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He Qualified for Team USA. Then Came the Bill.

Even as trail and ultrarunning explode, the spoils of professionalization aren’t spread equally across the sport. Athletes on this year’s U.S. 24-hour team are looking to change that

Scott Traer qualified for his first U.S. national team more than a decade ago in 2012. He was new to the sport and naive about what it took to compete at the international level—even after being selected as one of the country’s best athletes in the 24-hour discipline, a niche tributary of trail and ultrarunning where athletes complete as many laps around a track as possible within 24 hours.

While the 24-hour race format may seem eccentric, well-known names like Courtney Dauwalter, Kilian Jornet, and Camille Heron have dabbled in the ultra-track scene. International governing bodies regulate the discipline with USA Track & Field (USATF), the national governing body for track and field, cross country, road running, race walking, and mountain-ultra-trail (MUT) disciplines, overseeing the American contingent. 

Traer, then 31, was working odd construction jobs in and around Boston to make ends meet while training when he got the call from USATF that he had been selected for Team USA.

“I was really excited,” says Traer. “Then, I found out that I had to pay for everything. So I was like, ‘Forget about it.’” 

That financial reality took the wind out of Traer’s sails. He didn’t have the disposable income to foot the bill for international travel and didn’t have paid time off from his jobs. While he was disappointed that he wouldn’t get to represent his country in 2012, he was still determined to pursue his dream of chasing a career in coaching and racing. 

Now, Traer, 42, is a full-time coach living near Phoenix and working with the Arizona-based event organization Aravaipa Running as an assistant race director. He has earned top accolades in the sport, including a course record at the Javelina 100K and a Golden Ticket to Western States at the Black Canyons 100K, eventually leading to a top-ten finish at the Western States Endurance Run. 

True to his blue-collar roots, he is known for racing in unbranded gear, typically a long-sleeve, white SPF shirt unbuttoned and flapping in time with his stride. Ten years after making his first 24-hour team, he re-qualified for the opportunity to compete for the U.S. again, this time for the 2023 IAU 24-Hour World Championships in Taiwan (which international sports federating bodies officially refer to as Chinese Taipei), on December 2. 

The catch: USATF is only providing a stipend of $600 to Team USA athletes.

Oregon ultrarunner Pam Smith has competed on Team USA seven times in the 24-hour and 100K world championship events. Now, she’s serving as the Team USA manager to help steward the next generation of ultra athletes. But that passion has come at a cost. 

“I estimate I’ve spent around $10,000 in personal funds to be able to compete at the world championships and to represent the USA at these events,” says Smith, 49, who finished fourth at the 2019 IAU World Championships in France. “USATF does pay for the manager’s travel expenses, but there is no other compensation; in fact, the managers have to use their own funds to cover some fees, like membership dues and background checks.”

It might surprise fans of the sport that many of their favorite athletes are paying significant money to sport the red, white, and blue uniform—and that many can’t compete because they cannot shoulder the cost. The U.S. is known for strong 24-hour runners, and the men’s and women’s teams both won gold at the previous IAU 24-Hour World Championships in 2019 in Albi, France, with two individual podium spots. 

“The U.S. has many of the best 24-hour runners in the world,” says Smith. “It’s a shame that these athletes don’t even get their airfare covered.”

While Smith’s airfare is covered, her work and that of her colleagues is presumed to be done on a volunteer basis. (A quick online search shows a flight to Chinese Taipei from most U.S. cities costs in the $1,500-$2,400 price range.)

Trail running, particularly the elite side of the sport, is at an inflection point. While some races dole out prize money, and a select few athletes at the top of the sport command respectable salaries, most runners at the elite level rely on a scattershot combination of brand partnerships and personal funding to float their racing. While the sport’s very best athletes are well compensated professionals, most “sponsored” trail runners earn between $10,000 and $30,000 per year. Between travel, gear, nutrition, and other expenses, many runners at the elite level are fronting their own cash to compete. 

When Chad Lasater qualified for Team USA after a strong run at the Desert Solstice 24-Hour Race, he hadn’t planned on making the team. But, when he found out he’d qualified, he started looking into the logistics and was shocked to discover he’d be responsible for paying his way to Taipei. 

“The cost of airfare, lodging, food, and time away from work can be significant, especially when traveling to somewhere like Taipei,” says Lasater, 51, from Sugar Land, Texas. “I feel that everyone should have an equal opportunity to be on the U.S. team, and the cost of traveling to the world championships should not preclude anyone from accepting a spot on the team. We should really be sending our best 24-hour athletes to the world championships, not the best athletes who can afford to travel.”

Teams that rely on individual brands or athletes to foot the bill will prefer runners with sponsorships or disposable income and can afford to take time off work and pay for childcare. 

At the top of the sport, like the world championships, it’s routine to see completely unsponsored runners competing with no brand affiliation, especially in the eccentric realm of 24-hour track events. Even some sponsored runners don’t always get their travel expenses covered. 

While a world championship event is certainly a big deal, it doesn’t command the same fanfare and media attention as other marquee events, like the Western States Endurance Run or Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, where many brands prefer to focus their resources. 

Jeff Colt, a 32-year-old professional ultrarunner for On who lives in Carbondale, Colorado, publicly debated the merits of returning to Western States in California this year or competing in the 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Austria in early June. (The trail running world championships and 24-hour world championships are different events, but the Team USA athletes who compete in each one face similar challenges when it comes to funding and market value to brands.) He ultimately decided to claim his Golden Ticket and compete at States. More eyeballs on the event mean a higher return on the investment for running brands, which in turn elevates athletes’ value to their sponsors 

“My sponsor, On, was clear that they supported my decision either way, but they were more interested in me running Western States,” says Colt. “And rightfully so. There’s a lot of media attention at races like States and UTMB, which allow brands to activate and get visibility for their logo. That support feels good as an athlete, too. It’s not just better for the brand.”

Nike has an exclusive partnership with USATF; all athletes competing at any world championship event in the mountain-ultra-trail disciplines (as well as the Olympics and World Athletics Championships for track and field and the marathon) must wear Nike-issued Team USA uniforms that are provided to the athletes free of charge, with the exception of shoes. Any photos or videos of professional runners at these events are less valuable to competing running brands because their athletes will appear bedecked in another company’s logo. This disincentivizes many brands from investing in unsponsored athletes’ travel expenses and limits athletes’ ability to get financial support, most of which currently comes from shoe and apparel brands in the trail running industry. And if athletes cannot compete because of illness or injury, they must return parts of the kit. Even if they keep the kit, many sponsored runners’ contracts prohibit them from training and racing in the gear, so it gathers dust at the back of their closets. 

Arizona runner Nick Coury, preparing to compete on his third U.S. 24-hour team, says this contract limits the economic opportunities of unsponsored athletes—partially because it disallows an athlete to place another sponsor’s logo on the Nike gear. 

“This is especially upsetting to many because Nike provides large sums of money to USATF for this arrangement, yet neither passes through significant support to national teams despite USATF being a nonprofit aimed at ‘driving competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport,’” says Coury, 35, from Scottsdale, Arizona. “USATF is taking money from Nike, restricting elite athletes to fund themselves through sponsorship, and doing little to nothing to encourage a competitive national team.”

One athlete, sharing anonymously, reported selling parts of their Nike kit to help offset travel expenses. “It’s the same kit [100-meter and 200-meter track and field superstar] Noah Lyles wears, so it’s super valuable.”

Traer thinks it’s unfair that athletes are forced to wear Nike gear and render free labor supporting a huge company, especially when the 24-hour team isn’t fully funded. Lyles, an Adidas athlete who won the 100-meter dash at this year’s World Athletics Championships in Budapest, had to wear Nike gear while warming up and racing, too. But his travel and expenses were paid in full by USATF, and his Adidas relationship benefits because track and field stars get considerably more exposure than ultrarunners. Furthermore, in track and field, the world championships serve as a prelude to the biggest running event on the calendar, the Olympics, which take place every four years and attract an expansive viewership that reaches far beyond hardcore running fans.

“It bothers me because Nike is making a huge amount of money,” Traer says. “I don’t want to hear that there isn’t enough money to support athletes because I see smaller brands in our sport that have less money doing a much better job supporting athletes.” 

Nancy Hobbs is the chairperson of the USATF Mountain and Ultra Trail Running Council, the division of USATF that oversees the U.S. 24-Hour Team. Her executive committee has been discussing more equitable distribution of funds. Initially, funding was based on the number of years the championships had been held and how many athletes were attending. 

Ultimately though, it comes down to the relatively small amount of Nike money that USATF allocates to the USATF MUT Running Council.

“With a certain amount of money in the budget, we could choose to send fewer athletes (i.e., just a scoring team with no spares in case of injury, etc.), but the council discussion has been on the importance of fielding a full team with some additional athletes for attrition and providing more athletes an opportunity to compete internationally (provided they qualify for the team based on selection criteria),” says Hobbs. 

Though the compensation for mountain-ultra-trail athletes may feel low, it is significantly higher than in the past. In 1999, a mere $250 was distributed to each MUT subcommittee, totaling $750 for all 1999 expenses. In 2013, MUT teams received $25,000 in funding for travel. This year, $83,000 was distributed across all of the teams it sends to international championships for MUT disciplines. 

“We’ve come a long way with MUT since 1998,” says Hobbs. “We have more work to do. This is a volunteer-driven group which is passionate about our sport and trying to provide athletes opportunities through championships, teams, and programs within the structure of USATF.”

Coury qualified for his third U.S. 24-hour team in 2021 and broke the American 24-hour record. He’s had to fund his travel out of pocket for all three international appearances. He says the lack of funding limits the team’s ability to compete on the world stage. 

“I’ve found it extremely challenging to train for a 24-hour event while holding a full-time job, as have others, and I know I haven’t and won’t hit my personal potential as a result,” says Coury. “We’ve seen an explosion in the competitiveness and interest in trail races, and part of that is the ability for ultrarunners to make a living as professional athletes. We see very few runners in the 24-hour space who can go professional, which reflects in our team’s competitiveness.”

While Team USA won both gold medals in 2019, international competition is escalating. Coury says opening up additional funding would help draw elites and strong amateurs alike to try their hand at the 24-hour format, which would help Team USA’s standing on the world stage. 

“Athletes like Courtney Dauwalter and Camille Herron have represented Team USA multiple times and been key to our results,” says Coury. “Yet I am certain they must weigh training, qualifying, and representing Team USA against the sponsorship opportunities in trail ultrarunning, where financial support is much greater. I imagine there would be more interest from some of our most capable athletes if we had a better financial story around the team, providing a path for it to fund an athlete’s career instead of costing out of pocket. Given the prospects of making a living at a trail race versus paying to represent Team USA, I’m positive we’re discouraging some of our best athletes from even wanting to try.”

In previous years, Team USA has resorted to raising money through bake sales and selling T-shirts to raise funds for the team’s travel expenses. Past team captain Howard Nippert made and sold ice bandanas to support the team. This year’s captain Smith is hosting fundraising dinners. Coury says that the ultrarunning community has stepped up to support the team where traditional funding has failed. 

“It reminds me in some ways of the amateur athlete situation back in the 1970s, where representing your country came at a significant financial burden and really made athletes reconsider it,” says Coury. “Why isn’t USATF making it desirable to train and compete for Team USA? Why is it seemingly doing the opposite?”

The 24-hour team is at a crossroads: either it will receive adequate funding and support to send the best team possible to the world championships, or it will maintain this status quo while Team USA falls further and further behind on the international stage. Traer has launched a petition on Change.org to draw attention to the funding issue and is determined to sound the alarm about how a lack of funding holds athletes and all of Team USA back. 

“No one should have to decide that they made Team USA but can’t afford to pay to wear their country’s flag,” says Traer. “If an athlete earns their spot on the team, they should get the support they need to compete. End of story.”

(10/07/2023) Views: 296 ‚ö°AMP
by Outside Online
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