Globalization to me is an easy one. We're all humans. When I line up to run a race it really doesn't matter much to me where the people are from that I'm racing against. It's a fast growing sport and this is leading to races with more and more people from all over the world. I love running day in and day out, but the thrill of lining up with hundreds of like minded runners and testing myself in a competition with them is something that I can only do in races. I thrive on the competition. Generally the more top level runners in a race, the more excited I get about that race. And thus, the worldwide growth of the sport makes me really excited to open up so many more possibilities of talented runners to race against. I want to race against the best in the world. More and more that is becoming a possibility. A possibility that might not have existed in trail ultras a few years back. To me these are all good things. It's the money issue where things get a little bit stickier:
There has been a fair amount of prize money making it's way into Ultrarunning in the past few years. There still isn't much, but if the amount of races with prize money (and the total amount of this prize money) grows as much in the next few years as it has in the past few years it will begin to be a fairly substantial amount. The North Face Endurance Challenge races are the most obvious examples of new prize money in the sport, but there have also been dozens of other new races to pop up in the past few years with small amounts of prize money. Why is this?
There are so many ultra races now that a new race needs to do something to separate itself from all the other races. One way of doing this is to offer prize money. The more money, the more separation. So far this trend hasn't really had much of an effect on the sport. The old established races are generally still the most recognized races and to my knowledge not one of these "old" races has yet added prize money. I'd be surprised if this still true in another year or two.
By putting up a $10k prize the North Face has created a race that in 5 years became what was generally considered to be the most competitive 50 mile trail race ever in the world. Surely someone else has noticed this and has thoughts about upping the ante. The North Face has done almost nothing to promote this event and tap into the real potential that they have in their lap here. Instead it feels like they just kind of threw down the prize money for the hell of it and then forgot about it. Someone soon will put down more money and will do more to take advantage of the runners that this will draw, and in short time they will have one of the most recognized trail races in the world. To me this seems like a given. And when this happens I think it will begin to force some of the existing "most recognized" races to make some decisions.
Right now there is a void. The North Face has shown that by simply putting down a little bit of prize money you can draw a ton of attention from top runners around the world. As more new races begin to follow suit this void will begin to fill up and existing races will need to decide if they want to play the game or if they want to fade aside into the category of largely non-competitive races. Most will probably choose the later. A few will choose the former and there will become a fairly distinct divide in terms of the level of top competition seen at various races around the world. Not unlike the current marathon racing dynamic around the world.
Maybe none of this is actually going to occur. I think it's going to though. I think it's already started and is virtually unavoidable at this point. Thus the question becomes whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or neither.
I'm actually kind of split on this question. I would love to be able to earn decent money racing something that I love so much. More than this though I would love it if there were dozens of races around the world that drew the kind of competition that the North Face race is now drawing. I want enough money in the sport that truly elite marathoners (sub 2:10) are inclined to try their hand at it. Large amounts of prize money will make these things happen.
Where the problems with prize money start to creep in is when you start to think about where the money is going to come from. Ideally large corporations (North Face and others) put down the money and draw enough attention to the event (because of the elite runners), and their products, that they feel confident that they are making a financial gain. The other option is that races pay out large sums of prize money with money generated from race entry fees. In some situations this might be able to work (specifically in races which are allowed huge numbers of people), but in most cases this prize money will result in significantly increased entry fees or significantly decreased amount of amenities that we receive from races on race day. I think entry fees are already really high in this sport ($370 for Western States), and certainly nobody wants races to provide less for them before, during, or after the run.
And herein lies the potential problem with more prize money in the sport. Ultra running is already a pretty exclusive, middle to upper middle class activity. Right now I think this has as much to do with demographics as it does with the costs related to participating in events, but the thought of making events even more expensive, and thus less accessible to individuals with less money doesn't seem like a good direction to head towards.
Ultimately what I hope and think will happen is that large corporations will follow the lead of The North Face and put down some serious prize money to get their hands on some of the void that exists right now because of how fast this sport is growing around the world. Just think how strange it is that by simply throwing down $10k (which is virtually nothing to a company like NF) they were able to create one of the most competitive ultra races in the world almost overnight. It shows just how much the established races aren't keeping up with the growth of the sport. Companies that are able to maximize the attention they get from being attached to such a worldwide event should have no problem recouping the prize money they put down without any need to charge super high entry fees.
Many races will take a staunch stance against prize money and they will "thrive" as old-fashioned, low key, low competition events for individuals who are drawn to this aspect of ultrarunning. The ironic thing is that many of these will be the same races which are currently some of the most recognizable and competitive events in the sport. Personally I think this is all a good thing. I like the low-key, low competition events just as much as the events with world class competition. In fact I think the further toward either end of this spectrum that an event falls the more appealing it is to me. It's the ones in the middle that are kind of boring. Luckily these are the ones that will likely fade into oblivion (by moving far to the left or to the right) as more prize money comes into the sport.