Ultrarunning Sponsorship Love/Hate

Ultrarunning SponsorshipSponsorship. We all love it, but we also love to hate it. Some see sponsorship corrupting our sport, while others see it promoting the sport. The only right answer lies within the values of each person, because just like any question of right or wrong, the true worth of sponsorship in ultrarunning is an opinion. However, we believe the interplay of opinions creates a more educated, open-minded population of people who want to do what’s right. Hence this article, which discusses the state of the sport as it stands in the year 2011 and tries to mediate some of the conflicts taking place within.

As the sport stands today, I like sponsorship. It’s a way for me to practice the sport of ultrarunning at very little cost to myself. I receive certain amounts of gear for free and enjoy the support of the companies I run for when racing abroad. Through my sponsorships, I’m given the opportunity to meet many successful, motivated people and I have a clearly defined title to feature in my resume. Although I don’t receive the huge checks of elite marathoners, I do have the ability to train and race at very little cost to myself, which is a major benefit in a sport like ultrarunning. Sponsorship is a very good thing for me.

One of the problems with sponsorship is the implied commercialism. When sponsors become involved in a sport like ultrarunning that is grounded in ideals like solitude and introspection, a certain level of hypocrisy becomes apparent. People draw a black-and-white line between those who run for the experience and those who run for money. But the simple answer is that both camps are valid simultaneously, because each supports the other. At the most basic level, everybody likes to earn money doing what they love. In ultras, only a small percentage of runners are being paid, especially when compared to the number of ultrarunners who have the ability to, and regularly do, compete at the front of the pack. The majority of ultrarunners pay out of their own pockets to compete. At the same time, any logical person would jump at the opportunity to be paid to compete in a sport on which they spend hundreds of dollars every year. In this sense sponsorship is a uniquely 21st century way of making ends meet for someone who loves running through the mountains. Most top athletes are willing to endorse a company if doing so means they can run for free. Top performances breed sponsorships, which allow athletes to train for more top performances. Sponsorship is a way for an athlete to be financially responsible while practicing his passion to the fullest degree.

On another level, sponsorship is a way for an athlete to promote a brand he supports. By aligning himself with certain companies he views as “good” in light of his personal values the athlete can both publicly support a company and influence the operations of that company. Personally, my two stipulations are that the companies I run for make the highest quality gear in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. But this is not to say that I refuse to run for companies who do not live up to that ideal – the cool part of endorsing a brand is that an athlete gains a small voice in the operations of the company and can influence somewhat the direction that company takes. Sponsorship allows an athlete to promote his values within a company. My sponsors reflect the qualities I strive for in my own life, which means that even though they aren’t perfect, they are at least working toward improving.

The influx of money into the sport is an oft-debated topic with no clear answer. Some people like what can be done with larger funds in terms of traveling, training, racing, etc, while others fear a corruption of values that can undermine the reasons many people began in the sport. The increase stems from a rise in popularity. This brings along many ancillary effects often scorned by ultrarunners as the trappings of other, more commercial sports. Money creates media exposure, sponsors, wait lists and celebrities. Our sport has at least two magazines, several how-to books and even a movie. In many respects ultrarunning is no different from football or baseball; the only difference is scale.

The gear and shoe companies love this exposure because it creates a much larger market for them to make money. So for them, the larger the market the better, which is why many people fear the sport will “sell out” and turn into corporate marketing leverage. Purists fear the lure of money will compromise the natural qualities of long distance mountain running. But the best part about ultras is that, at least to this point, their inherent intensity limits the sport to those who are truly dedicated.

Ultras demand a much larger commitment than most sports, because to even be an “ultrarunner”, one has to at least be able to run 26.3 miles. That’s a long way. At the same time, more people run ultras today because they’ve run shorter distances and want a new challenge. Media exposure and increased popularity have brought the sport from being almost taboo twenty years ago to a more generally accepted level of insane. People see that running 50 or 100 miles is not impossible or detrimental and decide to jump in themselves. This is much like a “positive feedback” response, in which something happens (people run ultras), that impels more of that thing to happen (other people see ultras are possible, and get into the sport themselves), thus creating a continuous and accelerating trend away from the original. The end result is yet unknown, but as long as money and sponsorship are used in the aid of mountain running, and not the other way around, purists have nothing to fear. Perhaps in the future people will begin using mountain running merely as a stepping stone to sponsorship, but right now this is not so. Thus, the reasons remain good – money has effects but has not transformed the nature of the sport. Will it eventually? Undoubtedly. But change is inevitable, so the important thing is to shape that change in the right direction.

The best answer is for people to follow their own paths. If ultras become too inculcated by media and celebrities, stop competing. Conversely, if ultras don’t have enough exposure, start running marathons. The ultra world is full of wonderful people who love doing great things. The media and money are present, but they still take a backseat to the quality of the sport itself. The vast number of ultras means some races are going to generate a huge amount of interest, while others remain unknown. Most races fall somewhere in between, and these are the ones that comprise the true value of ultras. They’re the core groups of people trying to provide for a cool experience, and maybe if they’re lucky even make some money. But, if not, then so be it – the mountains are still there.