The professionalisation of ultra running – good or bad?

Last updated: 24-Aug-18

By Alfie Pearce-Higgins

Few topics divide opinion among endurance runners more than its transition into a full-blown commercial sport.

The professionalisation of ultra running – good or bad? It will be amateur runners who decide.

In November this year some of the world’s greatest mountain runners will travel to Oman. The improbable gathering on the Arabian Peninsula – Jim Walmsley of the USA and Lithuania’s Gediminas Grinius to name but two – is the latest affiliate race from UTMB and one more step in the internationalisation and professionalisation of ultra marathon running.

Few topics divide opinion among endurance runners more than its transition into a full-blown commercial sport. For some it is a corruption of amateur principles and the erosion of a unique atmosphere while for others it is natural, desirable and exciting progress.

But must these two be mutually exclusive?

I first ventured beyond 26.2 miles and into ultramarathon territory back in 2010 with the cross-country London to Brighton race. The course markings were non-existent, the field small and the atmosphere more akin to a village fete than a sporting event.

My father, dropping me at Blackheath in the half-light of dawn, feared that I had joined a cult. But I was immediately hooked by the air of inclusivity, the sensation of shared endeavour and the universal support for all from the fastest to the slowest.

Much has changed in the intervening eight years. When Kilian Jornet, the sport’s first real celebrity, broke the record for the Bob Graham round last month, it was reported, not merely on a few blogs, but across the media.

The number of both events and participants is estimated to have tripled in the past decade. A handful of elite runners even manage to make a full-time living from prize-money and sponsorship. In short, ultra marathons have become mainstream, or at least entered the mainstream conscience.

UTMB’s story is in many ways representative of the bigger picture. First run by a group of friends the race has grown exponentially in its 15-year history. This year 10,000 trail running enthusiasts will descend on Chamonix in France to compete in one of the four events, culminating in the eponymous 166km race around Mont Blanc.

RUNULTRA_UTMB_France_Pascal-Tournaire

Photo credit: UTMB – Pascal Tournaire.

With big sponsors, widespread media coverage and some of the world’s best runners UTMB is arguably the home of mountain running in Europe.

So successful has the French race become that the brand is now expanding globally. UTMB International’s avowed ambition is to “contribute in the next 10 years to the birth of major and popular trail running events organised with very high-quality standards, in every continent.”

Already this has sparked a cynical backlash with some runners on social media accusing the organisation of “making a fortune” while “runners get screwed”.

But Remi Duchemin, CEO of UTMB International, believes that they can retain the “camaraderie and mutual endeavour between the runners” while also showcasing elite talent. For him “equality of treatment between professional and amateur runners” is the key.

And it is UTMB’s enduring popularity amongst runners all over the world that has enabled it to transition from a low-key event into a successful global business. More than 100 nationalities will be represented later this month, many aiming just to finish the challenging course.

Each year, despite the arduous qualification standards, the races are heavily oversubscribed, and a lottery system is used to whittle down the numbers.

Clearly UTMB could make more money by expanding the race or increasing prices. Some race organisers around the world have chosen this route but many have instead kept numbers and prices low and instead relied on waiting-lists and randomised draws to allocate places.

In Remi’s words there needs to be a “balance between investing in the runners’ experience and maximising profit”. The tireless work of many volunteers and RDs is a testament to this.

Having taken part in Gaoligong by UTMB in China earlier this year, there was certainly no sense that the presence of elite runners had led to any diminishment of the experience for those further back the field.

The atmosphere was excellent, the crowds magnificent, and the last finisher enjoyed as a big a cheer as the first.

On the contrary, elite runners can enhance the experience for the rest of the field. HOKA, a US-based running shoe company specialising in ultras, has played a central role in enabling some athletes to turn professional.

Mike McManus, Senior Sports Marketing Manager, believes that professional runners “can draw attention to the sport of trail running and help inspire new generations of people to put on trail-running shoes”.

Social media engagement and rising participation numbers would appear to support this.

That relationship between professional and amateur remains important on both sides. Jim Walmsley and other famous elites surprised many runners when they turned up at last year’s Javelina 100 race as aid station volunteers.

In contrast to some other sports most professionals that I have met remain grounded and humble.

Which is as it should be, because ultimately it is the rising popularity of ultra running amongst amateurs that has made professionalisation possible. Footballers’ exorbitant salaries are primarily paid for by TV rights.

Cycling has a far bigger kit market from which to make money. Even marathon runners have Olympic funding and vegan sausage adverts.

Much as I love slogging up and down remote mountains in the rain it is unlikely ever to become a major spectator sport. Consequently we, the also-rans, will most likely be the ones who fund both the professional runners and races, be that directly through race entry or indirectly through our purchases of shoes, energy bars and nipple tape.

Those races that fail to deliver will be short-lived. Runners tend to be discerning, repeat customers and social media and specialist sites like this one are enabling participants to share both positive and negative experiences widely.

Fortunately, the growth of the sport should allow space for all tastes to be accommodated.

Professionalisation is merely a reflection of increasing demand and an expansion of the choices on offer. Some will prefer to splash out on high profile international events in exotic locations where one might just catch a fleeting glimpse of an elite runner’s arse disappearing up the first hill.

For others intimacy, affordability and home-made flapjack might be more important. A few very special races might even achieve both and, for many, UTMB is just such an example.

You can follow the author’s progress at Oman by UTMB on Instagram and Strava @jogonalfie.

"Few topics divide opinion among endurance runners more than its transition into a full-blown commercial sport. For some it is a corruption of amateur principles and the erosion of a unique atmosphere while for others it is natural, desirable and exciting progress"

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