Young Money: Effects of the New Big Money Ultras

Despite the title, this column is going to have very little to do with the runner formerly known as “Young Money,” although he will make an appearance later on. (For what it’s worth, “The Kid” and/or “Baby Jones” have begun the long overdue process of replacing one of the worst nicknames in trail running. Of course, this is an easy distinction being that it’s one of the only known nicknames in trail running, unless of course you are friends with Joe Grant who seems to have a nickname for everyone.) I actually could write a very amusing piece about The Kid. The piece would be titled, “Ways in which Baby Jones’ Life Has Changed Since Winning Transvulcania.” It was written a couple days after his Transvulcania win this past spring, as a collaboration of 3 or 4 runners whose names I won’t mention (but, certainly, I wasn’t involved). Besides being outdated and obscure, it’s also far enough over the top with sarcasm and vulgarity that most readers would be outraged and/or offended. Perhaps I’ll publish it on my personal blog sometime when I’m in the mood to offend.

Anyway, back on topic here. If you continue to read on this piece will eventually make some kind of sense. I promise.

2012 has been an amazingly noteworthy trail ultrarunning season thus far. There have been more epic showdowns and impressive performances than any year since I’ve been involved in the sport. Western States has, without question been at the top of this list, but so many other races have had amazing stories unfold as well. There have been too many exciting races to name them all, but certainly Lake Sonoma, Transvulcania, Hardrock, White River, and Speedgoat all stand out as races that have been unusually exciting from top to bottom. In many years, I think any of these events would go down collectively as “the race of the year.” This said though, it’s worth remembering that 2012 is far from over. Leadville 100 and Pikes Peak are both coming up this weekend, and both look to be more exciting than ever. It’s not likely that Matt Carpenter’s record will fall in either race, but each one has at least one runner who could make this happen if everything came together just right on race day.

Looking beyond this weekend though, one could argue that we are just now moving toward what might prove to be every bit as exciting as anything that’s happened yet in 2012: The trifecta of “young money” races. Run Rabbit Run 100, UROC 100k, and The North Face 50 are all quite young races, but due to the large prize purse they each put up, they feel much older and more established than they actually are.

One can argue for or against big prize money in ultrarunning for hours, but one thing that is undeniable is that prize money brings runners out to events. And not just top runners who are actually running for the money. Not only are each of these races going to be hyper competitive at the front of the field, but they are all going to have unprecedented field sizes for the age of their races.

In just over 5 years, the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship race has cemented itself as the most competitive 50 miler year in and year out. It has also become one of the largest 50 milers in the country, and if you include the runners competing in all the different distances that weekend it might be the largest trail running event in North America. (This is not something I’m likely to spend any time researching further, so please someone correct me if I’m wrong.)

The UROC 100k, in just its second year, will be unquestionably the most competitive 100k in North America this year. Even more noteworthy though is that the overall field will almost certainly top 200 runners. Something that has possibly never happened so soon in an event in the history of trail ultrarunning in North America. (Again, someone correct me here if I’m wrong.)

Run Rabbit Run 100 is happening for the first time next month. Currently, the race for the largest cash purse in the sport looks to be one of the most competitive hundred milers of the year, and the current field size of nearly 150 runners is unprecedented for a first year 100 mile race.

Say what you will about these types of races, but one thing that seems quite certain is that large cash purses bring a level of attention and excitement to an event that is hard to ignore. Personally, I think this is all a good thing, and it’s important to remember that it’s not the money that is new, but rather the distribution of the money. Most mainstream ultras have been generating a lot of revenue for quite some time now. In some cases, this has meant that huge amounts of money have been spent to put on races, and in many cases these events struggle to break even, but in many other cases there is a healthy profit that has typically gone either to race organizers or to charities. The North Face, UROC, and Run Rabbit Run aren’t losing money, because they’re giving so much of it out to the racers, they’re just not putting as much in their own pockets as they might otherwise. Then again, in the long run, the increased demand in the race (due to the large prize purse) is likely putting more money in everyone’s pockets. Kind of a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Okay, back on track here. The “politics” of prize money was not where I was planning to go with this. What I want to focus on more is the excitement of the races themselves. In previous years, the high focus races were pretty much gone with the end of summer. Now though, these three races will keep the excitement rolling right on through the end of the year. A lot of really exciting racing has happened this year, and, now, we get the chance to see it all unfold a few more times. There will be countless storylines, and epic showdowns still to come. I’m excited about each of these races for several different reasons.

Run Rabbit Run will be the first ever 100 mile race with a cash prize purse more than a few thousand dollars. (Again, this is based on my limited knowledge. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.) It’ll be fun to see what happens when so many top runners race the 100-mile distance with this kind of money on the line. Certainly, large prize money has influenced the way 50 milers are run, and I would imagine it’ll have even more of an effect at the 100-mile distance.  Run Rabbit Run is also the most mountainous of any ultra that has ever had a serious cash prize. UROC and TNF EC both have nice courses, but with RRR we’re talking about much more legitimate mountainous terrain. It’ll be fun to see what effect this might have on the race. Of these three races, Run Rabbit Run is the most likely to be won by proven mountain ultra men and women (as opposed to speedsters whose strengths lie in other disciplines of running).

UROC on the other hand goes in the opposite direction, but with no less appeal. UROC is a very challenging and rugged course, but there are also some very fast road stretches mixed in. For this reason it has drawn, and will continue to draw more shorter distance road speedsters than your typical 100k trail race. If there’s ever been a course that doesn’t really favor one type of runner, this is it. This makes for a wide-open race where runners with very different strengths and weakness might be battling it out to the very end. In that case, you better hope you can go uphill pretty well, because unlike most ultras that seem to end with a big downhill, UROC ends with one last tough climb up to the finish.

The North Face Endurance Challenge, despite being a quite young race still, has been so closely and hotly contested the past few years that it’s certainly a lot more predictable than RRR or UROC. This certainly doesn’t make it any less exciting, though. In this one, it ends up being the subtle little things that make the difference. The field of runners tends to be so deep and so capable that no one is going to run away from the field and cruise to victory. This hasn’t kept a few folks from trying (most notoriously, Greg Vollet), but in each of the past four years there has been a large pack of runners pushing a pace that is only sustainable for a few of them. Slowly various runners drop off the pace (I’ve been on both sides of this), and then you end up with an epic battle of the last two standing: Uli Steidl vs. Matt Carpenter; Uli Steidl vs. myself; Miguel Heras vs. myself; and Baby Jones vs. Mike Wolfe. It’s hard to ignore how similar these 4 races have played out to each other. It’s going to be exciting this year to see who the last two (and ultimately the last one) standing are this coming December.

So just in case you were feeling like the racing season is winding down as summer draws closer to an end, be sure not to tune out now. As epic as 2012 has been in the world of trail ultrarunning, it’s likely to get even better in the next few months, beginning with Leadville and Pikes Peak this weekend.