Back in July of 2011, I wrote a post titled "The Great Debate". It asked the question, what kind of talent would be drawn into ultras if there were higher prize money on the line. In fact, I even mentioned a hypothetical situation where $100,000 might be offered up. Well, a lot of recent buzz has centered around the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler in Steamboat Springs that is hoping to award, you guessed it, a $100k purse!
I'm not saying I predicted it, because a lot has evolved in the ultramarathon world of racing and marketing that pointed to things like this happening. This will absolutely change the face of the sport, possibly polarizing the ultra purists and those who want to see a more progressive trend towards lucrative earnings.
I will never be in a position to earn prize money by running, and most of us will not. Thus, it's almost a non factor in why I would choose to run. The reason I don't run high profile big city marathons is because I don't like the crowds, logistics, and costs of running on roads in cities. Nobody is forcing me to run them, and plenty of other events have sprung up to give me more cost effective and enjoyable options. I simply see a $100k ultra as another option. If you don't like paying $200-400 entry fees for races like Leadville, WS, and JFK, don't run them. The popularity of the event shouldn't make you feel more, or less complelled to participate. It may make it seemingly more attractive, but you have other chances to run beautiful trails for much less opportunity cost.
Big money races, however, will cause whatever "governing" bodies to have to tighten down rules and regulations. Andy Jones Wilkins, a seven time top ten finisher at Western States, caused a bit of a stir by pointing out possible rule infringements by elites at the 2010 Western States 100. This raises the question, who will be out on the often remote mountain courses to "police" whether runners are following the rules? Mike Spinnler, the JFK 50 race director has a very hard stance on the use of listening devices. Anyone caught in person, or by photographic evidence will have their results erased from the records. Most high profile races, especially those with prize money, have a set of rules and guidelines for runners. How do you monitor these to control proper use of pacers, crew, and gear?
I believe the purist stance would be to have NO pacers, NO drop bags, and NO crew. If women's marathon records are considered illegitamate by the USATF because they "paced" with faster male counterparts, then how would pacers be allowed in ultras? I would then consider how many runners have had multiple clothing and nutrition options because of drop bags and crews having them ready at aid stations. An experienced crew can shave minutes, or more off a 50-100 mile just by being efficient. Perhaps the only fair way to go about this is to say that runners cannot use any nutrition outside of what the aid stations provide, and that whatever you wear, you must carry for the entire event. If a race has temps that range from 30-100 degrees, then you should be equipped at the start for all potential conditions. This would mean the folks who are showing up to the races are hopefully better trained to tackle the distance and elements, then when they're allowed to basically have their own roving aid stations with them. This could cut down the massive number of people, some very undertrained, from entering competitive lotteries. I wonder if Yiannis Kouros ever used a drop bag, or if Anne Trason regularly had pacers?
Drug testing. I hate to say it, but cash prize events should test the athletes before, not after the races. It would inflate the entry costs a lot, because drug testing isn't cheap, but it would help keep the sport clean. Maybe. A $100k prize, especially held at altitude, could entice more than a handful of runners to try doping, even if they never did before. $100k would support many of the current elite runners, who when not running, often work normal day jobs like the rest of us.
For now, and I suspect most of 2012, I'll be keeping myself away from the huge starting lines and races. But, for those friends stepping up to the bigger stages, I'll be cheering you on.