The 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