Maxing out in the spirit of adventure
Vlad Ixel knows life as an ultra distance runner is hard as he pays his own way to travel to races
If you are Tiger Woods, Roger Federer or Kobe Bryant - the world's highest-paid athletes in 2013 - life is a bed of roses.
But if your sporting career is trail running, life is more like a bed in a 10-person dorm costing about HK$300 for four nights.
The Pak Tam Chung Holiday Camp at Sai Kung was home this weekend for Vlad Ixel, a 26-year-old Australian elite runner who competed in Saturday's Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail Race.
After 10 hours, 11 minutes and 53 seconds, Ixel finished the 100km course in third place - good for a plastic trophy and a pat on the back. Despite finishing in the top three, there was not a cent of prize money to earn.
“It’s difficult to be a professional trail runner,” says Pascal Blanc, 48, a top French trail runner. “The prize money is small and sponsorship money is little, if at all.”
Two years ago, Blanc quit his construction job because “when I was working, all I was thinking about was running in the mountains.” To make ends meet to support his pregnant wife and three kids, he works as a running coach and mountain guide.
“I prefer to have little money and run more,” says Blanc. “It’s better for my spirit.”
Last year, Woods, Federer and Bryant earned a combined salary of US$211.5 million, of which US$164 million came from endorsements and US$47.5 million came from winnings.
But when you get into trail running, you don’t do it for fame and fortune.
Ixel would agree. A year and a half ago, he was drinking six beers and smoking a pack a day, lifting heavy weights at the gym and guzzling protein shakes, and often had 800-gram steaks for lunch and a whole chicken for dinner.
He was a promising tennis player growing up, ranking as high as the top 50 juniors in Australia. But at age 17, the results just weren’t coming and he realised a tennis career wasn’t meant to be. He quit the sport and things went downhill.
Then, a couple of weeks before his 25th birthday in June 2012, he quit drinking and smoking and became vegan. And he signed up to run his first marathon, the Perth Marathon, just two weeks away.
“I was so unhealthy and so unhappy, and had nothing to look forward to in life,” says Ixel. “I had enough of that.”
With just four training runs, he completed the 42.195km race in 3 hours 18 minutes 31 seconds. That left him hobbling in pain for the next two weeks, but six weeks later he ran another marathon, the Perth City to Surf, in 3:05:39.
Right after that race, he decided running road marathons were “way too easy”, and he signed up for the Atacama Crossing, a six-stage, self-supported 250km race in the Atacama Desert in Chile, held in March last year. He came second in 26:54:13.
In September, he won The Most Beautiful Thing 100km Ultra Trail in Kota Kinabalu – his first 100km race – and followed up with another victory at The North Face 100 Singapore three weeks later.
In spite of his growing résumé, Ixel was one of the few elite local and international runners at the Hong Kong 100 with no sponsors. With a weekly mileage of about 200km, he goes through eight pairs of shoes in four months. He pays his own way to races and puts up in hostels.
From 5pm to midnight, he works as a waiter and bartender at the East Fremantle Yacht Club in Perth; in the morning, he runs. Along with Bikram yoga and strength work, he clocks about 40 hours a week of training.
"Pretty much all the money I earn goes towards travelling for races," says Ixel. "I'm just happy to be able to travel and do all these races all over the world.
“Plus I know it takes a little more time to be a good runner. Fortunately I’m only 26. For me, 2014 is about gaining more experience. Obviously, it would be nice to have a sponsor and to work less, as that would allow me to train more and take my running up to the next level.”
With the recent formation of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, a circuit of 10 iconic trail races across five continents - Hong Kong 100 was the first of the series - elite trail runners could have more opportunities for sponsorship.
The World Tour will provide 40 plane tickets, 60 accommodation places and more than 100 race entry slots to help financially-challenged elites to participate in this year’s inaugural circuit.
Vajin Armstrong, 33, a New Zealander who bagged a stack of podium finishes at ultra trails all over the world last year, had his travel for the Hong Kong 100 paid for. "There was no way that I could afford to come to this race if not for the [new tour]," he says.
“Some athletes have very good sponsorship deals and that can certainly help. But in markets where trail running is not that big, such as New Zealand, there’s less money in the sport.”
David Mackey, 44, a top American trail runner who works as a physician assistant, says there is a bigger trail running market in the US. “We’re starting to see a lot of runners, especially those in their 20s, try to scrape by and make a living in the sport.”
Ixel will be doing just that this year. In three weeks, he will run The North Face 100 Thailand, then he will return to Hong Kong for the TransLantau 100 in March. In the summer, he will spend five months training and racing in Europe, including the 83km Transvulcania in Spain, the Paris Marathon with his 60-year-old father, and the 65km Ice-Trail Tarentaise in Val d’Isère, France.
"I have a credit card with a A$10,000 limit," Ixel says. "I plan to max it out then worry about it when I return home."