Money doesn’t matter in ultra running

I attended a lecture last week, “Less achievement and more learning”, which inspired the guts of this article. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but a good chunk of it was dedicated to reward-based systems (praise, money etc…) and their impact (in my view, negatively) on society… depending upon your viewpoint of course.

As I considered this some more, I found myself placing a direct link to this and hypothesising that in ultra running, you could completely remove the prize money from our sport and for the most part, no-one would give a stuff. But why?

To get to the heart of the answer, we really need to delve into reward-based systems and the intrinsic and extrinsic value from doing something. The inspiration for understanding reward-based systems comes from the fact that my wife and I are putting our children through the Montessori-based system. I won’t delve into the ins and out of the whole process (the teachers among you will know), but one of the things we practice is to not continually praise our children for simply doing something. The theory goes that extrinsic motivators (rewards) tend to reduce intrinsic motivation (people’s interest in, or commitment to, what they’re doing).

A reward can be anything from money to praise, and I’m sure many parents reading this will nod their heads here. How many times have you told your child how much of a good boy or girl they are simply for doing something that on the face of it, is totally normal, such as drawing a picture?

We do it because we’ve been conditioned to do so, probably because our parents did the same thing to us. It’s a natural reaction and I find myself doing it from time to time to the point that I have to stop myself mid-sentence and change tact.

But why is this relevant to ultra running? Well to understand it further, we need to look at intrinsic and extrinsic motivators a little deeper.

Being a relatively young sport that’s still quite far removed from the commercial dollar compared to a lot of other sports, the vast majority of people who run ultras do so because of intrinsic motivation. Quite simply, they run because they love to and are thoroughly interested in it for no other reason than what it is. Ahhh, but you could say this of any sport and for the most part you’d be right. But the difference I believe is that this is true of those at the top end of our sport too.

I’ve interviewed quite a few of the world’s leading ultra runners and the feeling you get from them, as you do from the ordinary Joe Blow in the middle of the pack is that they do it because they love it. The intrinsic value far supersedes any extrinsic motivator, the reward simply happens to be an added bonus, but it’s not essential to them because deep down they love what they do. emil-zatopek-athlete-quote-a-runner-must-run-with-dreams-in-his-heart

It’s probably why you see so many happy, positive people who simply love ultra running and the simple pleasure of just doing it. There’s generally not a lot of cocks in our sport.

Quoting from the lecture I attended from Alfie Kohn last week, “Studies (1) have shown that when people are promised a monetary reward for doing a task well, the primary outcome is that they get more excited about money. This happens even when they don’t meet the standard for getting paid. And when a reward other than money is used — say praise, like ‘good job’ — the effect is the same: more enthusiasm about what was used as an incentive, and in this instance, an inflated ego.

“The researchers behind this also discovered that financial rewards for good performance boosted interest in money more than financial rewards just for participating in the experiment. The more closely a reward is conditioned on how well one has done something, the more that people come to desire the reward and, as earlier research has shown, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

If we’re constantly giving praise to people for doing something, the interest in what they’re doing wanes and is overtaken by interest in the actual reward. Suddenly we’re no longer doing what we do because we love it. Instead, we’ve become robots and a slave to the praise.

Be honest and ask yourself if you really love your job? Are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated by what you do, day in, day out? How many of you simply followed a pathway through school and university because of either the praise you received from those around you for doing something, and/or because it was something that made someone else happy? Like your parents for example? By the way, your parents aren’t horrible people at all, it’s just that they don’t realise the consequences of what constant praise has done.

Look at the workforce of today and a generation of people who need constant praise and adulation for what amounts to simply ‘doing their job’. I’ve experienced this in my own working life countless times. People feeling as if they deserved to be promoted to a role because they managed to do something on time and to the accepted standard, and as a result, have been praised to the high hilt because of it. It’s created a generation of crack-like praise seekers who’ll crash big time if they don’t get their daily fix of ‘good job’. I could go on here, but that’s another article not relevant to ultra running

I guess circling back, the biggest lesson we can learn here is in the title. The money simply doesn’t matter in ultra running… Right now.

Money is just one measure of a whole wider variety of things that we should look to when understanding the value that our sport brings. If we’re to keep the joy and the happiness in ultra running, if we’re to run simply because we love it, then reward-based systems have no place. Right now, the rewards are comparatively low, so the impact in terms of potential loss of enjoyment is also low.

But, if we’re to maintain a purely happiness utopia in ultra running, we should ban competition too – Whoah! That’s far too controversial hey?  That’s an entirely different article too. But reflecting on that for a moment however, the good thing is that for many, competition in ultra running doesn’t really exist with others anyway – it’s only with ourselves. Even with some leading runners, competition is secondary to the intrinsic value gained from our sport. The prime example of that is Kilan’s joint finish at Hardrock this year with Jason Scharlb.

It’s also a main reason why I haven’t made this website my main source of income. It’s something I deliberated years ago, but came to the conclusion that the intrinsic value I get from what I do is far more valuable to me than an extrinsic motivator i.e. I do not value the money over the happiness, joy and satisfaction I get from simply ‘doing it’.

You often hear people say ‘I do it for the love of it’ and no truer a word is spoken than the very essence of why this website operates.

Ultimately, it’s up to us as runners to decide what we want from our sport. But right now, I think we can firmly say that in ultra running, the money doesn’t matter in the slightest.


(1) Julia D. Hur and Loran F. Nordgren, “Paying for Performance: Performance Incentives Increase Desire for the Reward Object,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111 (2016): 301-16.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Money doesn’t matter in ultra running

  1. You possess unanticipated depth, Dan.

    I never would have expected to find mention of Alfie Kohn’s work in an ultra trail running article. But I can appreciate the parallels – focus on external rewards can impact our peculiar little world just as it can any facet of wider society.

    I think it also contributes to unhealthy behaviours in our sport. Body dysmorphic disorder, orthorexia, chronic/adrenal fatigue, etc are all possible outcomes of obsessive focus on the destination, instead of the journey.

    1. Hahaha, thanks, every once in a while I like to go way out of my depth and pretend I know something. He’s a fascinating guy, highly outspoken I gather in the education world, but immensely captivating.

      1. Stepping out of your comfort zone, is very “ultra”. A fine thing for anyone to aspire to, I think.

        “Do one thing every day that scares you” — Eleanor Roosevelt

        Yes, his work does rather “go against the grain”. Only because his views on education make sense, in opposition to contemporary conventional pedagogy.

        But don’t get me started, or I’ll divert this conversation further and further from its original intent, at every turn.

      2. Yes, I had to stop myself from going off at tangents when writing it. When you open up the can of worms on this, the implications for society at large are huge, particularly in light of the recent US elections too.

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