Saturday, 17 September 2011
Professionalism - Ultra Race Of Champions 100k Pre-Race
So the Ultra Race of Champions ("UROC") 100k is almost here, and with it the biggest push towards professionalism in our sport in North America. Prize money has always been non-existent or small in ultra-running (outside South Africa - I'll mention this more below), except in a few 'pedestrian' races from 18th and 19th century Britain which were popular for gambling crowds. And maybe a couple of other long multi-day events (I believe the Melbourne-Sydney races in Australia often put up a lot of cash). In particular, there's a good history of ultrarunning, which covers the early gambling start, in Professor Tim Noakes' 'Lore of Running'.
We do already have the North Face Endurance Challenge series with a $10,000 first prize in the final and these races are great, particularly the final. Last year's final was almost certainly the most competitive 50 miler ever and this year's will probably be even more so. So I should give credit here to this series, but it doesn't push the elite profile of the race much and it's only the money that makes it any different. UROC is much more focused on raising the profile of the runners, selling the race on the back of who will be there and purposefully opting for a more professional set-up for the runners, with some costs covered to some runners ('appearance fees') just for showing up. This is a move towards the more normal set-up for track and road races.
I know plenty of people have speculated, particularly in blogs, about whether it's good or bad for the sport to have more prize money and to make it possible to make a living from ultrarunning. Even about how possible it is to get enough interest in a sport where a dramatic move can still take hours to play out, often in remote locations.
Well, technology has certainly moved on dramatically in recent years to maybe make it possible for this to be a spectator sport. I never would have thought that following a race through one line updates on Twitter for hours could ever be interesting, yet this seems to have taken off in the past couple of years. With webcams along courses and instant updates online, maybe the time has come. Ultras have undoubtedly grown in prominence and popularity recently and stars like Kilian Journet even get their own adverts in Times Square, plus his well-known Kilian's Quest series of online shows.
Without the money from gambling that the pedestrians benefited from, it'll be interesting to see whether UROC successfully achieves its aim 'to create the Championship Event for the sport of Ultra Distance Running' (quote from the UROC website, and here's the list of elite entrants). Money is only part of the equation given that there's no doubt that UTMB attracts the world's best mountain ultrarunners with no prize purse, just like Western States which has nearly the same profile from a North American perspective.
But given the huge effort involved in training and high cost of attending races far from home, it seems only fair that the runners who provide the entertainment and help to sell sponsor's products don't do it all on their own dime. It's true that many do have sponsorship deals, but these generally just cover the main costs and very few people come away from a race cash-neutral, never mind having earned even as much as if they'd worked at McDonald's for the few days they were away from home.
Personally I hope UROC is a big success and that our sport grows and grows. It's a great way to push your boundaries and find out about yourself, while shorter distances rarely have those epiphanic moments. The more people who run ultras, the better for society. Ok, it means more lotteries in classic races but it also means more races to choose from. Choice in this sense is a good thing and there'll always be races around for 'purist' runners who want to avoid the crowds and fanfare. I wouldn't want to be without these for a second, but the opportunity to race against the best and to have everyone really focusing on that race is something that excites me both as a runner and as a fan of the sport.
One last word has to cover the South African ultras which are on a scale of their own and dwarf any other races out there. Having run the two prominent ultras over there, once at Two Oceans 56k (my blog) and five times at Comrades 89k (my 2009 blog, 2010 blog and 2011 blog), I can say that the significant prize money at both of these only enhances the races. Helicopters provide live TV coverage, as do lead vehicles (admittedly easier for road races).
Comrades is on national TV for the full 12 hours of the race, plus before and after. Yet the celebrities it makes of the runners and the extremely high quality organization only add to the experience for the thousands that participate and millions who watch. To put it in context, the winners of this race earn at least US$80,000 including sponsorship bonuses, plus more money for being the first to particularly points on the course, being local or a course record. If a local won in a course record, I estimate they'd win over US$140,000 at current exchange rates!
I expect I might prickle a few people's sensibilities with this posting and will have many negatives pointed out to me, but I'd certainly like to hear all the (non-troll) points of view.
Also, irunfar has put up coverage of the men's elite race and will probably do the same for the women.