Is the High Price of Stage Racing Worth It?

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Evaluating the costs and benefits of high-price-tag running experiences

Photo courtesy of the Grand to Grand Ultra

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in ultrarunner Jenn Hughes’ ongoing series on training for stage races.

One of the most common questions asked about multi-day stage races is “Is it worth it?” With many costing at least $5000 a pop, it’s certainly a relevant query. Defining worth is subjective, though, especially when it comes to the value each individual places on a particular experience. As a self-employed small-business owner with limited reserves, I have somehow managed to fund two of these adventures, to the detriment of my 401K, so personally, I must believe the value is there. For this month’s feature, I look at some of the hard and soft benefits for your stage-racing buck.

How high IS the cost?
The entry fee for multi-day stage races is now between $3200-3900, which covers only your entry fee and usually one or two nights of hotel before and after the event. It does not cover airfare, gear or food, which will add $1000-2000 more at a minimum, depending on where the race is located. It is realistic to assume you will spend at least $5000 and as much as $10,000. Convincing a non-ultrarunning spouse may be your biggest challenge. Many racers do try to defray the cost by fundraising, sponsorship or borrowing gear.

So what do you actually get for that?
Stage races offer runners a chance to compete in remote locations that are often inaccessible outside of the race. Course directors spend months sourcing hidden spots with equal amounts of extreme beauty and challenge, winding competitors through postcard-perfect vistas that will push runners to their limits. Piecing these sections together requires months of logistical planning with local governments and permitting offices, all of which are built into the cost. Runners are then free to spend a week, unplugged from the troubles of modern life, traveling through the world’s greatest treasures without having to worry about navigation or water re-supply throughout the day.

The logistics of camp are handled so that competitors arrive to open-air tents and campfires. Most races offer hot water, but Marathon des Sables (the original stage race) does not. In that case, it is up to competitors whether to carry the added weight of a stove in addition to the normal items—food, clothes, toiletries, med supplies, sleeping bag and pad.

Once you make your own dinner you can settle in by the fire to re-hash the day with an international field of runners. For those who appreciate security, another benefit is a world-class medical team that is always there in case of emergency. Additionally, crew vehicles and sometimes helicopters rove the course in support throughout the day.

What about the intangibles?
The physical and mental challenges of waking up to run ultra-distances seven days in a row (without a shower or comfortable bed) cannot be understated. At the end of each stage, runners look forward to arriving at camp with volunteers beating the drums in welcome and a row of waving flags for each of the countries represented. Lying in the tent with feet up, tired and happy, after another day of adventuring is a feeling that cannot be manufactured. Over seven days friendships are formed, personal barriers are overcome, and the final stage usually finishes into an epic location that lends itself well to the accompanying sense of triumph.

The take-away
I recently had the opportunity to talk with legendary ultrarunner and adventurer Ferge Hawke about this topic and he said this of his stage-racing experience, “People always say the cost seems crazy, but it was one of the greatest adventures of my life, worth every penny. I met so many amazing people who have become my lifelong friends.”

A Disney vacation, an African safari or a multi-day stage race across the desert—with every experience there will be a certain cost that the market has determined is reasonable. At that point, it becomes a question of individual choice and priorities. If you asked me whether a $10,000 luxury cruise was “worth it”, I would shrug dismissively; my mother, by contrast, would not hesitate in her enthusiasm.

For those wanting an incredible challenge in a dramatic landscape, planning a solo adventure of the same caliber would likely cost just as much, if not more, as well as months of intensive planning. Based on this, as well as the built-in camaraderie with fellow runners, the stage-race experience quickly reveals its value.

Jenn Hughes is a Washington-based ultrarunner and owner of RunPrettyFar, a women’s running-apparel company.

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