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More Prize Money Is Flowing Into Trail Running. What Does That Mean for the Sport?

Trail running is growing and professionalizing. Here’s what the influx of cash means for the future of trail running. 

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Annie Hughes, one of the top trail runners in the U.S. for the past two years, had another amazing season running ultra-distance races in 2022. On September 17, the 24-year-old Hoka-sponsored runner and part-time college student won the Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, her fourth win of 100 miles or longer since April. Earlier this year, she won the Coldwater Rumble 100 in January, Cocodona 250 in April and the High Lonesome 100 in July. 

Those were all exceptional efforts in really challenging races, but the big difference she experienced after crossing the Run Rabbit Run finish line, 21 hours and 26 minutes later, was that she won $17,500. (And yes, she was handed one of those cartoonish, oversized checks at the awards ceremony.)

Run Rabbit Run is one of the rare American trail races that offers a relatively large prize purse, and for a decade, it’s been the largest in the sport. Hughes earned $15,000 for winning the women’s race and split another $5,000 with Arizona trail runner Peter Mortimer (who placed 12th overall) as part of the event’s new team competition.

“That wasn’t the reason I was drawn to the race, but it was definitely pretty cool to win that much money,” Hughes said. “I’m glad I did it, because it wound up being a really great race with an amazing course on a beautiful day.”

The origins of trail running were always more about the joy and freedom of ambling through the natural world, and less about the specific time and pace of any run or race, which is why winning big cash prizes is mostly uncommon in the sport, even for top-tier runners like Hughes. Over the past two years, Hughes has won 10 races of 50 miles or longer, yet her Run Rabbit Run victory was the first time she’s ever earned money for her efforts. 

More sponsorship money and bigger cash prizes are flowing into the sport, helping the top athletes earn a full-time living in the sport and become global stars. But that evolution has also created a desperate need for a unified governing body and more consistent drug-testing as doping becomes a more acute concern.

A Windfall of Prize Money

Historically, America’s biggest and most notable trail running races haven’t offered any prize money at all—Western States 100, Hardrock 100, Dipsea Trail Race, Leadville 100, Mount Marathon Race, Seven Sisters, Black Mountain Marathon/Mount Mitchell Challenge—partially because races simply couldn’t afford to pay it, and also because, at the soul of the sport, that’s not what the races were historically about or why most top runners were competing. 

But with the continued growth of the sport—trail running has grown by 231 percent over the past 10 years, according to one report—and the dawn of a new level of professionalization over the past decade, there is a lot more money being injected into the sport. That includes more high-profile events and race series, more brands investing in the sport, more sponsored runners and trail running teams, as well as a growing expectation that prize money should be part of the equation as it is in road running, triathlon, and even obstacle course racing.

For many years, The North Face 50 near San Francisco was one of the only ultra trail races in the world to offer a significant prize purse. From its inception in 2006, until it disappeared after 2019, that race famously awarded $30,000 in prize money, which included $10,000 to the top finishers in the men’s and women’s races, plus $4,000 for second and $1,000 for third. It was a race to look forward to at the end of the calendar year, both for the cash awards and the prize-induced competition that drew top runners from around the world.

During that span, Run Rabbit Run, though a lower-profile race, quietly began dishing out some of the biggest payouts in the sport, in part because race organizers Fred Abramowitz and Paul Sachs believe in rewarding its top athletes for their efforts (as well as giving back to the community via even bigger charitable contributions). The race winnings come primarily from entry fees of the 600-runner event and sponsors, if and when the race has them. That wasn’t possible back in the early days of the sport, when entry fees were minuscule and cash sponsors were mostly non-existent, but things have started to change.

RELATED: The Run Rabbit Run 100 Miler Turns 10 This Year

Abramowitz and Sachs, who both earn their living as attorneys, are unique in that they want to give back to the elite athletes and the Steamboat Springs community, but they also want to help grow the sport. Abramowitz outlined what he calls “A Blueprint for Sponsors of Ultra Running,” a three-page document that explains how and why trail ultrarunning—both as a sport and as individual races—can connect to more casual runners, sports fans, and the general public. 

He points to the rampant growth of NASCAR, Professional Bull Riding, and professional poker over the past 20 years from their roots as fringe sports, relatively speaking, to mainstream spectacles with massive fan bases, TV contracts, and social media followings. Trail and ultrarunning aren’t there yet, Abramowitz has noted, but they’ve certainly been growing rapidly.

“Today millions watch those events, though the actual number of participants is minuscule,” Abramowitz wrote in his missive. “Ultrarunning can learn from these events: it needs new ideas, new ways of attracting the already committed runners and the casual sports fan to our terrific sport. Fields need to be competitive and races [need to be] dramatic; there are hundreds of 100-mile races, but those that offer competitive fields are a handful at most. Most ultra-races offer spectacular scenery in interesting venues.” 

Abramowitz said sponsors should support races such as Run Rabbit Run that offer prize money not merely because it’s good for sport, but also because prize money can attract competitive fields, and competitive fields attract interest—from spectators, participants, potential sponsors, and the general public. He also points out that having prize money at more domestic races is a way to keep the sport from becoming entirely Euro-centric, which has been an increasing trend in the past several years.

The trend of cash purses seems to be increasing, and on the face of it, that’s good for elite athletes capable of podium finishes. But it’s a complex topic and one that certainly will simultaneously increase the competitiveness of the sport while, some argue, continue to pull the sport away from its organic, racing-in-nature roots that was mostly viewed as the antithesis of competitive road racing. 

On the same day Run Rabbit Run paid out  $75,000 in total prize money, the Pikes Peak Ascent awarded $18,000 in prize money for its top 10 finishers—including $3,000 apiece to the men’s and women’s winners—while the Pikes Peak Marathon, on September 18, had an additional $10,500 in total prize money for the top five runners. The races also offered $2,000 (Ascent) and $4,000 (Marathon), respectively, as course-record bonuses, and a $10,000 premium to any runner surpassing a pie-in-the-sky time well ahead of the course records. None of those records were broken, but the $28,500 in total prize money—partially backed by  the Salomon-sponsored Golden Trail Series—was one of several large prize purses offered at U.S. races this year.

Other big American prize purses were also primarily tied to the Golden Trail Series events—the $50,000 spread over four races at the mid-June Broken Arrow Sky Races in Olympic Valley, California, and the September 25 Flagstaff Sky Peaks 26K race in Flagstaff, Arizona, where runners competed for $18,000 in prize money and a chance to compete at the Golden Trails World Series Final, and the $15,000 winner’s earnings at the Madeira Ocean & Trails 5-Day Stage Race in October. 

Also of note, the November 18-20 Golden Gate Trail Classic paid out $25,000 in total prize money to the top five finishers in both the 100K and half-marathon races, which were part of this year’s nine-race $270,000 Spartan Trail World Championship Series.

Meanwhile, the Cirque Series, sponsored by On, paid out $3,600 in total prize money at each of its six sub-ultra mountain running races in the U.S., including $1,000 for the men’s and women’s winners. The Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top on September 5 in Southern California offered $3,000 to runners who broke the event’s longstanding course records, and Joe Gray and Kim Dobson obliged by taking down each mark.

Most U.S. Trail and Mountain Running Championships have a minimum of $2,000 in prize money. Typically that comes from regional sponsors eager to support the local race organizations, such as the case with Northeast Delta Dental’s contributions behind this year’s Loon Mountain Race in Lincoln, New Hampshire, which hosted the U.S. Mountain Running Championships. That event had a $1,500 total prize purse that was paid out to the top three men and women in each race, but it also had an additional $1,500 for an Upper Walking Boss premium that was spread among the top three fastest times in each gender on the super-steep upper part of the course.

Meanwhile, the 2022 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Thailand paid out $66,000 to the top five finishers over four races, including $4,000 to the winners of each event.

“(The prize money) is way better than it’s ever been, both for the athletes earning it and the number of sponsors who are contributing to it,” says Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association and the chairperson of the USATF Mountain Ultra Trail Council that oversees national championship races and the U.S. Mountain Running Team. 

From a longer view over the past decade or so, Joe Gray agrees there is more money coming into the sport than ever before. As a top-tier pro since 2008 and 21-time U.S. champion, he’s regularly won more prize money at high-level races in Europe for more than a decade. But more than the growth of prize money, he has seen more brands interested in putting money behind athletes, races, and the sport in general.

“I think there has always been prize money there, and if you’re successful you could make a lot more money really quickly,” said Gray, a two-time World Mountain Running Champion. “I do think there is more money coming from the sponsors paying out better contracts and bigger bonuses, which I think will wind up being more beneficial to athletes overall.”

Most elite trail runners get annual stipends from their sponsoring brands and bonus money for top performances. Gray is backed by Hoka, but he also has sponsorship deals with Fox River Socks, Kriva, Never Second, Knockdown, Tanri, Momentous, Casio, and GoSleeves. In addition to Hoka, Annie Hughes gets additional support from Ultraspire, Coros, and Tailwind Nutrition. But the life of professional trail runners—independent contractors who don’t get healthcare and retirement program benefits—can get expensive with the growing cost of travel, regular bodywork/physio treatments, and private health insurance. 

The sport’s top-tier elite athletes—Joe Gray, Kilian Jornet, Courtney Dauwalter, Jim Walmsley, Maude Mathys, and Scott Jurek, among others—make a good living from their sponsorships. But there are really only a handful American trail runners making more than about $50,000 a year from shoe brand sponsorships. (Most “sponsored” trail runners are making somewhere between $10,000 to $30,000 per year.) The bottom line is that winning prize money, for those who are fast enough to consistently finish on the podium in big races, certainly helps make ends meet and is necessary to keep the sport’s top athletes from having to work other jobs so they can focus entirely on training, recovery, and racing.

“This [2022] is the first year I’ve gone all-in on trail running,” said Hughes, who worked as a waitress in Leadville the previous two years. “I’m able to live off what I make, but I’m not really saving anything. So it was really nice to win that money because then I can put some away in savings.”

Higher European Standards 

So far, Abramowitz appears to be right about the sport shifting to more of a European focus, and it’s, at least in part, tied to the increased prize money that has attracted competitive athletes. While many top-tier European events have paid out modest prize purses for years, some of those races have also helped out visiting runners by way of travel stipends, hotel accommodations, or appearance fees. That’s partially because European races are generally larger (500 to 1,000 participants or more) than U.S. races (typically fewer than 500 participants).

Unlike Hughes, who only raced in the U.S. this year, American runner Abby Hall, who runs for the Adidas-Terrex team, raced three times in Europe and earned prize money each time. She placed second in the Transgrancanaria 126K in the Canary Islands in March (which doubled as the Spartan Trail World Championship), finished third in the CCC 100K in Chamonix in August, and won the Transvulcania by UTMB 72K back in the Canary Islands in October.

Like Hughes, Hall receives an annual stipend and race bonuses from her sponsor, but admits it’s been nice to have more opportunities to win money—both because it helps her make a living wage and because it’s consistent with other professional endurance sports.

“In the past, it hadn’t even been a consideration before, for how income would work out as an athlete,” Hall said. “But this year it actually added up to be a decent amount. I’m grateful for the opportunities.”

In 2022, American runner Hayden Hawks won an off-the-radar 100K a race in Krynica, Poland, and brought home the 100,000 zloty winner’s prize ($26,000), one of the bigger individual purses ever awarded in trail running. In 2017, when Hawks won the CCC race, he didn’t win anything because UTMB had refused until 2018 to offer prize money at its races, partly because race founders Catherine and Michel Poletti have believed that increased prize money will bring more incentive for some athletes to consider doping or that agents would take too big of a cut. 

UTMB finally began offering prize money to podium finishers in 2018 with a total purse of about $34,000 (35,000€) and continued that through 2021. But after forging a business relationship with Ironman and launching the new UTMB World Series, it has increased the prize money awarded in Chamonix. In 2022, UTMB said it paid out about $162,000 in total prize money (the approximate equivalent of its stated 156,000€ prize purse) to the top 10 men and women finishers of the UTMB, CCC, and OCC races.

That includes $10,400 to the winners of each of those races, with approximately $5,200 going to second-place finishers and $3,125 for third. Fourth- and fifth-place finishers in each of those races earned about $1,500, while 6th through 10th took home $1,000.

While those more notable ultrarunning paydays can be big windfalls for a trail runner, they still pale in comparison to what elite-level road marathoners and triathletes earn at the biggest races that have a much larger audience, including live TV coverage. For example, the 2022 Boston Marathon awarded $876,500 in prize money and $150,000 to the winners, while New York City Marathon paid out $530,000 in total prize money at its November 6 race, including $100,000 to the men’s and women’s winners. The 2021 Ironman World Championships in St. George, Utah, had a $750,000 prize purse, including $125,000 to the winners, similar to what was awarded at the 2022 Ironman World Championships October 6-8 in Hawaii. 

While only a few top trail runners could have opted to pursue a marathon or triathlon career instead of trail running, what’s more relevant is the spike of growth trail running. Although it is not yet internationally televised as major marathons and triathlons are, the surge in participation and livestream viewing options is starting to bring in more media attention and sponsorship money than ever before. And more media attention begets more participation and professionalization. 

“I think we’ll definitely see ultra-trail running continue to grow for years to come,” says Mike McManus, director of global sports marketing for Hoka. “I think it’s at a point where it’s just on the cusp of the real growth that’s coming and all that will come with it, similar to where the marathon was in the 1980s and triathlon in the 1990s. It might never be as big as marathoning, but trail running will definitely get more built out as it continues to grow.”

“It’s nice to make some money for the sport we do. This is my job, and being able to support my family with a decent chunk of money is pretty nice,” Hawks says. “I definitely don’t go after races just for money, but if there is a gap in my schedule where I can win a little bit of money, I am definitely going to take advantage of that for sure. I want to continue to be in this sport and live this lifestyle as long as I can, so knowing that there are sponsors and races investing more in runners is something I am really grateful for.”

The Ongoing Dilemma

While Abramowitz and Sachs have been eager to give out prize money at Run Rabbit Run, not all races are equipped to do so. Many U.S. races are garage-shop operations that barely break even, while some are just too small to make it happen. The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WSER) is operated by a non-profit organization, and offering prize money goes against the mission of the race, says race director Craig Thornley.

The biggest concern that race directors have, including Thornley, is that prize money attracts athletes willing to use performance-enhancing drugs because the sport lacks a comprehensive anti-doping strategy that includes both post-race testing and out-of-competition testing.

“In general, I think the prize money is probably a good thing because professional athletes are able to make a living,” Thornley said. “But I think, as a sport, we’ll probably have to be more aware of people trying to use drugs or some other ways to get that prize money.” 

A few years ago, the Western States 100 famously announced its zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) that prohibits any athlete who has been determined to have violated anti-doping rules or policies—by World Athletics, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), or any national sports federation—is ineligible for entry into the WSER. Although Western States has regularly drug-tested its top finishers, only a few other big trail or ultra-distance races test its finishers with a WADA-sanctioned program.

RELATED: Sierre-Zinal Winner Mark Kangogo Provisionally Suspended For Alleged Doping Violations

Thornley believes the incentive to cheat has probably increased as more brands have stepped up to sponsor athletes, but the increase in prize money probably makes it more tangible. 

He’s not the only one. Ultrarunning coach and podcaster Jason Koop, an outspoken proponent for authentic drug-testing in the sport, agrees, saying that it’s time for the sport to collectively start developing mandatory drug-testing protocols, even on a small scale. While he doesn’t believe doping is prevalent in trail running, he believes it’s definitely already an issue.

“People would be fooling themselves if they thought that every trail running performance was clean. If you think that that’s the case, then I have a bridge to sell you,” Koop says. “Prize money or no prize money, I think the bigger thing is that the ecosystem is developed enough and there is enough financial reward at stake to where everyone kind of owes it to everybody else to get something done.”

In other words, it’s time for the sport to take some next steps—either by big governing bodies or small factions of people interested in the long-term health of the sport—to develop more structure and universal anti-doping policies.