This week, the international trail running elite are once again congregating in the French alpine town of Chamonix for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc series. The main event kicks off on Friday evening, when 2,300 runners will embark on a 106-mile journey around the Mont Blanc massif to test their physical and emotional (not to mention gastrointestinal) limits. UTMB bills itself as the “world summit of trail running”—Davos for endurance fanatics. It’s hard to disagree; races are held all week long, with 10,000 runners from 100 countries taking part. Last year, I was on hand to watch the UTMB start and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t catch the ultra fever. Such was the level of pre-race frisson and nervous euphoria, that, against all odds, I felt envious of the men and women who were about to set off into the mountains for 30 hours of suffering.
No wonder, then, that the people behind UTMB will do what they can to protect this singular ambiance, even if some measures feel increasingly incongruous with the scale of the event. Until last year, there was no prize money for the winner. Even now, the men’s and women’s UTMB champion receives a mere 2,000 euros (~$2,220). That’s not nothing, but it’s a relatively meager sum for a race that gets touted as the “Super Bowl of trail racing.” The Boston Marathon, for what it’s worth, awards $150,000 to the winner. On its website, UTMB asserts that its decision to begin offering prize money is a recognition of the “virtuous circle” linking elite athletes to the event and that both benefit from “an exchange of visibility.” (To anyone who has worked in the fraught world of freelance media, that sounds suspiciously like the famous scam to compensate contributors in “exposure,” which, the last time I checked, is also something you can die from.)
For the most part, there was little reaction to UTMB’s decision to start offering modest prize money. There was, however, a critical article by Mark Agnew of the South China Morning Post, in which he took UTMB co-founder Michel Poletti to task for saying that he was against the professionalization of trail running and “strongly believed in amateur sport.”
“What he means is not ‘amateur sport’ but amateur athletes,” Agnew wrote. “Because the UTMB sure is part of the sport and they are making money, not just at home but by selling their brand for big bucks to organizers in China and Oman.”
Agnew is certainly correct that it feels a little strange for an increasingly powerful brand that is in the process of establishing a global franchise of ultra-races to be talking about the corruptive influence of money. That said, it doesn’t have to be true that UTMB is holding back on cash prizes out of sheer avarice. It’s very possible that Michel (as well as his wife and UTMB co-founder Catherine) Poletti genuinely believes in the virtues of amateur sport. Indeed, in justifying his anti-professionalization stance, Poletti claimed that injecting money would increase the risk of doping. However, there’s another, much older, issue with cleaving to the amateur ideal: not everyone can afford to ascribe to it.
In a 2018 interview with Trail Runner, Michel Poletti explained that “everything would change” if ultrarunning suddenly became a professional sport, with top athletes “winning millions of dollars.”
“I am convinced also that if we have a lot of money in trail running, we will not have the same athletes,” Poletti told Trail Runner. “I’m not sure guys like Jim [Walmsley] or Tim [Tollefson] would be in the sport. I would like for them to have a happy life. I would like for them to get enough money to have a good life, but also to keep this good spirit alive we have in trail running.”
It’s a peculiar remark, and one that inevitably invites the question of what kind of athletes we would “have” if ultras were able to offer cash rewards and appearance fees on a level comparable to elite road racing. (To be clear, it’s not as if most ultras are currently in a position to fête their winners with lavish cash prizes; the Run Rabbit Run ultra in Colorado offers the largest purse in the sport; individual winners get $12,500.) At the risk of inferring too much, Poletti’s comments reminded me of a 2018 op-ed in the Guardian by Adharanand Finn, author of The Rise of the Ultrarunners.
“Watching [UTMB], I saw a big, red flag flying that no one else seemed to mention,” Finn writes. “Everyone on the start line was white. If these were the world’s greatest distance runners, where were the Kenyans?”
It’s true. If you check out the elite athlete lists for this year’s various UTMB races, you’ll have a pretty tough time finding anyone from Kenya or Ethiopia. The absence is conspicuous when you consider that these two nations dominate “regular” distance running at a level that is almost unparalleled in all of professional sports. The reason for this, Finn argues, is that ultrarunning does not yet offer enough of a financial incentive for the actual greatest distance runners in the world to try their hand at it in significant numbers. And while it may be true that winning UTMB or Western States (which does not offer prize money) garners an athlete enough “visibility” to potentially obtain a sponsorship deal, visibility is a tenuous concept. As Catherine Poletti obliquely admits in the Trail Runner interview cited above, an athlete’s value to a brand is always going to hinge on much more than athletic performance.
“Brands don’t support athletes the same way from country to country. If you look at a professional European runner, they’re going to be better supported than an American runner,” Poletti notes. Since the details of endurance runner sponsorship contracts are a closely guarded industry secret, it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of her statement, but there’s little doubt that things like social media presence and public image are important factors when a company is weighing the benefits of sponsoring an athlete. In a sport where there is minimal prize money to be won, such sponsorships are effectively the only way for an athlete to train full-time, unless they have another means of income—i.e. they are “amateurs.” Hence, despite its laidback image and dirtbag roots, there’s a sense in which world class-level ultrarunning is profoundly elitist.
So what? One could argue that there are plenty of professional sports—and “mountain sports” in particular—that are intrinsically exclusive for reasons of geography and expensive gear. But while nobody is likely to call attention to Kenya’s absence on the FIS Alpine circuit, the lack of East African runners in professional trail running feels much harder to ignore. Yes, ultrarunning and road racing are two very different sports and it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners could dominate long-distance trail races in the same way the dominate the marathon.
But there’s only one way to find out.