One of our goals here at Ultra168 is to provide information to runners so that if we can, try to help increase the overall standards of Australian ultra running – giving more people more access to advice and tips. However, we all know that money talks too and if you look at the sport today as opposed to five years ago, there have been injections of cash, not only from the manufacturers, but also from some race directors too and things are starting to change somewhat.
The reason this topic springs to mind was a recent press release we received regarding a new 100km on the South Coast down in Victoria, the Surf Coast Century. There appears not to be a month that goes by when a new race doesn’t spring up, but this one caught our eyes as it will be offering $1,000 prize money to the winner, plus a rather snazzy Suunto Ambit watch to boot as well worth a good $650. With the North Face 100kms just around the corner too, which also offers prize money of $1,500 to the winners it got us thinking, will more and more cash creep into the sport?
So the sums of cash aren’t huge, and will probably just about cover the expenses of the winner if they happen to be from Interstate, but every little helps yeah?
Things changed in 2011
What really turned the tide we feel is the large investment that Salomon made for the North Face 100 last year. To be frank, I think they blew every other manufacturer out of the water and surprised the hell out of them such was the entourage of runners and crew that came over. This coupled with the ‘running with Kilian’ night and numerous other activities in the lead up to the race, which Kilian then smashed to bits changed the scene somewhat over here we felt.
As more people get involved, it therefore stands to reason that there is more opportunity for both runners and manufacturers alike. But is the ultra-running community in Australia ready yet?
Ultra-running comes from humble backgrounds. Most people you meet on the ultra-running circuit are pretty low-profile, gracious kind of people not overly willing to shout up and down about what they do. Of course there are exceptions to that rule, but generally the sense is that ultra-runners just get on with what they do – quite the opposite of an industry that is now seeing cash injections and effectively making heroes out of people you may suggest. Indeed, websites such as our own promote and push people into the limelight, perhaps somewhat unwanted at times, but like it or not there is a tide of change in the running community and it will only increase as we progress further.
But what of the prize money factor in races? Is this going to change the dynamics of racing now? At current levels, probably not as $1,000 isn’t going to start seeing runners setting up EPO labs in their home in a bid to score that grand. But you can’t argue with the fact that things are changing. We spoke with the general manager of Rapid Ascent and organisers of the Surf Coast Century, Sam Maffet to get some more insight into why they’ve decided to stump up some winners cash.
“We offer prize money at all our races as we think it important to provide something back to the athletes who put in such major commitment into winning the events. To be competitive in any event these days (trail running, adventure racing, MTB and all other sports…) the pointy end are putting in a lot of work and compromising other aspects of their lives, including work, so we want to help make it worth their while and support them in their endeavours.”
Fair enough we think. As a group of runners ourselves, we know just how much hard work goes into training. Here at Ultra168, we all probably knock off around 15 hours week and bar Vizey, we’re not at the pointy end of matters. Darrel having moved up to the Grandad category this year however is sure to make his mark with some age group mug wins though!
But what about in five years time, do we think Australia will be seeing the likes of Kilian with full-time athletes? Again, Sam has some pretty sensible views that it’s hard to disagree with, “We think ultras, and especially trail running will continue to grow in the future but I doubt that will be to the extent of there being more and more professional athletes trying to make a living off the sport – not in Australia anyway. Australia just does not have the population, sponsors or media to warrant it turning into a professional sport. We also don’t have the trail running heritage that many European countries do so I think it will never become a ‘main stream’ sport earning big dollars.”
The start of a trend?
But will this set a trend? Will other race directors feel that they should be offering prize money? Personally knowing some of the guys that put on races, such as the GNW100s, GOW100 and C2K we know that these guys are stalwarts of the ultra-running community who effectively do this for the love of it. Will it mean that people will start to drift away from these races and to the ones that offer money?
Probably not. For the vast majority of us, we enter a race knowing that it’s unlikely that we will win, and with the growth of the sport right now, it seems as though there is room for these races – time will tell of course. However for the vast majority of us, we do it for the love of the sport, and money has no consequence for us in that regard, something Sam agrees with too, “We try to conduct all our events to a professional level, providing high level service and support for all competitors, sponsors and stakeholders and the provision of prize money is part of that. As mentioned above, we provide prize money to support the athletes but I doubt it is a cost-effective move because so few people enter a race thinking that they will win any prize money that for 95% of runners it is not a real consideration.”
Australian trail and ultra running is in an interesting place right now. It almost reminds me of when rugby union went fully professional in 1995, albeit on a different level in terms of popularity and cash injection. It’s trying to find its feet somewhat, and yes there is some money being banded around, more and more races are being put on, more magazines and websites will be set-up too. However in a few years things will settle down somewhat. Natural selection and market forces will take care of those races that are poor, as well as brands that promise the world and fail to deliver.
However I do think we’re kidding ourselves if we think there will be big cash injections whereby athletes will benefit, particularly in Australia as Sam points out. Europe is a completely different kettle of fish, as the forthcoming SkyRunning events in Transvulcania and Zegama will show. These events are multi-million dollar shows, with TV rights going to Eurosport – it has become a big business over there.
Europe does have cash… they’re hiding it in the ultra-running community!
Perhaps the biggest evidence of this is in the European domination of the global ultra running and trail events. It’s fair to say that in 2011, the US got caught napping somewhat, and Team Salomon exploited that. Don’t get us wrong, the US has some amazing and talented runners in its armour, it’s more so some of the manufacturers and race directors failing to keep up with the times that has seen Europe rising as the ultra-running super power. You only have to look at the recent draws for Western States and Hardrock to see how the systems favour one set of runners over another. Therefore will those races ever evolve as the sport evolves?
That’s absolutely fine if they wish to carry on doing that, but in time, will races like Western States be able to say that it is the premier 100 miler in the World? The upcoming Sky Running races show what significant investments are being made into the sport – just take a look at that entry list and the organisation that is going into it. We’re talking bucket-loads of cash to assemble and house the world’s leading ultra-runners for two weeks in an ultimate showdown.
But what does this mean for Aussie runners?
Sam summed things up pretty well. There just isn’t the population mass and investment over here to warrant it. If any Aussie runners want to have a serious crack at the big time, they need to set-up camp in the French Alps somewhere. However for the average runner, like most of us are, we can continue to set our own boundaries and scale our own heights in a way that makes us happy, and if we happen to bag a bit of cash along the way, then great stuff. But we run because it makes us happy, and you can’t buy happiness can you?