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 blog2010 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.


  1. Interesting post Ian. Ref growth of ultra internet fans - we were staggered when my blog got over 500,000 hits during last year's 1000 Mile World Cup race in Greece. Ultras lend themselves to people following the events over long periods of time and gradually watching the races unfold - they can actually be exciting to follow!

  2. UROC really doesn't have enough money to attract all the best americans, and Europeans aren't coming with only 2500 bucks to win. It's a good first effort, no doubt, but I'm not sure if it's gonna really take off.

    There are 5 guys in the field that I think will really compete up front....after 40 miles. Geoff, Dave, Dave J, Wardian and Sharman. The rest (and of course, no offense here) aren't quite at the caliber of those top 5. Let's look at who's missing. It's a list alot longer than who's there.

    Scott Jurek
    Nick Clark
    Ryan Burch
    Karl Meltzer
    Matt Carpenter
    Dakota Jones
    Max King
    Scott Jaime
    Greg Crowther
    Hal Koerner
    Gary Robbins
    Joe Grant
    Tony Krupicka
    Ulli Steidl
    Rickey Gates
    Nick Pedatella
    Mike Foote
    Mike Wolfe

    And this is just touching the surface really. It'll be a good competitive fight to win, but with all these guys missing, it's kinda just another race for a few bucks......

  3. Karl nails the overall view I have of uroc as well, so no need to reiterate it.

    The North Face events, starting in 2007, have gradually built up to a very competitive championship that draws true elites from several countries and backgrounds of specialties, e.g. non-trail speedster Uli (heck, it even managed to lure Carpenter to drive all the way up to San Fran - twice). They have a good thing going and if/when they ever add a 100 mile event (and likely more prize money), they'll have a full house of elite runners from around the world, unless Leadville and Life Fitness beat them to it.

  4. Karl,

    I agree that plenty of people aren't there in the starting line-up (although I thought you were running it) but this is year one. How big was any major event in year one? Even the TNF EC has taken off greatly since it's start. I don't think anyone would have expected them to attract all the top talent immediately.

    But I think it's more the mind set. Instead of just offering some cash, they're treating the athletes who can compete at the front as pros and trying to make it a big deal. If successful, this is definitely the first step, rather than the end of this process. If this year's race goes well, gets some attention, etc then I'm sure next year would have more sponsors and more money. That would mean more top runners across the world would come to fight it out with the best and to try to earn the money.

  5. :) It is so exciting to read about those sums, even for (at best) a mid-packer like me.
    It was interesting to read this post by Tony K recently:


  6. Karl,

    I don't know if you have something against the race, RD or idea of a championship in general but your list is more than a bit misleading.

    Aren't half of the guys on that list injured or not really racing much anymore?

    You should probably include the following this being the case:
    Yiannis Kouros