When obstacle course race behemoth Spartan announced they would be organising trail races, runners rolled their eyes. To make matters worse, it would be yet another “world championship”. Here was one more non-trail running company to add to the bandwagon vying for a piece of the pie. What could they offer trail running that it does not already have? They were here to take from the growing market and give little back.

And then, reading about their outlook, plans, races and in particular, prize money, their value became clear. They are not taking from the pie, they are sharing it with the people who deserve it the most – the athletes and race organisers.

The Spartan Trail World Championship includes prestigious races like the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy, Patagonia Run in Argentina, Transgrancanaria in Spain, Fjällmaraton in Sweden and Kodiak Big Bear in the United States. The series winner takes home US$10,000 ((HK$77,700) and the winner of each individual race, known as regional races, takes home US$5,000. The races are paid to be part of the world championship, too.

“We want to see athletes better rewarded. And we want to bring races from other geographies and give them the opportunity to share the benefits of being part of the tour, without having to pay to be part of it,” Mariano Alvarez, the CEO of Spartan Trail, said.

Trail running is at a cross roads between amateurism and professionalism. The top athletes are full-time professionals, but rarely, if ever, are rewarded in cash for winning. In most cases, this is because races do not make enough money to share their profits. But in some cases, particularly the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), they hide behind latent amateurism to justify their low prize money.

UTMB organisers Michel and Catherine Poletti said: “We are not in favour of the professionalisation of the sport with money, as this would increase the risk of doping. We believe strongly in amateur sport because we believe that this is the way to keep the sport’s values.”

Courtney Dauwalter wins the UTMB 2019 – the organisers believe exposure and minimal prize money is compensation enough. Photo: UTMB/Christophe Pallot

As glorious as the notion of amateur values are, they are incredibly vague and exclusive. Without the promise of financial reward, only runners who can already afford to have the time away from work can take part in the sport in the first place. Where are all the Kenyans? asked a recent Outside Magazine article titled “UTMB and Ultrarunning’s Amateurism Problem”.

But who could question UTMB amid its growing dominance of the sport? The answer: Spartan.

The global brand is big enough to survive without pleasing the powers-that-be in trail running. But what’s more, nominating races that already exist on the Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT), like Lavaredo, is a big middle finger to UTMB, who basically run the UTWT under a different name – International Trail Running Association (ITRA).

Ultra Trail Thailand is set to become a “by UTMB” race as the French brand collects money to associate their name with other events. Photo: Thailand by UTMB

What’s more, races pay to be part of the UTWT. And the growing number of “by UTMB” races reportedly pay sums in the millions for the privilege of being associated with the French brand. But Spartan Trail pay races to have them on their circuit.

Others have questioned UTMB’s clout in the past. Races pay to be assigned UTMB points, which runners amass to qualify for the UTMB lottery. The prestigious Hardrock 100 in the US decided to stop paying the UTMB. But Kilian Jornet, the sport’s superstar, was running Hardrock and needed the points to qualify for UTMB. So, the French race organisers emailed the US race organisers asking them to pay up – Hardrock refused, UTMB relented. The points were assigned anyway – they needed Jornet more than they needed a Hardrock fee.

But while isolated incidents are signs of the strain of a growing sport with growing financial potential, it is not the same as the Spartan input. Spartan is so big it has changed the norm.

Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy is one of the world's premier ultras and is now part of the UTWT and Spartan World Trail Championships. Photo: Jordi Saragossa

How long will top athletes put up with running in exchange “exposure” for sponsors, like an intern starting their career and not a professional at the top of their game? Now, with incredible and prestigious races to run on the Spartan circuit, with the lure of prize money, will the balance of power shift away from the UTMB?

The UTMB race itself is awesome – the atmosphere, the course, the aid stations and the superstars warrant its place as the unofficial World Cup final, but that is not enough to justify not rewarding athletes.

That is not to say Spartan have the finished product. Their prize money is still small, although the regional rewards are over double the UTMB’s prize money for winning. The big difference is that it’s offered at every race, amounting to US$270,000 over the year when you combine the money on offer for men, women and podium finishes. So the top athletes are incentivised to keep running Spartan Races and not rely on winning a one-off race against the best athletes in the world – in short, it makes a career, not a race. It is professional.

Where Spartan could improve is the prize money further down the list. If they really want a field with the same depth as UTMB, US$200 for fifth place will have to increase. The runner who comes fifth at the UTMB is still one of the best in the world and their performance should be recognised as such. Spartan have the opportunity to recognise that depth by upping the prize money right down to 10th place.

But as a first step, Spartan Trail have shaken up the trail world. They have brought their clout and challenged the most powerful organisers in the business. Spartan are big enough that they do not need UTMB to be successful. They claim they are not in competition with UTMB, but UTMB are now in competition with them. The status quo is changing for the better and the pie is being cut for all, not just the ones at the head of the table.