products for us if there's a market. Watching an ultra via twitter is good enough for me. But, I'm just a middle-aged back-of-the-pack slow guy that likes to run and sees races as a way around the logistics and safety of running 50-100 miles by myself.

    Now, if you want to argue that the top ultra runners inspire others to push their limits too, and that they are all cool people that deserve to focus on trail running, I'd agree with you there.

  2. David T.

    I don't think the top guys and gals run, in the general sense, because of prize money . I doubt they got into it to make money (if they did they are clearly not very smart). Clearly they do it for the love of it. However, i think there is pretty clear evidence that prize money can draw those same runners to certain races (i.e., TNF 50 miler). Likewise, at various times and in various ways Geoff, Tony, Karl, Nick and others have advocated for more prize money.

    So no they don't do it for the money. But yes it can draw them to certain races and they want more races to offer larger purses. In other words, they like it and they want more of it. And i for one hope we can provide more of it for them via more and larger purses.

  3. Jared F

    Good post Bryon, and for the most part I agree with you. As an amature I get concerned that price money will raise the level of competition even more to the point where amatures will have a hard time even getting to the starting line, much less a shot at any decent finish with a full time job that is not running. With that said, I think prize money of lower values, say $1000 – $5000, would be enough to entice the elites to enter the race, suppliment their travel costs low enough to not drastically change the level of competition. Ulimately though, race directors could always just say no to price money all together if they are "purists." Just because others are offering high winnings doesn't mean everyone has to. For me, a non competitive runner, I do it for all the right reasons you listed, and for me, like 95% of any race field, price money is meaningless since I won't ever get any.

    On a side note, the Crow Pass Crossing race up here is doing something interesting. Starting next year they are doing time goals for prize money, break 5 hours get $20, break 4:30 get $50, etc. It will be interesting to see how this works next year. The course record and first place price are large enough ($1000 and $500 I believe) to where Geoff, Eric, and Matias will most likely show up (again) to battle it out. That will add excitement to the raise and most likely cause the CR to fall in 2012 (Goeff holds it currently).

  4. Scott

    I would go a step further. What's wrong if people start running/competing because they can make a living from it? Football, baseball, and basketball players don't choose that career just because they love the game, but because they have the ability to make a living from it. Why should running & ultrarunning be any different? The act of running isn't tainted by someone doing it only "for the money" any more than a pickup recreational game of hoops is tainted by the NBA. To pretend that ultrarunning is different than any other sport only serves to keep it on the fringe, where it definitely does not belong.

    1. Cody

      A better analogy would be golf, a sport where most of the fans actually compete, and can compete in the same manner on the same course. The average golfer doesn't have the skill to get a score anywhere near Jack Nicklaus', but is scored on the exact same challenge.

      That being said, the problem is that the prize money has to come from somewhere. If a race has 1000 entrants, is the race better lowering registration costs by $10 for those entrants, spending money on amenities such as better aid stations, or enticing a few 'elite' racers with $10,000 in money split amongst that few.

  5. Brett

    Another quote from Ron Obvious – the easiest way to increase competition is to simply increase the competition. Allow for competitive entries. If you didn't make the lottery or registration is full, send in your resume'. Done.

  6. Jim Blanchard

    Many times I've heard Ultra Running referred to as a fringe sport, like there's something wrong with that! One of the reasons I was attracted to Ultra trail running was that it was "fringe". Main stream sports meant organizations, rules, often corruption, and almost always [for me anyway] less fun. With that in mind, I've never understood the appeal of prize money espiecially since it won't be enough to live on. All this is IMHO and not really worth the time it took me to type this. Fortunately for every Big Deal money event, there's a dozen low key trail adventures to chose from. There have always been certain races that attracked the Big Dogs. Some of the competition in these events might diminish somewhat as more top runners are drawn to the Pro events. At least now when prize money is offered, I'll know which events to avoid, not that any would trickle down to me anyway.

  7. Craig

    good article. many valid points, and definitely a topic worthy of discussion. i don't mean this as critical whatsoever. and a disclaimer: this is coming from someone who's never in danger of finishing in prize money contention – so my opinions could be skewed, i guess. anyway, i think that there's enough 'professionalism' in so many other aspects of life that its the last thing i want to associate with trail running. and also, why is 'credibility' so important? if our motivations are pure, and our passion is running and enjoying the natural environment. who are we trying to prove anything to anyhow. i suppose though, if i were trying to make a living as a runner i might find a lot more merit in such arguments.

  8. Billy G

    Some road running events provide large prize money, and that has certainly not stopped individuals from coming to running or paying to enter those events because they love the sport. High-level athletes in any sport generally become good at the sport because they love the sport, not for the money. The money, though, does allow them to focus on the sport and become the best possible at that sport. Trail running — particularly ultramarathon running — will probably always be somewhat of a "fringe" sport, because of its difficulty and inaccessibility to a large portion of the public.

    But even if we don't have prize purses at particular races, the elite athletes and, to a lesser extent, serious amateurs, are going to find sponsorship money. Even in cycling, which is a much more "mainstream" sport, prize purses are generally small by professional sport standards (winning the Tour de France only gets you $300,000 or so). Athletes in trail running who focus on the sport and push records are generally going to make their "living" from sponsorship bucks, I think, together with free entry and/or appearance fees at large events. But Killian getting a bunch of money from Salomon is certainly not going to lessen the enjoyment I get from my Sunday long run or from completing an event I target. The sponsorship money is definitely going to make sure that I can read about awesome feats and awesome trails in a good magazine, to inspire me to get back out there and keep having those awesome times on the trail and at events.

    Money is a good thing for any sport. And it's inevitable.

  9. Thomas

    I receive more comments from my colleges about running races of incredible distances with no prize money. I realize they will never understand what an ultra is truly about. I think the top dogs, and everyone else, are very much deserving of receiving what a prize fighter, baseball player, or any other professional athlete is receiving. What concerns me is the trails are already getting crowded, and adding more prize money will draw more runners for the wrong reason. Soon, most races will be a lottery, or limited to invitation only when big money is on the line (Corp. controls)! Careful what you ask for, and consider the impact on the entire ultra-community, not just the front runners.

    1. Billy G

      More people getting involved in the sport means more people to meet and run with and form groups and friendships. Filling up of major events will probably mean more and better local events. The sport will stay "real." It's simply too awesome not to.

  10. Andy

    The vast majority of trail and ultra-runners will continue to run races simply to "propel ourselves over the earth under our own power in beautiful places" (well said, AJW), with the practical support and comraderie avaialable in a race (as opposed to solo or fat-ass ultras) an added bonus. If increasing prize money is available it may draw a scant few to the sport, and as Jared said may well entice some highly competitive runners to enter a given race.

    But I disagree with Scott: Ultrarunning *is* different from basketball and other sports. Although most iRunfar readers would enjoy being at an aid station or at the finish to cheer on runners and get vicarious pleasure, ultrarunning has little of the mass public spectator appeal of anything with "ball" in it. Hence, without tens of thousands willing to spend $50 a ticket to watch, or sponsors willing to ante up for TV broadcasts to millions of couch potatos (well, OK, I like watching some sports on TV too), ultrarunning is fundamentally a different financial animal.

    All this to say that there seems to be a pre-destined limit on how much money there can be in ultrarunning — probably not enough to endanger or corrupt the sport we love for its purity of purpose and spirit.

  11. Art

    your spiel on this topic seems to suggest that "our" sport of ultra running "IS" the elite runners.

    So I'll ask you – Do we have two sports here, the elite sport of ultras, and then the sport of ultras for everyone else ?

  12. Dan Tyree

    Lots of pros and cons, but for me (an admitted back of the packer), I think Ultrarunning (particularly the trail variety) IS different from other sports. What other sport allows me to participate with some of the best athletes in the world? I can't step on the field at the World Series or lace them up for the Super Bowl, but I can, and I have participated with events that brought out some of the shining starts of our sport. I have paced at Western States, where the reality is, I may never toe the starting line, but I am inspired in a way that I never have been by a road race or marathon. Nature is part of it, but also the "we are all in this together" spirit of these races is a big draw. I can't ever remember a road race where the winners or top participants stuck around to hob nob with the back of the packers. Not sure that money would change that and I do believe that results should have rewards, whether it is a medal, a belt buckle, the satisfaction of finishing a race or, for some, a check. I'm torn.

  13. BB

    There is a vast misconception that by doing what we love we must commit ourselves to a life of poverty. Does it make any sense to have these incredible athletes working part or full time jobs to prove a point? What about the many runners with families to support? Our passions should provide an abundant life, not one of constant struggle. There are unlimited creative ways to produce income from companies, races, personal branding opportunities. Even if you're an everyday runner, there are opportunities at every skill level. After all, the runners are the lifeblood of this whole, dare I say, industry. Without you there is no Salomon, North Face, Montrail, etc.

    Does anyone want to see Byron try and pay for a tank of gas with 'passion for running'?

    The fact is monetary exchange is integral to modern life especially in the west. This community is responsible for whether or not journalism like http://www.irunfar.com continues to exist. The idea of free content can only last for so long. Why not encourage the runners and all involved to flourish rather than starve?

    1. jeffrey

      "Jobs, income, branding, industry, monetary exchange, Bryon paying for gas with passion"…yikes! You sound like my dad giving me the "money doesn't grow on trees" lecture when I was a kid. These companies won't ever be our friends, ok? Get in bed with these dudes at your own risk. All we need are trails and free time, everything else is just another way for them to take advantage of us. Keep supporting grassroots entities like irunfar and your local running club and time will sort this all out. Running will always be what it has always been, even if a couple of elites have to work part-time jobs for awhile to explore their potential.

      1. BB

        In response to the "these companies won't ever be our friends, ok?" I think it's important to make a distinction between multinational corporations that slash and burn the earth's resources and corporations like Salomon. The amount of money a company like Salomon is able to put into research and development for shoes and jackets is for the benefit of the sport. Their sourcing, distribution, and manufacturing make these items (more) affordable.

        Some of these perspectives remind me of the way the original blues musicians got nothing in their record deals and everybody else benefited. I think the runners should take control and organize.

  14. Frenchy

    I got into trail running because I got tired of the way road races are handled. I recently got into the Houston Marathon without going through the lottery process due to being a member of a local running club who happens to be a sponsor. The cost to run Houston is $125 – highway robbery for a marathon, but yet I paid anyway. My worry is that with prize money on the table, more trail races will turn into huge productions where race organizers raise registration fees and shut out/ignore the local racers in order to cater to out-of-towners and elite athletes to boost their profile. I would hate to see races in my region like Rocky Raccoon, Bandera, or even Jemez turn into huge productions because a purse was offered. Money shouldn't be used to push athletes to their limits. Competition, personal satisfaction, and motivation should push athletes to push their limits. That's what does it for me.

  15. CraigR

    We are all elites! Let's just leave it at that. Most of us just run "slower or faster" then the next guy/gal. Heck, I finished top 5 in my last 50K, does that make me elite even though I'm not sponsored. I hope not. All I got was a cup and a nice sweatshirt. And a handshake from the RD. To me that is what it is all about. Time to get real on this issue. The sport of ultrarunning has grown in the last 10 years, but it hasn't come that far "yet". Will it? Who knows. My hope is that the majority of the races out there don't end up like the Hard Rocks and Western States of the world where a seasoned veteran like Karl Meltzer has to practically beg to get in. And then he still can't get in.

  16. briderdt

    I remember the same arguments in triathlon many years ago. Would you consider triathlon a fringe sport now? It was in the 80's.

    Ultra running is nothing new, and even PROFESSIONAL ultra running is decades old (hmm… I recall some one writing about the track 6-day races recently… who could that be?).

    I don't think anyone who gets into the sport of running AT ALL is going to gravitate to ultras simply because of high prize money. People who run a lot won't be motivated just by the money, and people who are motivated just by the money don't have the patience for ultra training.

    1. AJW

      Bridert, please keep in mind that there are several writers who write for irunfar. The author of the 6-day race article was not the same as the author of this article. Just FYI.


  17. mushmouph

    i just want a chance to toe the line even if i can't break the tape at the finish.

    thanks to all the people who make it possible for me to pay to stay up for 30+ hours in the dark, rain, and cold. it is what gets me through the weekly grind. a special shout out to the vcu100 and oc100.

  18. Anonymous

    Elite Marathoners don't run for money. They run big marathons for money. Which is no different then Geoff or Anton or whoever chasing the money races.

    Any great runner good enough to get money for it runs because they love it. They are just lucky to get paid for doing what they love.

  19. Ryan Krol

    I think there is something about the Nature that keeps everything laid back. If you compare Ironman to Xterra events you tend to see a very different group of competitors. ie more beer drinking and laughing after an Xterra

  20. pjh

    Prize money and sponsorships are great, especially if it fuels your passion and continually raises the bar. Ironman series and big marathons are great examples of well run events, large volume of athletes and the chance to compete with elites and pros. If you are lucky enough to make money on your passion or gift (even if you have no passion) go for it, all the better and I envy you.

  21. Michael Owen

    Money attracts what I love most about the sport of ultra-running: the people. As long as more and more like minded people start coming to races, who respect nature and ethically practice in running, money has a safe spot in ultra-running.

    As for money being the reason to run certain races, without a doubt it influences elites to run them – just as location, terrain, and distance influence them. But no one would be a runner if they didn't – at some degree – have a passion for the simple act of running… there are better and easier careers to make a few bucks.

    Racing and running is completely different.

    As someone who has went through college competition, dabbled in road racing, and now ran ultras – the purity of peoples personalities at ultra races is almost as refreshing as the clean air of the forest.

    Ultra-running is a long ways from being tainted by money, because of the good people in it. As long as there are good people, money won't cause problems.

  22. Anonymous

    Entry fees for the races is to much…this is business and good job for organizers in all over the world…

    UTMB 130E x 6000 runners = 780000E(cash) x North Face(sponsor – gratis t-shirts) x every village on the way is pay…x other sponsors…x tourism = money,money,money…

    North face Challenge:

    5km – 55&!?

    5K $30 $35 $55

    10K $40 $55 $75

  23. Bartman

    “We run not for money or to be famous, but just for the enjoyment of the journey. Running to finish first and win a trophy, that’s just material and that’s not why we run. We run because we are in the mountains, and when you’re in the mountains, you feel that the mountain is strong, that the mountain is moving and that the mountain has a spirit. We push our bodies for introspection to know better who we are and feel that spirit. That’s why we run.” – Kilian Jornet (by Brian Metzler, Running Times, December 2011, page 57.)

  24. mike o

    If money or fame brought even an ounce of credibility to an ultramarathoner, Dean Karnazes' name probably would have come up here. Luckily, performance is all that counts.

  25. Vlad

    Interesting topic and interesting article, but in my opinion the title sounds somewhat naive to me. With all my respect to Geoff, Anton, Krissy or any other "elites" they cannot say they run "for money", since there are simply pretty much none right now. On the other hand you can ask the fastest road marathoners, who get tens of thousands of dollars just to show up and they will ALSO say they run because they love running. Yet more often than not, they will compete at large (and well paid) races rather than at any low key events or even Olympics where no prize money nor show-up fee is involved. The same is true for most of the pro ice-hockey players, football players, you name it – everybody will say how he just "loves the game". Yet they will 99% of the time strive for better paid contracts or even go on a strike.

    Anyway – I love the sport just the way it already is. I don't really see any need to make it "more credible" or "have it grow". If it is considered a "fringe sport", it is perfectly fine with me. I love how open it is, and if that means that more and more people sign up for a race – that's OK too, but I would prefer not to intentionally try to push it.

  26. darthrunner

    I wonder how many "purists" read running blogs, wear $100 trail shoes or pay entry fees that would feed a third world family for a month? The act of paying to run, no matter the amount, is pretty "elitist" in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. Unless you're running through the mountains naked with squirrels strapped to your feet, you're a consumer in the trail running industry.
    The great thing about being a consumer is that you get to decide where your dollar goes. Don't. Like a product? Don't buy it. Don't like the way an event is run? Don't run it. Angry about entry fees or prize money? Put on your own race and run it any way you want.
    Unless you're Squirrel-guy I don't think you've got room to criticize races, prize purses or the runners who are blessed enough to persue their passion and maybe make a modest living doing it.

  27. Sherpa John

    "Unless you’re Squirrel-guy I don’t think you’ve got room to criticize races, prize purses or the runners who are blessed enough to persue their passion and maybe make a modest living doing it."

    I don't agree with this statement. I mean.. people always say, "don't bitch unless you vote." And I get it.. just like in voting, in ultra-running we choose where our money goes. But.. if someone has voted for many years and actively participates.. they have the right to bitch hence, "don't bitch unless you vote."

    So as ultra-runners… our money is our vote. And as we continue to mold this niche community into what we hope it will be through our voting.. so to comes with it our right to bitch.

    Now.. personally. I've run the expensive races.. and I DO choose which ones to run and not run. I've bought the expensive product.. and I choose which to buy and not buy. And.. I've also been the race director of a 50/100/150 and 200 mile trail ultra weekend… and ran it how I wanted it to look. I've earned my right to bitch… and I wish prize Money would go away, as well as RD pay days, so that entry fees remain lower. :)


    Sherpa John

  28. Marco

    Many already compared ultrarunnign with other sports but I think that Ultrarunning is very different than those spectator sports. To state the obvious Ultrarunning does not take place in an arena, it takes place in remote places in nature. Nobody is going to sit at home and watch some guys running through the mountains for 16 hours. Maybe the people that already do the events will, but not enough for the large media networks to put up on valuable network time. Yeah with some creative editing they can reduce it to a one hour show, but then it will not be live anymore. The point that I'm trying to make is that Ultrarunning will never become like the NFL, NBA and boring Baseball, yes I think baseball is boring. I think the real threat if the sport grows to attract thousands of more people is that we will have larger races where the environment will pay the price. I ceratinly don't like to see a gu packet on the trail when I'm out there. I really bothers me. So, with a lot more people on the trails we will destroy the trails. To me the environment is the most important factor to keep in mind when we discuss the growth of the ultrarunning sport and not whether the top runners get to make a living on it.

  29. Josh White

    More people that appreciate the out of doors is not a bad thing. You're not going to get thousands of people out there trashing the environment because they're all hoping for a payday at RRR. 99.9% of the runners in the NYC marathon don't have a prayer at cashing in. They run it because they love it. If somebody is out there for the "wrong reasons", money or what have you, all it will take is one race and they'll be gone. Everybody else out there loves it and loves the environment they run in. Otherwise there's no way they would do it. Frankly, I can't even see somebody doing it that didn't like it even amongst the potential winners. How could a person possibly get thru the mental hoops of training for and completing a 100 mile race if you didn't want to be out there? Ultimately, more people that appreciate the outdoors will also mean better protections for our parks and environment. Especially as these people aren't appreciating the outdoors from the back of a snowmobile or ATV.

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