Money’s Talking

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 Surf Coast Century will see its inaugural run this year along the spectacular Victorian Coast line

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?

Humble beginnings

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.

The Transvulcania run will see the best of the best going head to head next week – Marcus will be reporting from 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?

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

20 thoughts on “Money’s Talking

  1. Good article Daniel and I think you summed it up pretty well! Strange how its almost three decades since the Westfield era finished , which brought quite a bit of money to the sport back then as well!

    1. Cheers Phil. I think the whole Westfield thing was a bit of an anomaly to be honest. No disrespect to the runners of that time, but it came along when two rather freakish things happened. Yiannis Kouros was a freak of a runner, his distances seem super human today, let alone 20-30 years ago. And then Cliff Young came along, portrayed as a farmer in gumboots (we all know he was more than that). Sticking my day job PR hat on, you had the perfect combination for human interest news. One of the guys who works with me is a veteran of the Aussie newspaper scene and covered the races at the time, and he admits that the media got a little swept away with things and that the hype went a little too far than it should have done.

      As for the cash injection – it’s pretty simple… the opportunity is there. The more that people enter the sport (as they as now), the more cash gets spent by those people as Roger points out below and the smart manufacturers are trying to find ways to tap into that. Simple economics 🙂

  2. Nice think piece Dan! I do think that some people conflate ultra heritage and trail heritage, completely different things as shown also by the massive variety of European short and longer course events on offer. Australia has some hot prospects on the boil now and I’m sure we’ll all be cheering for Brendan Davies and Mick Donges as they go from strength to strength, pushing Australian representation to a higher level on road and trail, just as Damon Goerke has in multiday. Salomon has made a major contribution to the growth of trailrunning, both overseas and in Australia, over the last 15 months and we can only hope that brands like Montrail, New Balance, Brooks, Nathan Sports, UltrAspire, Hoka and The North Face – who invest in a brilliant event in Sydney but mysteriously only ever involve 2 of their own athletes in the whole thing and don’t sponsor any locals – will not shy away from also actively feeding the growth of the sport.
    Aside from big $$$ prizes – still entirely absent from Australian ultrarunning, when you think about what a trail ultrarunner probably spends on food and travel in a month, let alone gear and entry fees – teams are also a way to encourage both the expansion of the sport and the personal advancement of runners. The impact and motivation of team categories is in part evident in Japan’s running culture and creates a positive impetus for runners to strive for something other than their own gain or glory and more promotion of teams, as either relay or cumulative results, in Australia could also support the sport, without increasing cost burdens on brands, race directors and, ultimately, race entrants. The Rapid Ascent model seems an interesting one with potential to spread.

  3. I’d rather the sport be dominated by athletes that are motivated by their love of running trails and competition not those motivated by money. Entry fees are already getting to the over-the-top stage for some events that have corporate backing, which makes me prefer the lower profile races, even when prize money is still peanuts. Offering more prize money is only going to add to the entry cost for us poor back-of-the-packers.

    In the words of the late Caballo Blanco “running should be free man”

    1. You’re dead right Brendan, hence why we all have day jobs too… there just isn’t enough coin in the Australian market to warrant going full time. However depends what kind of lifestyle you want as well I guess.

      1. Thanks for the nice afternoon reading Dan. It got me thinking about whether being a full time runner actually be a good thing? For me, I look forward to my running as a chance to take a break from what has my attention at the time (be it work, study, research etc.). If you took that away and placed expectations and deadlines on your running (like a job does) I think it would lessen the joy. Everybody’s different I guess.

  4. A very interesting article guys. I think if any movement either way in the ultra running scene is going to happen the southern states will be the pilot for the rest of the country. As it is it apears that the events being run in the southern states are at lest 5-10 years ahead of the rest (well definatly qld at lest). If an injection of cash where to change dynamics of the sport this is where we would see it first.

    in the short term I will be watching the evolution of the sport in real time at the northface and looking very much forward to

  5. A billion people live in Europe and Western Asia and most of these nations have skiing as a major professional sport in winter and then a bunch of those guys cross over to summer mountain events, so trail running is just massive and attract the sponsorship dollars. You only have to look at the professionalism people like Jono Wyatt has brought to the sport as he sees it as a major career in Europe. NZ’s loss is Austria/Italy’s gain. Same as the African distant runners. They get good and then disappear into the US college system or head from Africa to Europe in the summer months to ply their trade. Notwithstanding the European TV coverage the sheer numbers of spectators that will pack the mountains of Transvulcania and Zegama in these coming weekends will far outweigh any event in Oz or NZ in the foreseeable future. And yet winter team sports still dominate the airwaves in Europe e.g. football and rugby. Its just 100’s of years of associations of the mountains being a way of life for many Europeans. And I haven’t even started on the UK Fell Running scene…… similar heritage

  6. Interesting quote from Dakota Jones on iRunfar

    “So next week I’m headed off to Africa to run fifty miles. People are going to conjecture the results in long diatribes. “This guy has this strength, but this guy is from this place, but this guy has done this already, but this guy has a beard” and so on in that vein. The point of it all will be to get overexcited about something that will affect few and soon be over. We build a bubble which we then burst and try to convince ourselves that it had meaning which still remains. On the other hand, ultrarunning is a supremely personal and unproductive activity (in the Western sense of the word), which we have morphed into a way to make money. With money we can take the sport to new levels, allowing us to do more and greater things. Companies see our sport as a lucrative venue for business, which translates into fantastic opportunities for everyone. Those of us in direct communication with said companies receive express and obvious benefits, but the people at the bottom of the food chain also benefit in the form of more races, more people, greatly improved gear and much wider acceptance of the sport. Still, the “sport” has nearly become separated from the running. The scene has morphed into its own entity that is sometimes only marginally connected to its subject. In this way running has become a vehicle for the scene, and I find that silly.

    1. You know what I think Charlie… I think people think a little bit too much about things 🙂

      If Dakota feels as though money and indeed involvement from companies is separating the running from the sport, then he has a choice to give all that up, alng with his sponsorships and just go ‘running’… Also, I think there are enough races that cater for both types of people… There is a clear distinction happening in Australia now. Those RDs that put on races for the love of it and those that do it as a day job. I dont begrudge anyone or business that wants to make money out of setting up races. The North Face is a case example… just look at the line-up that is now generating. Why is that? Because the guys have done a awesome job of building a field of 1,000 entrants.

      Why do companies like Salomon and alike get involved? Because they see the potential for the market and those 1,000 entrants will be exposed to their brand and will hopefully buy their products. On a different level, Dave Byrnes runs the GNW just as professionally and just as efficiently, but does it without making a profit and people are attracted to that race for different reasons. Interesting points though Charlie, and we do appreciate your comments and insights on this one.

      1. Dan, the money is the reason Dakota has dropped out of school and focussed on his running afterall. Pretty dangerous stategy in my view. One bad injury and his sponsors will drop him like a sack of potatoes and he will have nothing to fall back on. On the other hand he could stay at the top of the sport for 20 years, retire at 45 and still have nothing to fall back on. The sport isn’t going to make him rich.

        People criticize Karnases for being such a self promoter but he has found a way to make running his job so good on him

      2. I find Dakota’s monologue very long-winded and confusing, almost sanctimonious. Say what you mean and mean what you say… cut the crap and get on with the job 🙂

  7. Out of interest – what sort of money are we talking here? can you please quantify “big $$$”
    I’m guessing free kit and a bit of travel relief is on offer. Apart from the lifestyle, does anyone make a decent living out of trail running?

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