Factors to consider:
Advice to aspiring professional runners: A Modest Guide regarding Things to Keep in Mind When Considering a Pro Running CareerBy Pete Rea (Head Coach / ZAP Fitness) As the spring comes to a close, we at the ZAP / Reebok program are beginning to receive resident athlete applications from soon to be college graduates around the country. These young men and women from all types of schools (Divisions III, II, I, JUCO, NAIA etc) are all looking to become part of the next generation of American professional runners. As we sift through these applications for the next “Diamond in the Rough”, we at ZAP Fitness would like to impart some advice for all would be professional post collegiate runners. After 18+ years in this business we have seen our share of success and failure, and through it all we have garnered a few universal nuggets of truth, which we would like to impart to the next generation of those who wish to make their living on their legs.
The first running boom of the 1970s and 1980s was a collection of runners of all ages and backgrounds, much like today; however running boom 1.0 was built on the backs of competitive age group runners, the majority of whom were targeting performance and improvement. Today’s 2.0 version is increasingly less about performance and more about experience. The avg marathon finishing time is more than a full hour slower than it was in 1980. Color Runs, Spartan Runs, Slide Down the Stairs Through Flaming Tequila 5k runs – you name it and it is BECOMING a race near you. While professional runners often scoff at such events as not “real” keep in mind these runners are the people who are increasingly driving our sport both in terms of participation and their wallets: your job is to connect with them!
Sponsors and supporters want to know you have a connection to the masses. What is the best way to do this? Give talks at your local races, offer to write a free column for your local paper or speak on your local radio station on running and fitness issues, volunteer at your local track club, work part time at your local running store and lead a free weekly group run, offer to coach the parents of local kids – WHATEVER IT TAKES TO CREATE A CONNECTION! One of the toughest challenges a runner faces coming out of college is to create followers and with it relevance.
While the vast majority of higher level long distance running races for pros are ones to which you will have to travel, be certain to run a handful of races in your geographic area to cement the connection we discussed earlier. Most of the folks who attend our adult summer running camps here at ZAP fitness could not tell you the difference between a woman who runs 15:50 for 5k and one who runs 18:30, despite the fact that one is likely an aspiring Olympic Trials Qualifier and the other a higher level local / regional age group athlete. All they know is that women is the winner and faster than they are. By racing locally, even if it is nothing more than part of a workout, you expose your sponsors to the running consumer and further cement your connection to the folks who can follow your journey.
In the big picture we as Americans have it good with plenty of creature comforts and a first world lifestyle much of the world covets. Being a successful professional runner (unless you have outside “help” in place to begin) often means bucking society and living with less. If success in this sport is legitimately what you desire, be open to whatever it takes to be where you want to be. If it means you cannot afford the latest cell phone, twice a week sushi, gourmet coffee or evenings out in order to focus wholeheartedly on the task of running, eating and sleeping then do it.
Making a living as a post collegiate runner is difficult to say the least. With the exception of the men’s marathon, American long distance running is now deeper than ever before. Consequently, salaried shoe and apparel contracts, which in the late ‘70s and 1980s could be had on a small scale by emerging elites, are now reserved for only a few cream of the croppers. Making ends meat requires emerging elite runners to grab earnings wherever possible along the way – and that means road racing.
Not only is road racing more lucrative financially, many races with prize purses will offset travel expenses for invited athletes with airfare and/or gas $, hotel expenses and for a handful of races even meal per diem. Track and Field could not be more polarly opposite financially. Looking to go to Stanford or Portland Track Festival or Penn Relays for a fast 5k or 10k on the track.? Get ready to open your pocket book. Airfare, rental car, gas, hotel, meet entry are all part of the responsibility of the athlete (again unless you are fortunate enough to have a sponsor) Our average ZAP Fitness trip expense for all of the above per athlete for a track meet is $625.00, with very little in terms of prize purse on the back end at track meets regardless of the performance. Lastly, and more shoe companies are discussing this openly now, a consistent road racer who is in the public eye is more attractive to shoe companies as there are far more eyes on road running than track running (once again with the exception of the Rupp, Simpson, Symmonds’ of the world).
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Blogs through personal and business websites are all part of the landscape of the business side of the sport of professional running. In fact most contracts for distance runners now are requiring athletes to make a specific # of social media bursts to maintain their contracts. Keep your sponsors in the public eye through social media. This is one more example of how athletes need to own their sponsorship and show thanks for all you receive.
Our advice for every athlete who has applied to ZAP Fitness has been consistent. Make a decision on what to do with your post-collegiate running based on your environment and situation first and foremost, and the overall sponsorship package 2nd. While the financial strains for post collegiate runners everywhere are real, the most successful professional runners I have known make decisions about their running careers based on coaching, training partners and geographical fit more than pure dollars and sense. Just because a club in northern Wyoming offers you a strong paycheck, does not mean it is the best fit for you.
If you are fortunate enough to receive assistance from any organization or individual coming out of school – on any level – be appreciative for that assistance and own that help. Thank your sponsors often. If a race director chooses to pay for your ticket, give you a room, even comp an entry – always write them a thank you note. Should you aspire for more throughout your career? Of course! But while you have a particular level of support be the athlete companies want to help – and that means showing gratitude and humility.
Gone are the days where simply posting fast marks will garner you a sizable sponsorship. At a recent meeting with running industry executives a “sponsorship” statement was made by one of the executives which spoke volumes. “We would rather sponsor a local runner who wins all area events and is consistently featured in small to medium sized media wearing our product than someone who has national class marks at events no one can relate to. A guy who runs 13:25 for 5k at a B heat in Europe does far less for my brand than a 15:50 guy who is touching the hands of the public. To ma and pa jogger there is little difference between the two and on some levels the 15:50er is more valuable.”