Monday, 2 September 2013

How to make money in running

I have deceived you with this title; I have no idea how to make money running. I do, however, know how to spend it. Or at least that's what's been going on until now. I'm ending this practise.

Like many enthusiasts I bought the fancy merchandise, signed up for expensive races, and travel. Why oh why did I spend so much when a pair of ratty shoes and t-shirt was needed to accomplish a run? Unlike sailing or drag racing, there's little in the way of any equipment in running. But money, once earned from actual work (my day job), some law of nature declares it must be spent.  If I loved motorcycles I would probably spend what little extra I earn on touring the open roads. Maybe while en route I'd justify it with a little Zen philosophy. Were I a music lover, I'd equip my apartment with Bang Olufsen and a Yamaha sound mixer. Back to reality for a brief time I was a collector of hard-to-find DVDs (This includes the 8-hour Russian version of War and Peace and Decalogue). I also bought books plainly available at any library. Now I watch Netflix and borrow so progress has been made.

Back to running. My running expenses have been less honest. Unlike DVDs and other collectibles, I convinced myself that my running expenses were noble. Running is so damn good for me I thought, and so promise lay ahead in my competing at it, that money had to be spent. New shoes were old after two months; I chose races, then looked at the price tag; I even spent $45 on a water bottle holster. I still buy useless running books, but try to hold off until I have gift certificates.

Before I sound too much like an anti-capitalist there's nothing inherently wrong with making money or spending it. The trick is how to keep one's head in reality while spending. I've been cutting back on extravagant races. I was dangerously close to signing up for the Chicago marathon and spending at least $1500 until I realized there was no particularly good reason to do this race. Granted I did not run the sub 1:11 half necessary for late "elite development" registration, but it hit me: what the hell do I need Chicago for anyway? Run a sub 2:30 marathon? I could do that anywhere. Had I run a 1:10:59 or whatever all it would mean in the end is that I ran one overpriced race in order to race another. One should note that Chicago's elite development program saves said developing athletes not a dime in registration fees; they still pay the same $200 like everyone else. I don't mind spending a few dollars on a race. I ran Halifax's Natal day run for $20 (no tax, no extra fees) and it even came with a nice t-shirt. I've run $15 races that are quite adequate.

Objectively speaking, were I in charge of a race and found people were spending huge sums to be there, I'm not sure I'd turn their money away. Choosing whether to spend the money in the first place; here is where the buyer must be aware (or beware?). So I asked myself why am I spending money doing this?

Reasons to spend money (or break even)

Once upon a time GPS was not at everyone's fingertips. To have a measured course was a privilege in itself. How many recreational runners in the 1970s or 80s knew exactly how far they were running each day?  These days it's assumed that someone in a given group will provide miles and paces. So why the big deal in racing an organized marathon? Plenty of races aren't even closed to traffic. With a few strategically placed water fountains anyone can complete an accurate 42.2 km run with an equally accurate time.

Perhaps runners compete in races for the large crowds and the sense of belonging.  

Once upon a time running was a fringe sport. As an elite runner this remains true, but gone are the days when women could not compete for fear of their uterus falling out or that a marathon distance is a dangerous undertaking for anyone. Jogging was big in the 1970s, and there have been ups and downs in its popularity since, but in 2012 the number of marathon finishers in the US alone is half a million. Millions more compete counting all shorter events. Runners total in the millions, Running Room groups criss-crossing sidewalks on weekends. Running is not like a specialized science where conferences join those separated by thousands of miles. If anything not running can make you an outsider in today's workplace (Hell, I work in the physics department and know a good number of them).  The point is that joining a race is no longer some kind of underground secret meeting.

Perhaps its not for the sense of belonging; maybe runners just want to compete.

Once upon a time runners ran for no money at all. But this was the baby boom generation when a summer job could pay for your tuition, a car, and most of your rent. And there was no money to be made in running anyway. Profit did not yet exists. Those were the days when the Olympic athletics were truly amateur. Running shoes and entry fees were ideas not yet conceived. Times have since changed. As I said before there is nothing automatically bad about profiting from those people happy to spend. A fool and their money, so to speak. This is why Starbucks coffee and overpriced sushi remains good, and relatively honest, business practice. By the same token if there's money to be made (or, equivalently, expenses avoided), one should take advantage. Free shoes, waved entries, or winning bonuses? I'm there. Yet there has been recent reductions in terms of road race prize money. For most elites, who work less hence earn less than your "average" runner, the money won mostly covers the costs of competing. By the way, an average NYC marathoner earns $130,000 from his or her day job.

The numbers are approximate but I think it's about right.
Personally speaking, why do (or did) I compete? To prove something to myself? Since measuring out the physical race distance is trivial, competing must satisfy some other need. At the very least it proves to others I actually ran distance X in time T. Perhaps we're reaching new heights of (extroverted?) narcism. To this I plead guilty. All that money, all that time and effort being spent not for the sake of pure inner satisfaction but instead to post something worthwhile on my Facebook page. "Hey everyone, I did it! And I did it all for me".

Ironically enough the most successful non-elite self-promoters such as Josh Cox, John Stanton or Dean Karnazes are looked down upon in certain semi-competitive circles. Yet many of these same individuals would not hesitate to brag about a good race they had, or if not about their own then one among their teammates. Though I have no statistics to back up the claim, it seems a sub-30 min 10k performance from a complete unknown is an increasingly rare find. Instinctively runners are learning the art of self promotion. If we agree the race exists as a form of backed-up bragging rights then we must also accept those who've found ways to earn enough money to continue doing what they love.  

Way to earn money

From what I've learned over the years, here's how to make money at running:

1) Be the fastest (or at least top 10)

2) Provide quality advice

3) Host a profitable race

4) Tell a good story

That's it. Those in category #1 know who they are. Those in #2 include the likes of Jack Daniels, Bill Bowerman, Canova, or Tim Noakes. Those in #3 run the Ottawa Race Weekend, Boston, NYC, Great North Run, and so on. Those in category #4 include everyone else. There is money to be made, but it's not being handed out like candy. For those like myself it's a game of knowing where pitfalls are, then avoiding them.

To put it succinctly (unlike this post), I'm fortifying myself with a little philosophy, a little bargain hunting, and a little story telling. If I beak even that's a victory. It's all part of the game.    


  1. I'm not sure I'm 100% on-board with this post. The sense of belonging is a big part of it. Being in a secret club is cool (aka Montreal Endurance or The Black Lungs) but so is being in a big, public club (aka McGill Olympic). Also, if you are competitive and want to run fast, you'll run faster in an organized race than in a self-measured, self-paced time trial.

    I think worrying about money (going in or going out) is missing the point. It is something some people do, and something that, to varying degrees, defines some people. I hope that you consider me to be in category #2 (at least, that's the way I'm making what little money I do from the sport). But I don't give advice for money, really. I give advice because it's nice to see people happy. That makes me happy. The money coming in is necessary so that I have time to ensure the advice is somewhat of quality (and spending money on books is another way to keep the quality up--as long as I read them!)

    1. Ah, I was worried that's how it would come off. Did you notice the part of the average NY marathoner earning $130,000 at their job? The top 5% of Americans earn that much. Hence the idea of a "community" event is being lost in big-name road races, unless your community is other wealthy active people.
      I wrote this without much planning or structure, but the two elements that came to mind writing it are
      1) Road races are becoming elite in an unintended way (consider the winners earn less in a year than the middle of the pack runners!)
      2) The rest of us just want to have fun, break even. John, that's why people like you are part of the solution!
      3) A couple of in-betweeners want to make a few dollars in more creative ways. I can't fault that, but I'm worried the chasm between those who earn more than others think they should and those who earn less than they think they should was widening.

      If races are profitable ventures, but do nothing for the top tiers, then it's time for lots of discussion. I don't mind throwing myself in the middle of the controversy since I have nothing to lose. I'm not joking when I say I welcome criticism here!

  2. I'm also of two minds about this post. I truly wish I could be entirely satisfied with going out on a random Sunday morning and running 42.2km as quickly as possible and entirely FOR FREE (sans the cost of shoes, shorts and a shirt)! I mean, why not? Well, because I, like so many of those in our sport today, want the external recognition and rewards. The justification for all the time and energy (and money!) expended in the pursuit. Running really doesn't need to be as expensive as it is. But we allow it to be without many complaints.

    John is also on to something big when he points out that the sense of belonging, whether to a club, a group or even the entire race field of hundred and thousands, is a often ignored benefit of running. We become increasingly isolated in our lives and do everything for some extraneous reason. Running allows us to do something for ourselves and has the potential for intrinsic value.

    At the end of the day, few people can (or should) worry about making money from running. That's not why most of us do it... and that's probably a good thing!

    1. When I investigated the proportion of race fees going to the winner's circle what surprised me was that I didn't catch anyone reacting in terms of "this is fair/unfair". Is 10% a pittance or completely acceptable? No-one seems to know.

      Whatever level you are training at, I completely agree big races legitimize all the time and effort that go into training. Hence my own philosophical crisis. I asked myself why isn't just running with friends enough? and I didn't have an answer. If enter a race and win, is a finishers medal enough or do I want more? For the record that's what I liked about Cabot trail: self-orgainized (more than a typical race) and the victories were purely ceremonial. Friendly atmosphere.

      The erosion of elite support got people upset, but if I suggest abandoning said races for more self-organized affairs people are equally upset. I'm coming to terms with the cost of joining a race, but in my own way. Others will acknowledge the same premise while reaching completely different conclusions.

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