Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is the End of Ultrarunning as We Know It Here?

"Money talks and bull%&$@ walks."

I recently read a blog post by a well-liked, highly regarded elite ultrarunner who discusses the emerging trend of big prize purses in the sport. As Exhibit A, he points to the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, a 50-mile race in San Francisco that offers $10,000 to the winner and attracts the sport's best from around the world. In ultrarunning, $10,000 is a huge purse but, to The North Face, it's pocket change. This particular ultrarunner keeps a really awesome blog and always shares a well-informed perspective on things, and so his opinion on the state of things in the sport definitely carries weight. You can read his post here.

Marion Jones, a five-time Olympic medalist sprinter, was busted for PED use during the BALCO investigation. She has forfeited all medals and now lives in disgrace.
First of all, let me admit the obvious: Big purses wouldn't really affect or influence me since I'm not an elite ultrarunner and wouldn't ever be in play for a win at a major race. So my perspective is more from a dude who just loves the sport and wants what's best for it. Now that that's been established....

Ben Johnson, a Canadian sprinter, "won" the gold medal for 100 meters at the 1988 Olympic Games, beating the likes of Carl Lewis. And yet, even though he had just captured the title of "fastest man in the world," he didn't crack a smile or show much joy at all. A few days later, he was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for PEDs.
When I worked in politics many years ago, I witnessed some crazy things. Campaigns are in some ways like long-distance races--lots of peaks and valleys and jockeying for position. But unlike ultrarunning, there is very little honor in politics. It's mostly about money and power. And so there is a reason I left politics behind and entered a new sector (health care) six years ago. Anyway, life experience has made me realize one sad truth about human beings:

At the end of the day, it's usually about money. Decisions, motivations, behaviors--they usually center around money. Why has The North Face put up a $10,000 prize at the San Francisco race? Because  the company sees the race as an opportunity to grow its brand and...make money.
In the past few years, the veil of secrecy has been lifted off professional cycling, baseball, and track and field, exposing the alarming influence of performance-enhancers (curiously, football has somehow evaded this exposure despite the fact that it's plain as day that steroids are a HUGE problem in the sport). Marion Jones. Mark McGwire. Floyd Landis. (Update: Add 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador to the list; he, too, was busted for PEDs and may have his 2010 Tour win wiped from the record books.) They--and many others--have all been exposed as performance-enhancing drug (PED) users. They've been disgraced. But guess what? They're also millionaires.

Few baseball seasons were more magical than 1998, when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs smashed Roger Maris' single-season homerun record of 61, "saving" baseball. McGwire shattered the record, hitting 70 bombs, while Sosa hit 66 out of the park. There were quiet rumors of McGwire using steroids, and who can forget his unwillingness to "talk about the past" when he was summoned before Congress in 2003. Not until recently did he finally come clean, admitting to steroid use. Today, he coaches for the Cardinals, but, despite his amazing stats, "Big Mac" likely won't be enshrined in Cooperstown anytime soon.
Why did they do it? Well, I'm sure they're all fiercely competitive and, at one time, were in their respective sports for all the right reasons. But ultimately PED use in professional sports comes down to getting paid lots of money...and then more money on top of that. Endorsements. Fame. Big contracts. Sponsorships. "Celebrity" appearances. Speaking engagements. Book deals. What do they all have in common? Money. Yeah, it's about getting paid and, in many cases, greed.

An incredibly talented cyclist who rode with Lance Armstrong for years, Floyd Landis won the Tour de France in 2006, coming back from a rough stage 16 and overcoming a serious hip condition to take and keep the lead. Shortly after the '06 Tour, Landis was stripped of his win and suspended for 3 years for PED use. Like Jose Canseco in baseball, Landis seemed intent on exposing PED abuse in the sport and has more or less been "blackballed" from cycling.
And so, probably like you, I love the sport of ultrarunning. It's been good to me. It's provided me with some of the most meaningful moments of my when, motivated by my wife, I got out of the cot at the Mayqueen aid station at the Leadville 100, having been stricken with altitude sickness, and finished the damn race to get the sub-25-hour buckle. I didn't do it for money--there wasn't any cash waiting for me at the finish. All that was waiting for me were memories, pride, hugs and kisses...and a buckle.

Eddie Hellebuyck was once near the top of the sport of marathoning. A dominant master's runner, he tested positive for EPO in 2004 and for years denied that he took PEDs. But then recently he spilled his guts to Runner's World, admitting to EPO use.
My love of the sport of ultrarunning means it's hard for me to imagine it as something other than what it was intended to be--dedicated men and women running crazy distances, supporting and looking out for each other, forming a tight-knit community...and doing it all for nothing. Maybe just a buckle and some pride, thank you very much.

If big purses invade the sport of ultrarunning, and unfortunately it's already happening, what's going to stop a new crop of unscrupulous individuals--greedy money-chasers like Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, and Floyd Landis--from taking EPO, HGH and whatever to finish first, collect the cash and move on to the next race?

I don't really worry about the current crop of superstars falling prey to PEDs--they're doing it the right way and are good people from what I understand. Instead, I worry about money chasers invading the sport and doing whatever they have to--taking PEDs, cutting the course, etc.--to win the cash. And what would stop them? Ultrarunning doesn't test for PEDs! But let's for a second put ourselves in the honest athletes' shoes. How would they react if they're training the right way and yet being beaten by juicers who can run at a sick pace up big climbs thanks to EPO, and quickly move onto the next race without skipping a beat thanks to the regenerative power of HGH?

It would be the end of ultrarunning as we know it. Or maybe the end is here...or fast approaching?

Put a lot of money on the table and people will do crazy things to get it.

Don't for a second think ultrarunning is above all of this.


  1. There is also the tendency of some people to always see the worst possible outcome.

    $10k for running 50 miles is nothing compared to the kind of money the top runners get for the major marathons. Until the fee for the top ultra runners get multiplied by a minimum of factor 10, ultra running is safe from the money grabbing drug cheats. I'd say we're still pretty safe.

  2. It's a catch 22.For mid pack runners ,like ourselves,lack of money makes no difference.What about the elite runners,sacrificing hours per week to compete at the higher levels.Maybe it would be better for them to be able to earn a living from prize money,rather than relying on sponsorship.Again sponsorship is only offered to athletes .in order to make that company money.

  3. The strive for perfection, pride, personal ambition and spirit of adventure are very potent motivators for doping.
    With the decreasing black market prices and increased availability of EPO, Hgh and IGF, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot second tier sports and athletes resort to these substances. US Masters cycling has had their share of cases already.

  4. I hope you are wrong. I prefer to look at it as we may see some even better runners now that there is a monetary incentive! Lets see some Kenyans at the next Badwater! :)