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Going Pro. What does that mean?

The line between amateur and professional athletes, is increasingly blurred. This article looks briefly at what separates the two, with a focus on triathlon and trail/ultra running, and discusses plans for my training this year.

How do I become a professional athlete?

My first endurance event was Ironman Wales, in a sluggish time of over 13hrs. 5 years later, this time came down to 9hrs and 16 mins (Ironman Barcelona). There have been some other good results in ultra running events (podiums and course records), along with qualification to the Ironman and Ultra X World Championships. How much more would it take to gain a pro card for triathlon, or pick up sponsors and prize money at trail events?

Ironman Malaysia

In both sports the finish times of age grouper and elite athletes are getting more competitive. At Ironman Malaysia where I just scraped a slot to Kona, Damien Bethencourt (in my age group) came 5th overall, 3 minutes ahead of professional Andy Potts, USA (Olympian, 70.3 World Champion, and multiple top 10 at Kona). If Damien had been competing with a pro card/licence, he would have received prize money. When interviewed Damien was asked if he would take his pro licence, to which he said no, as he was earning good money working in IT, and was also enjoying triathlon as it was (and clearly still competing at an elite level).

It's hard to fault Damiens' decision to be "elite not pro". Even with increasing coverage, prize money and sponsorship in triathlon, only the top "elite" make a "living" from the sport. Once costs for training, food, travel, accommodation etc, are taken into account, even many of the "pros" are only breaking even, and often will have jobs to support themselves financially. The Canadian Cody Beals, (one of the top professionals, and sub 8hr Ironman), has published his finances for the past 5 seasons, which give an amazing insight. He also discusses that the modern day pro has to be an accountant, "influencer", manager as well as coach. In trail running, coverage and therefore sponsorship and prize money is more scarce, with generally a more "purist" attitude that prize money could "corrupt" the sport.

Like Damien, other examples of age group athletes setting fast times include the current Ironman World Championship swim course record by Jan Sibbersen, and world champs age group record of 8hrs, 24mins held by Dan Plews, which would make the pro podium as recently as 2012. Equally the best trail and ultra runners often hold down full time jobs until they make a major break through. Jim Walmsley (currently the highest ranked runner on the International Trail Running Association) used to work in a bike shop (after a military career), while Bartlomiej Przedwojewski (ranked 4th in the world) was a firefighter until going full time pro last year.

Ultra Legend Jim Walmsley

What also seems consistent with both sports is that prize money makes up a small percentage of total earnings for most athletes. This is gradually changing in Triathlon with the introduction of more money from the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO). Trail and ultra running come off worse, with relatively small prize pots that do not go deep. For comparison the total prize purse at the Ironman world championships totals 750,000 dollars vs the total prize purse of 35,000 euros at UTMB (which itself is made up of multiple races). Winning Kona would pay out 125,000 dollars for the individual vs just 2,000 euros for the winner of UTMB. It's even more brutal when you consider the winner of UTMB's race time is triple that of the Kona winner.

Trail athletes are therefore more reliant on paid jobs, and or a large social media following and sponsors to support them. Trail running also requires relatively less equipment compared to triathlon (Ironman/long course in particular) so there are less opportunities to advertise kit and equipment. Most full time runners therefore rely more heavily on individual contracts, usually with a major shoe brand. Worse still, non disclosure agreements prevent athletes from publicising how much they receive from their sponsors, which puts other athletes on the back foot when it comes to negotiating their own deals.

Questionable Venn Diagram

It's fair to say that being a "pro" in either sport is far from glamorous, in terms of earnings at least. So to determine competitive status (amateur, elite, pro), there are probably two categories when it comes to finishing times: Amateur and Elite, and if earnings from the sport is used to determine status then the categories are probably Elite and Pro.

The plan

2021 Ironman Ranking

With all that in mind, I have decided to focus on trail and ultra running. 2021 saw an 11th place finish at Ironman Staffordshire 70.3 and 9th place at Ironman Weymouth 70.3 (With the fastest run split of the day) but these were still 12% overall off of George Goodwin's course record times at both courses, and 5% off the required time to gain a professional licence from British Triathlon. A focussed year of triathlon training might see me make up that 5%, however those 25-30hr training weeks would almost certainly see a greater return in performance if focussed on trail and ultra running. I still have a target of a sub 9hr Ironman at Kona, however the focus on running this year may be detrimental to that goal. To pick up a pro license at Kona would likely require a sub 8hr 40min time (based off Jan Frodeno's course record of 7hrs 52mins +10%) which is no easy feat.

1hr 12 min Trail Half Marathon at Sandringham 2021

Longer term the aim is UTMB ( 170 km with 10,000m+), hopefully 2023, assuming I qualify under the new "running stones" system in place, or by elite qualification at a world series (finish top 3) or major ( finish top 10) event.

The main metric I am using to gauge progress is the ITRA performance Index, which currently rates me at 721/1000 (Regional level). To be considered Elite Or International level, this needs to be 825/1000 (a ranking held by 600 athletes in the world) and to be considered top level this needs to be 875/1000 (a ranking only held by 113 athletes in the world). Assuming I can stay on track with training (aiming to run circa 200km/week in Sierra Nevada, Spain) then I believe I should be capable of race scores around the 800 mark this year and over 825 next year, but there are certainly no guarantees.

UTMB 2023 will likely be a "make or break" point. Just getting to and completing the race would itself be a great achievement, but if I am not producing international performances by that point, then it is probably fair to say that running professionally is not going to be a viable career. Whatever happens, I am still super excited and happy about this year of training full time, and already seeing my running fitness improve.

“To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”

Steve Prefontaine

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