Will Ultra-Running Sell Out?

will-ultra-running-sell-out-featuredThe male and female win­ner of the Boston Marathon each received $150,000 in 2013. Had either of them bro­ken the course record, they would have got­ten an addi­tion­al $25,000. The win­ner of the 2013 Chica­go Marathon received $100,000, plus a $75,000 bonus for set­ting a new record. The win­ner of the West­ern States 100-mile ultra marathon (arguably the most pres­ti­gious ultra in the U.S.) receives a tro­phy and a belt buckle—the same belt buck­le every oth­er com­peti­tor who fin­ish­es under 24 hours gets. Clear­ly, dis­tance isn’t the only big dif­fer­ence between marathons and ultras.

I am, of course, gen­er­al­iz­ing a bit here. Some U.S. ultras offer prize mon­ey, but it’s safe to say none of them even come close to the kind of mon­ey offered at the major U.S. marathons. Yet. But what does the future of ultra run­ning look like?

Marathons didn’t start with prize mon­ey either. The Boston Marathon first offered cash prizes in 1986. In the past sev­en years alone, that winner’s prize has increased by $50,000.  The upward trend in prize mon­ey is like­ly to con­tin­ue, with no ceil­ing in sight.

Entrance fees for ultras are already reflect­ing the increased inter­est and popularity.

Leadville 100 has a $285 entrance fee, and the West­ern States is $370 on top of hav­ing to jump through many hoops to meet qual­i­fy­ing times, prove expe­ri­ence, and get picked in a lot­tery to par­tic­i­pate. The Bad­wa­ter 135-mile ultra doesn’t even have the 2014 entrance fee on the web­site yet, just a note stat­ing $250 of the fee is non-refund­able, so it can safe­ly be assumed that the fee is prob­a­bly at least dou­ble that. With an entrance fee that exten­sive, there must sure­ly be some prize mon­ey for the Bad­wa­ter win­ner though, right? Nope. They get–you guessed it–a belt buck­le. And a lot of pats on the back, of course.

This lack of prize mon­ey seems to be the pri­ma­ry com­po­nent keep­ing so many of the world’s pro­fes­sion­al run­ners out of the ultra run­ning scene. The hand­ful of indi­vid­u­als who have man­aged to make a liv­ing of out an ultra run­ning career have done so only through mar­ket­ing their accom­plish­ments through book deals, col­umn gigs on run­ning sites (which focus on marathons or less dis­tance), and paid speak­ing engage­ments. In oth­er words, they’ve had to put in a hell of a lot of extra work on top of the extreme train­ing reg­i­ment it takes to win ultra marathons.

It’s encour­ag­ing to see that many of the major ultra marathons are still fight­ing off the prize mon­ey cycle, but how much longer can they keep it up with a new gen­er­a­tion of phe­nom­e­nal run­ners com­ing up, many of whom have their sights set on the chal­lenge of not only com­plet­ing an ultra, but break­ing records left and right? A gen­er­a­tion raised in a time when mon­ey, fame, and sell­ing images of one’s self are heav­i­ly focused on. Will this next gen­er­a­tion of extreme dis­tance run­ners remain loy­al to the ultra run­ning tra­di­tions, or sell out to the obvi­ous (based on the marathon’s suc­cess) mon­ey-mak­ing potential?

With marathons becom­ing more nor­mal­ized, ultra marathons are grad­u­al­ly replac­ing them as the new chal­lenge; the new way for run­ners for test their lim­its and accom­plish feats few can relate to. There’s lit­tle doubt that ultra marathons will con­tin­ue gain­ing popularity—but in what ways fame will change them remains to be seen.

By: Audra Run­dle