Ok, so if there was a talk show about Ultra running, with the host perhaps being a figurehead of the UK 'scene', and various panellists, what would they have to say about the following question: 'Money in Ultra Running: Cool Move or Fool Move?'
Well, why would that question even need to be asked in the first place? More to the point, who would have a right to say one way or the other? Of course everyone would be entitled to share their opinions, but what do we mean by 'Ultra running' as a thing? Are we talking about official races? Do all races count? Is anyone in charge of ultra running? Does anyone own ultra running?
If we're talking prize money, that's hardly a new thing. Way, way back in the late 1920s Charles C. Pyle, America's first sports agent, offered a colossal $25,000 (a serious, or should I say stupid, amount of money back then) for the winner of the 'Bunion Derby'; a footrace across America he had organised. There was plenty more prize money on offer besides and some of the leading runners of the day jumped at the chance of a big payday for this endeavour that many would attempt in years to come, including by far the most famous instance of a run across the States'; that infamous journey immortalised in James Adams' 'Running and Stuff: the Book' (available from Amazon.)
A book was also written about this great race; a book that Adams himself rates very highly, and I won't spoil it by revealing any more about the events that unfolded. However, it would seem that prize money has not always been on offer, as in recent years when there has been talk of different races offering prize purses it has been said that this will attract more of the top runners who are battling hard to be able to make the sport they love their profession.
I guess if we are talking about prize money then this will only have a direct impact on those at the sharp end of the field. If I was to enter the Petzl South Downs Way 100, for instance, there wouldn't be a cheque with my name on it for the win unless there was an absolutely unprecedented number of drop-outs amongst the top runners, equating to basically probably the whole top third of the field. However, if prize purses increase for races throughout the world then we are likely to not only see more of the top runners entering these races, but some who are yet to give ultra running a try could be tempted, which would be extremely exciting for 'the fans.' In contrast to many sports, the fans of ultra running are very often lining up on the same start line as those who make it a sport that even has fans. If there were significant prize purses available at races like Western States, UTMB and West Highland Way Race would we start to see an influx of African runners? Would this be good for the sport?
Unfortunately, there is a commonly held, and probably sadly true theory that an increase of prize money into the sport would see a few cases of doping. What would be the impact on ultra running if there was ample prize money on offer, a top athlete came over to the West Highland Way Race and set a phenomenal new course record, described as 'game changing' by the hype men, but then it turned out he'd done so with the aid of performance enhancing drugs? Would you trust again that any incredible feat of ultra running was done without the aid of doping? Would it call into question any of the previous feats that had been achieved? Would Kilian's Hardrock 100 course record have people scoffing "Hardrock 100? More like 'Hard Drug 100'? Would Kyle Skaggs' record before that have people saying......actually, never mind!
Throwing money at it
So if we're not talking about prize money, and all that may bring, good and bad, are we talking about a kind of commercialisation of the sport? Well, nowadays there is a lot of expensive kit out there - Garmins, poles, shoes, tracking devices, compression clothing, jackets that can keep out arctic winds, buffs that double up as toilet paper.....oh no, that was just a bit of mid-race resourcefulness from someone who later became a successful spartathlete. So yeah, there are lots of companies trying to jump on the back of ultra running and make money, but why wouldn't they? Ultra running has become more popular in recent years, perhaps due to social media and books by Dean Karnazes and Chris McDougall making it more widely known, and through word of mouth. Everyone needs to make money; this is not a communist society in which we live, and so adequate housing, food, clothing etc. are not seen as basic human rights that need to be met by the government; they need to be earned. Therefore if a company designs and markets running shoes for money then of course they're going to say that their shoes are the best. To do otherwise would mean there was no point in making the shoes in the first place.
For me, Henk Van Der Beek put it better than I ever could at Caesar's Camp in his pre-race briefing, saying "I'm old skool. All you need is a bottle." It's nice to have the option of all the kit that is now available, but very little of it is actually essential. Basically as long as you can stay hydrated, eat when you need to, dress for the weather conditions you are presented with and have shoes that work well for you (or no shoes if that's your thing) then you don't actually NEED anything else. Companies are going to try and make money, but no-one is forcing you to buy their products. Some races have specific kit requirements, but if your opposition to buying the required kit is stronger than your desire to enter the race then there are plenty of other races out there, or the nature of the ultra running community means that if you wanted to have a solo attempt at a route you'd almost certainly find a willing support crew.
Can someone buy their way into ultra running success? When I was part of the twitching scene back in my teenage years, there would be an annual year-listing endeavour, where some people would try and see as many different species of bird in the UK as possible within a year. Those at the advantage would usually be the ones with the most money and the most flexible working hours. There are only so many birds that are resident, or part-time resident, in the UK, and so in order to achieve the highest total you have to see as many of the rarities (those that end up here by accident) as possible. Naturally, someone who can afford £600 to fly to Shetland at the drop of the hat for a bird blown off course from Siberia on migration is better placed than someone who can barely afford £60 for the petrol to drive to Yorkshire and back for a similar occurrence. Also, someone who is stuck at work all week for a 9 to 5 job can only claim a stomach bug so many times to dash off to Cornwall for an American vagrant that turns up (possibly in disguise nowadays, as it's harder to pull a sickie convincingly since the advent of social media), and so is less likely to get to as many rare birds as someone who can pretty much choose their own hours. But does this happen in ultra running? Well, I guess in theory if someone can choose their own hours they can train whenever they want, but time is money for the self-employed, and so really this is only a big advantage if somebody has sponsorship and can afford the time to train more. Again, to get significant sponsorship you have to be a pretty good runner in the first place, and so money in itself is not an advantage. Also, someone with more money can afford to run events like Marathon des Sables, but does that make them a better runner? Are they more likely to win prize money on offer at different races? I'd say not. You can't throw money at ultra running and achieve spectacular results; really it's only a significant advantage if you're already a very talented runner. If someone wins the lottery and spends a lot of the free time their money allows training then perhaps they could get to a higher level than they ordinarily would, but would they become one of the best if they didn't already have it in them? There are more ingredients than money that are required to get to the sharp end of the field.
Sponsorship and Media Coverage
So if we're not talking about prize money or money in general, what about sponsorship? Some ultra runners are now sponsored so they can pretty much become professional runners. What benefit does the occupation of professional runner have for others? Well, on the face of it not a whole heap, but people are inspired by the performances of these top athletes, and if that helps to lead people out of unhealthy lifestyles, and the subsequent endorphin highs lead these people to be more focused, more balanced and more determined to make good of their lives then how can that be a bad thing? It's about more than entertainment; the inspiration of top runners can actually lead to big changes in peoples' lives. It doesn't always, but there are many who have turned their lives around after discovering ultra running, and for that to happen there needs to be a certain degree of coverage afforded to it, and performances to inspire. These performances don't just come from those at the top of the field, but people who overcame the odds to run ultras, although often these can be one and the same; a number of top ultra runners have had challenging backgrounds.
So, sponsorship of races - is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, if it allows races to continue taking place then surely it's a good thing, right? Mind you, does it matter where the money comes from? There are events such as the Hoka Highland Fling and the Petzl South Downs Way 100 that are sponsored by companies with a clear link to ultra running, but there was a degree of bemusement in the ultra running community with the announcement of the Carphone Warehouse Race to the Stones. What have Carphone Warehouse got to do with ultras? Does this mean there will be people at the race in phone costumes trying to get you to sign up to a contract? Surely that's not what we'd want. Also, in a world in which the Olympic games are sponsored by McDonalds (a bizarre juxtaposition if ever I saw one) are we going to see the KFC West Highland Way Race or the Benson & Hedges Viking Way Ultra one day? (B&H used to sponsor cricket after all!) Despite the amount of junk food guzzled by the average ultra runner during a race, surely there is some responsibility to be promoting a healthy lifestyle, as running is part of this in the first place. People who run across America, such as James Adams and Dean Karnazes have not been shy about their love of a good McDonalds meal, and I have to admit that during the Oner I guzzled more coke than the average person who guzzles quite a lot of it guzzles in a week (possibly!) Is it hypocritical of me to be against any company that is promoting unhealthy habits to sponsor an ultra race? It probably is, but that doesn't mean I can't still know what's right. Personally I'd like to see sponsorship of races staying relevant to the sport. If it becomes impossible to put races on without taking Big Bad Ronald McDonald's money then does something need to change? With the ever-increasing popularity of ultra running it's likely that there will be ever higher numbers of people wanting to do these races. It's already getting to the point where it's difficult to get a place in several of the Centurion 100 milers, and I can only see this going one way. It would be hard to increase the size of the field massively, as you simply couldn't have 3,000 people running en masse along the South Downs Way - there would be huge queues at the aid stations, masses of disgruntled dog walkers and of course more potential for littering and peldrigude-like behaviour from agitated runners who are being prevented from achieving a sub 24 hour time by the congestion up ahead. What are the alternatives? Many popular races inevitably decide the fairest way is a lottery system. You can always volunteer and get a free place for some races, but there is a limit to how many people can do this.
So the increase in popularity of ultra running means a number of races are getting harder to get a place in. The increased popularity of the sport, partly, has led to the emergence of social ultras, which are yet another indication of all that is splendid about the ultra running community. But what is the ultra running community? There are a number of related groups on facebook that already do or are soon to have their own merchandise, but what makes you a part of the ultra running community? Do you have to attend a certain number of races? Do you have to volunteer at them most weekends you're not racing? Do you have to know a certain person, or have read..... actually, never mind! For me, if you enjoy ultras then you are part of the ultra running community, but there has been a certain indication recently that some of those who have been part of the scene for years are a little disgruntled by those who are new to the sport coming along and not having served their apprenticeships, just signing up for a 100 miler without spending years building up to it and buying all the kit but having no idea what it's really for. The same thing used to happen in twitching, and those who'd been part of it for years would get disgruntled, but this is pretty much down to human beings not liking change. Ultra running is changing, and yet it isn't. Ultra running in itself is still exactly the same as it always was. It is simply running further than a marathon. For the reasons I've outlined, I'd say money in ultra running is a cool move; if the ultra running 'scene' becomes too commercial there will always be lower key races that you can go to; races that will be untarnished by commercialism. What sayeth thou?
If you want to read about a series of fool moves interspersed with cool moves, which is essentially what life is, then I wrote this tome about the significant cool moves and fool moves in my life, and about how running changed everything. One of the coolest moves was to get into ultra running, one of the biggest fool moves was almost ruining my health to the point where I couldn't run at all through addictions. You quite possibly know all this already, but there are copies available via this link for anyone who is interested.....