Thursday, December 1, 2011

Prize Money and Ultras: The Epic Debate


Here’s why I don’t think adding prize money to Ultras will every be a problem:

Running 100 miles is too fucking hard.

In other words, you could make the same amount of money working your ass off to do something way less difficult.  I believe there are only 2 ways people who are not motivated by the intrinsic nature of trail running could actually be motivated to do something so challenging.  And I don’t mean just the race – I mean the training that goes into making yourself capable of actually winning one of these races. 

I’ve trained to win once.  I spent all my free time (i.e. not working in corporate America,) running – morning, night, even lunch breaks.  And if there were any leftover seconds, I was cross-training.  I spent every weekend camping in the mountains, running at altitude with 0 contact to the world below.  I lived the majority of my life out of my comfort zone.  And the only, the ONLY reason I didn’t give up is because at the end of the day, if you asked me to pick my favorite activity in the whole world, I would pick running in the mountains.  And let’s be clear, I really enjoy the beach, snowboarding, drinking beer, ballet, writing and snuggling – but on my list, running in the mountains is at the top.  Yes folks, even over that three letter word.  The “drive to win” was never enough to push me out of the car on a cold Sunday morning with 90+ miles already on my legs. It was the confidence that at some point, if only for a fleeting moment, there would be absolutely NOTHING that I’d rather be doing.

And it’s a good thing, too.  As many people know, I was seriously injured with a little less than 2 months to go to my big race, and let’s just say things didn’t go as planned.  The mental warfare this waged not only during the race but in the many months in the aftermath has been seriously hard to deal with.  So much so that at times I considered quitting this shit forever.  (I’ve tried to do this once before.)  I’m sorry, but there’s no amount of money that could capture my disappointment in this situation.  My disappointment was entirely in feeling that all the training and intensely hard work had been for not in running the race to my best potential. 

Tangent now averted, I believe that the only ways you’re getting the “non-pure” runners over to the competitive ultrarunning scene are these:

1.  The amount of money is seriously high.  Like NBA salary high.  If you can make the same amount of cash getting your master’s degree and working a high-profile job, that’s going to be a whole lot easier than puking your guts out at mile 19, suffering through a 40 degree weather change in the period of about an hour, experiencing a degree of muscle fatigue you never knew was possible and/or fighting the depressive demons in your head that consider death a more favorable option than running the last 4 miles.  Jesus, you can actually make quite a substantial bit of money becoming really good at video games.  Video games.  The highest prize I know of is coming up this weekend at the big showdown in Marin (a la The North Face 50) and that’s only $10k.  I say only, because in this day and age, that’s enough to pay your bills and support your training only if you’re single, living out of your car and growing your own food.  And you better hope nothing breaks. 

Sure, you could argue that winning a few of these prizes could help you out, but aha!  There’s another hole in the master plan to great riches.  You see, ultrarunning is demanding – both on the body and the mind.  Repeatedly running at the level it takes to win these things is pretty much impossible.  Sure, there have been some pretty incredible examples of some impressive back-to-back performances as of late.  Example being Nick Clark’s legit 3rd place at States, followed by another 3rd at Hardrock 2 weeks later.  But even Nick will tell you that’s not sustainable.  He recently bowed out of TNF50, citing that his body and mind are tired from over-racing.  Not to mention I said THIRD place at these events, not winning. (Of course, I only say this to make a point and never to discredit Nick’s amazing performances.  I, for one, am super inspired by his tenacity and talent.)  In this case, the prize purses would have to be pretty goshdurn deep to allow anyone to make a living, and even then I’m not so sure.

Let’s bust out the sabermetrics here.  If Nick’s performance is any indication, your best bet would be to consistently run in the third to fifth place spot (assuming the purses are that deep,) allowing you to run just hard enough to make a nominal amount, but not so hard that you destroy yourself for future races.    But guess what?  Even that will be hard, given the increased competition resulting from this supposed greed for the money. Just it shall likely unfold on Saturday, these guys will be running the race of their lives just to get fifth.

Sure, there are people who do seemingly run a 100 miler every week, and by all means, that is incredible in it’s own respect.  But time has shown that this crowd is not WINNING.  And guess what?  They could care less, because DING! DING! DING!, that’s not why they do it.  In short, the money hungry would run themselves retarded chasing those prizes and destroy themselves in the process. 

That’s why the money in each race has to be very, very large.  And to get that cash, RDs have got to find that money to give.  One option is to get the money from registration, but there are huge problems there too.  They’re called Trail Permits, and I highly doubt any Forest Service is ever going to allow the magnitude of the Chicago Marathon to trample on their trails.  No way could you jack up registration prices high enough on 200-600 people fields to both create a big cash prize and actually keep people entering.  The other option is money from sponsors, and here’s where you enter a giant conundrum.  To sink huge money into events and athletes, that shit has got to be mega popular and profitable.   Well, how’s it going to be way popular until you’ve got big household names endorsing your product, media out the wazoo and all the other spoils of a Super Bowl-esque event? Hell, these companies we all know and love are just dying for that opportunity to sell more of whatever they sell, but very few are going to take the risk to sink all their dollars into a gamble.   Granted, it only takes one, but it’s got to be a big one, and those guys are kind of all set.  You could argue that Salomon is starting to do this.  But Salomon ain’t Nike.

People, I work in advertising, so understanding consumer trends and selling shit is basically my job.  I know for a fact Nike makes way more money on people who buy shoes that look awesome than for their technical prowess in competition.  Fortunately, they’ve built an empire big enough to allow them to do both, but guess what? They’re still going to sink their marketing budgets into events that attract millions of competitors and spectators (i.e. road marathons), not a small, niche event.  After all, if you think they’re in the business of making shoes, you’re dead wrong.  They’re in the business of making money and before you go all bleeding heart on me, you should realize that every business is. If they’re not, they no longer exist.  Hell – that’s the whole thing we’re talking about here.  The sponsors want just as badly to make money as the “un-pure” runners would.  It’s called greed, people and it’s not going anywhere.  So until either trail races become huge (see above paragraph for why they won’t) or companies like Hammer, Montrail and DirtyGirl Gaiters* find a way to sell salt pills, trail shoes, coats and well, gaiters to the general public in the masses, where is this BIG money to sink into the sport going to come from? Chicken or the egg, bitches?
*SIDENOTE:  Again, Salomon is an anomaly here, as they are sinking big bucks into supporting their athletes across the globe and recently put an ad featuring The Kilian in Times Square.  However, my dad has no clue who Kilian is and my dad will probably never purchase a pair of Salomon shoes.  See related argument in item #2.  The North Face is also an anomaly, as back in 1998 they figured out how to sell mad jackets to frat guys across the country.  Maybe that’s what’s funding this weekend’s prize purse?

Unless…

2.  Ultrarunners become famous.  I’m not talking Dean Karnazas.  I’m talking Michael Fucking Jordan. 

The only other reason a “non-pure” runner would put themselves through the rigors of training and competing in ultramarathons is if it put them on the front of a Wheaties Box.  Of course, this brings up the point that they’d eventually get rich off the sponsors even if there wasn’t much prize money to be won, but my point is another area of human nature:  we all want to be universally loved and admired.  We can’t help it.

Of course, the problem is that running just isn’t traditionally a “sexy” sport.  I mean, look at us.  The way we form our bodies isn’t exactly the mainstream Hollywood ideal.  Our hero dudes are spindly, bearded and show way too much thigh.  Our leading ladies are older, built like boys and have aged skin from too much time in the glorious sun.  And we all have way too many scars.  Plus we all spend an inordinate amount of time to ourselves, so we’re fucking weird.

Think about it.  Do you know the names of all the fastest marathoners or world class sprinters?  Well I do, because I’m a running nerd.  But guess what?  My dad loves running.  My dad got me into running.  My dad has flown out for my races.  And my dad has no freaking clue who any of these people are.  On the contrary, my dad has absolutely zero interest in ever playing basketball, yet you better be damn sure he knows who Kobe is.

So here’s the only solution I can see so far:  we get sexier.  Moeben is really working to trail blaze the path for this, and personally I think my boyfriend is pretty damn good looking – so I guess we’re on the right track.  Didn’t Jenn Shelton run some race in a bikini or something?  I believe that went over quite well.  I, for one, am definitely considering a boob job, spray tan and keratin treatment before my next 100.  I’m sure New Balance would be behind me 100% on this.

Standing in line for the release of “Unbreakable” this holiday season?
Unless Geoff and co. stop working so freaking hard, I doubt it.
Now, before I wrap this thing up (finally) and open the floodgates to the backlash, I’ve got one more theory here on why you’re never going to see a poster of Kami Semick taking over the walls of 13-year-olds around the country.  And this one may catch me some flack.  You see, I think people like Kami make “normal” people generally uncomfortable.  We want so badly to believe that the Tony K’s of the world were handed a supernatural talent by God himself, and that is why they are able to do such an incredibly hard an amazing thing.  But the simple fact is that it’s not that simple.  And these guys and gals make no effort to conceal the insane amount of work and training they do to prepare themselves and the hardships they go through.  What’s more, most claim that anyone could do it if they really sunk their teeth into what it takes.  If you don’t want to believe, sit at the finish line of any ultramarathon and watch what comes through.  Or look up the name Amy Palmiero-Winters.  For some, it’s incredibly inspiring.  For the masses, they proclaim “freak of nature.”  Just as greed is often instinctual, so is the nature to shun things that make us truly and wholly uncomfortable.


So, in conclusion: do I think the money at TNF50 is responsible for the incredible and unmatched depth of field at the race?  Absolutely.  And do I think any less of any of these runners for going after it?  Hell no.  In fact, I’m going up to crew and support two of my favorite SoCal runners:  Dominic “Unicorn” Grossman (surprise, surprise) and Jorge “El Chivo Loco” Pacheco.  (Agitar y hornaer boys!)  If they and their fellow competitors have the chance to make a little cash doing something they love, I’m happy for them and say go for it. Remember, the whole point of this post was that I don't see a threat from PRIZE MONEY ALONE to cause the apocalypse of ultra running as we know it.  The wealth of other factors that could cause the scene to blow up (not to mention eventually effect the prize money in a way I previously stated was not likely) is numerous - and it all relates to the issue of accessibility.  Bryon is really paving the way with irunfar.com, as well as all the technology we are now afforded as ways to communicate to the masses.  But alas, I will save this for a later conversation because it is time to pack for San Fran.

In the future, if there are more races that start adding cash prizes, great.  It’ll spread the money around.  But I’ll be shocked at the day when career ultrarunners are millionaires.


END NOTE:  I’m likely wrong about everything and I fully realize there are huge what-ifs in basically every single point I’ve made.  A lot of things in this world have happened on what-ifs and unexpected risks and that’s what makes life so gosh darn interesting.  This article merely represents my thoughts and opinions on “the great debate.”  I hope you’ll have fun continuing the argument.

5 comments:

  1. I propose that a portion (let's say $.49) out of every entry to an Ultra event is collected to help fund a running Hostel for top finishers at elite events that is valid for the rest of their lives (so long as they not dicks). Runners could live there so long as they were willing to be nice and share what they have learned to rich people that pay to stay at the adjoining resort.(got to pay the bills some how). This way all the blood sweat and tears could pay off with back up retirement plan. My plan needs refinement and I need another sip of Bourbon. What do you think? Oh yeah and good luck to Dom and George!

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  2. Awesome, well written article.

    I couldn't agree much more. I often times find myself worrying about ultra running becoming, "mainstream"... Just like "Ironman" has become nothing more than a money hungry machine... but let's be realistic here.

    Paying to run 100 miles through the woods by yourself (for the most part) is never going to be "mainstream".

    You guys have fun in San Fran! Good luck to Dom and Jorge!

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  3. The prize money becomes an issue on federal land because Congress requires it be an amateur event. However, if there are races that start to offer cash prizes then I think drug testing should be considered.

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  4. I'm going to see Unbreakable here in KC and cannot wait! Good points. While I have mad respect for anyone that can finish, let alone WIN, an ultra, I agree that the effort required to do so would sort out the chattle. Y'all are on a different level, truly.

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  5. Welp...I guess we're on to chipping away at Point #1: http://www.irunfar.com/2011/12/the-answer-to-the-100k-question-the-run-rabbit-run-100-mile.html

    Totally agree on the drug testing thing, Michael. It's sad, but it's true - people will go to drastic measures to attain money and fame.

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