Commercialism – running to escape it


I will not run the Marathon du Mont Blanc ever again. Back in 2009, it was my first proper mountain race, and I loved every minute (there were plenty of them) of it. Since then I’ve run it each year, and last year when I stepped up to the 80km. This annual event launched my obsession with running ultra’s, and in have a huge amount to thank it for. There’s absolutely no denying that running in the Chamonix valley, you have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

Each year the Marathon du Mont Blanc has filled its spaces quicker and quicker, but even though they filled in just four days this year, I was sitting in front my computer and didn’t type. The photo above is of running up Mont de la Saxe above Courmayeur in Italy. The huge landscape, lack of others, and total escape from the day to day world, is why I run.

This year the Marathon du Mont Blanc has for the first time a prize purse of 25,000€, as part of the ISF Skyrunning World Championships (link). I’ll never be in contention for any race prize money, and that’s fine by me, so that’s not my concern at all. The winners of this event are always sponsored athletes, such as Kilian Jornet who is the ‘face’ of Salomon, who are already paid by their sponsors. What bothers me is not the effect of mixing professionals with amateurs, but corporate greed and influence squashing enjoyment and the free spirit of trail running.

Last night I returned to re-read a specific chapter of Richard Askwith’s book ‘Feet in the Clouds’ (link), namely chapter 9 “What price tradition?”. If you’ve never read the book, it charts the history of fell running in the UK, and the authors obsession with running the infamous Bob Graham Round. In chapter 9, Askwith explains the clash of professional prize money races, versus amateur AAA races, in an ongoing battle over decades that threatened to destroy the sport completely at times.

This is exactly what is wrong with the Marathon du Mont Blanc prize money. I don’t begrudge the likes of Kilian running away with 25,000€ for a second. He’s a once in a generation legend. What is wrong is that sponsors could pay their athletes more, and save these historic running events from the negative effects of commercialism; the spaces kept for corporates, and the infusion of the capitalist world of work into the running world. Most of us run to escape the ‘normal’ world, and this pollutes it horribly.

When I got into trail running, it became my dream to run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and I was lucky to be a finisher in 2011. One of the things about this series of races that attracted me was that from the first person to the last, the ‘prize’ was the same, a finisher jacket. It was the ethic of this that fitted the sport of trail running so perfectly. Their ethical charter is still strong (link), and could not be further away from the position of the Marathon du Mont Blanc. It’s tragic to watch this happen, as the Cross and Marathon du Mont Blanc, have been in existence for roughly four times the length of time of the UTMB.

If anyone reading this post failed to get a place in the Marathon du Mont Blanc, you’ll be annoyed to hear that the ISF has spaces for countries entering teams. The message is clear; you the public don’t matter, despite making the event financially viable with your entry subscriptions. Big business and commercialism has arrived, and it’s nasty. The people affected are us, the ‘nobodies’ who’ll never finish on a podium, but without whom these events cannot happen. Remember why you run, and only sign up for events where the event matches your ethics. Never lower your standards.

Now pull on your trainers, go out, feel the ground gliding beneath your feet, the wind in your face, forget about work and the troubles in your life, and smile. That’s why we run!

6 responses to “Commercialism – running to escape it

  1. Excellent post highlighting the way things are going. My running partner and I were just discussing the other day over coffee how the ultra scene is changing and while more and more would-be runners are getting into it and fuelling the sport, why are there so many races in which the elites are still in the category with us “nobodies”? Sadly all the media focuses on the elites and for some of us just finishing a 160km or 100km non stop race is a dream.

    • Great piece. And hence why I’m at my happiest rocking up on a Sunday morning (in a pub car park of course) at the bottom of a Welsh ‘mountain’ with a bunch of like-minded individuals and a handful if collies. No pre-entries. A few quid in a pot and name scrawled on a sheet of A4. Seemingly no health and safety worries apart from “it’s slippy up top, mind how you go”. Pub afterwards for a drink and more cake than you know what do to with to discuss the morning’s running, sorry racing. Smiles all round and not a sponsor, Garmin or mention of PB in sight. Unless those first prizes are actually donated by Blossom Hill and Morrisons (Broken Biscuit Department). Oh and no compression socks either. Your reference to Feet in the Clouds is spot-on and also reminds me of the “why I fell race” passage as well.

      • Hi Scares, you’ve hit the nail on the head (twice)! Firstly on the compression socks. Secondly on the pivotal nature of the pub. I’ve got to admit to once owning a pair of compression socks, but I burnt them after one long run, so at least I realised the (grave) error of my ways fairly quickly. There’s no one I know who wears compression socks who goes to a pub, so no worries about any overlap into the second category. You are completely right that there are some races where you’d pay not to have a drink with the other competitors, and other runs where it seems natural to cram into a local afterwards and have a pint with strangers who feel like friends. I need to avoid over-compressed ‘races’, and sign up for good mountain ‘runs’.

  2. Good post. Sponsorship can be very welcome – often essential in making things happen. But excessive commercial interest has had an insidious detrimental effect on almost all amateur pastimes – epitomised by the uber commercialisation of events like the London Marathon. Like so many other aspects of life, it seems to be closely related to scale: small business good – big business bad. As soon as the bean counters start calling the shots, the initial philanthropic good intentions are subverted by the relentless “Return on Investment” mantra. Keeping it small, keeping it local seems to be the key to keeping it real (ale).

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