Rocky Running: Inside the world of elite ultra runners
Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The professionalism of trail running is not concrete.
Ultra-length trail running races worldwide have varying weather elements, terrain and elevation. It’s nearly impossible to tell who is on top of the sport, especially since there’s a physical limit to the number of races they can handle every year.
There’s still a set of elite runners who are able to make a career out of ultra-running through sponsorships, race earnings and coaching without having to work a normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job.
Making an Income
Steamboat Springs-based ultra runners Avery Collins and Sabrina Stanley quit their 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs in February of last year to pursue ultra running full time.
Stanley, the former general manager at Cruisers Sub Shop and a part-time worker at a coffee shop in Steamboat, said she believed Collins and herself could make enough money on coaching running couples but found that sponsorships stepped up their ultra running game.
“I started with ambassador programs and getting free gear,” Stanley said. “Then I did really well at Western States in 2017. After I took third that’s when they turned into real sponsorships. That’s when I got geared towards doing more competitive races, and everything kind of fell into place after that.”
Sponsorships are gained through top performances at elite races. Stanley won the prestigious Hardrock 100 on July 22, 2018.
“Sponsorships are probably 80% of my income,” Stanley said. “There’s three categories: monthly check, race bonus or getting travel paid for. There’s a max on each one of those. We do power couple coaching on the side, specialize in ultra runners and preferably mountain runners. Between the two of us — we fluctuate — we maintain 10-15 athletes.”
There are a few races that provide a cash prize. Steamboat is home to Run Rabbit Run 100, which has the highest cash purse of any race. Durango’s Jason Schlarb and Conifer’s Michele Yates won the 2018 Run Rabbit Run 100, which included a cash prize of $12,500.
Yates, like Stanley, coaches on the side. She owns her own company called Rugged Running, where she offers camps, individualized coaching and sells running apparel. Yates was able to start building her brand as a professional road runner, competing in the Olympic trials for marathon running in 2008 and 2012.
In 2013, Yates made the switch to trail ultra running and won The Northface Endurance Challenge and Run Rabbit Run. She became the highest paid female ultra runner that year.
“I don’t think you should do the sport for the money. Of course, it helps,” Yates said. “In 2013, it paid for my trip to The Northface — that’s in California — because flights and hotels are more expensive. It’s helpful, but I don’t think you can depend on that. But honestly, ultra running should be making just as much as the Boston Marathon because it’s that much harder.”
Schlarb’s résumé includes winning Run Rabbit Run in 2013, 2015 and 2018, the Hardrock 100 in 2016 and finishing as the top American at the Ultra Trail Mount Blanc in 2014. He entered the sport in 2010, starting with The Northface. In 2013, Schlarb started running full time on sponsorships alone.
“I make more than minimum wage, but I’m not buying new cars,” Schlarb said. “Still skeleton bone dry for any kind of professional level sport. In the 50-kilometer or the 100-mile ultra running scene, there is probably not more than 10 dudes and five girls that are living full time off of this kind of money.”
Sponsorships work differently. Both Stanley and Schlarb note that their largest sponsor is Altra Footwear, which is now owned by VF Corporation. Stanley’s additional sponsors include Pure Power Botanicals, OS1st Base Layer Clothing, Cranked Naturals and Michael David Winery. Schlarb’s are Ultimate Direction, Spring Energy and others that provide race-specific incentives.
“An athlete will do well, have some results, a good social following and get picked up by a big brand like, Altra, Hoka, The Northface,” Schlarb said. “And then there’s smaller tertiary brands that support through nutrition or socks or apparel.”
Races for the most elite
Whether or not a race pays a cash prize is not what draws runners to them. Sponsors might encourage runners to participate in certain races or even provide incentive, but for the most part, ultra runners make their own calendars based on what races they want to experience in different parts of the world and how well they can perform.
“On average, I do two 100-milers six months apart, then I build out the rest of my schedule,” Stanley said. “I wish more races did have a cash payout. I try to do races I can do well at. The second thing is how competitive they are because more sponsors will like it and more publicity you’re going to get.”
Entering a headlining race is the key to getting noticed. There are three in the U.S. and one abroad that are commonly recognized as the most prestigious by the top runners in the business.
In the U.S., those races include the Western States 100, Hardrock 100 and The Northface. The world’s most popular and competitive ultra marathon is Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Europe.
The Western States 100 was established in 1974 and is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, starting in Squaw Valley, California, and ending in Auburn, California. The Western States operates on a lottery system, where runners compete in qualifying races within a one-year period, submit an application and hope to be selected for the run.
The Hardrock 100 has a similar lottery entry format but is a looped course starting in Silverton, Colorado, that takes runners through the San Juan Mountains. Only 145 runners are accepted: 45 are first-time participants, 33 are veterans and 67 runners can be anyone who met the qualifying standards.
Neither the Western States 100 or the Hardrock 100 offer a cash prize, but winning them garners high publicity.
The Northface Endurance Challenge is a 50-mile race starting in Sausalito, California, and plays host to many categories of runners. The elite division includes the top 100 male and female trail runners who apply and meet the qualifying standard times in a trail race.
The Elite A men have to be able to run a 7 hour, 15 minute 50-miler while women have to run theirs in 8 hours. There are other benchmark times listed for varying distances that runners can also try to meet. The race has a $30,000 cash prize purse, including $10,000 for the first place male and female, $4,000 for second place and $1,000 for third place.
The U.S. races are restricted to how many registrants they can take because of National Park or Forest guidelines, but Europe doesn’t have the same restrictions.
Europe’s ultrarunning scene is on a larger scale, and its races can host far more runners. The UTMB started in 2003 as a race through the Alps of Italy, France and Switzerland and plays host to 2,300 runners.
To qualify, runners have to run in certain races to amass a certain number of points, usually 15 points in three races. The Western States 100 is a qualifying race this year and has been since 2017, while the Hardrock 100 was a qualifier in 2017. The Leadville 100, another highly-regarded ultramarathon in the U.S., was named a qualifier in 2018 and will serve as one this year. The Western States and Leadville races fluctuate between five and six points awarded to the winner.
As the season begins, elite ultra runners begin to think about their 100-milers. Since Stanley won the Hardrock 100 last year, she returns with a free entry. Schlarb will be making an appearance in one of the most competitive men’s field the world has seen, including last year’s Skyrace World Champion and returning Hardrock winner Kilian Jornet Burgada, last year’s UTMB winner Xavier Thevenard and three-time UTMB winner Francois D’Haene.
“Three former UTMB champs in the last five years and two Hardrock champions all in the same race,” Schlarb said. “That hasn’t happened since I’ve been in the sport.”
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