Participation in trail- and ultra-running in New Zealand is soaring, and so are entry fees.
Back in the introductory post I described this one as:
(The data geek / statistician post) Various charts of race entry prices for different distances and surfaces including from sub-marathon trail races, standard road marathons, trail marathons and short ultradistance races, 50 mile races, 100km races, and 100 mile races. Some thoughts on what might be a sensible way to compare prices across events, and what the numbers do and don’t tell us.
The data likely will produce gasps of disbelief in some, and could all too easily be interpreted as poking the stick at certain events. I expect this will have some rushing to defend their favourite event. However, I’m a much more fair-minded guy than that, so later posts will poke the stick at runners themselves!
So here we go…
The original motivation for this entire series of posts was the extent to which race entry fees seem to be getting ever higher, some reaching levels which had me shaking my head. New races would appear with entry fees that made previously high entry fees look moderate. Road races initially blamed the cost of traffic management plans, and having been a committee member at my harrier club I know that those costs are real. Back in those “good old days” trail races were starting to look like the good value alternative to road. Then DOC joined the party and not only implemented a fee structure for concessions that could double some race entry fees, but also started to demand an audited safety plan (with a list of approved auditors limited to just three firms and no apparent process for others to be granted approval). So race entry fees keep going up and up, and it’s the regulators to blame. Or is it?
Let’s look at the data. First up, a big chart of race entry fees expressed on a $/km basis. Once upon a time I was used to doing races with entry fees that were $1/km, give-or-take a bit. This could be the local 5km or 10km race, half marathons, and even marathons. These races are represented by the green bars on the chart below. Race entry fees of around $2/km, give-or-take, could be justified for special events. These are the brown bars on the chart.
Then we start to move in to the realm where race entry fees are becoming “significant”. I am always astounded when people are prepared to pay $30 for a 10km race, I simply cannot justify that. I have also never yet been able to justify to myself the price of the Auckland Marathon, and yet I have previously entered the Avalanche Peak Challenge and would happily do so again if it were closer to home. Both are in the same position on the chart (Avalanche Peak is very slightly more expensive on a $/km basis).
And after that, it seems that entry fees know no bounds. $4/km, $5/km, $6/km… really? I must admit to have entered a $5/km race once upon a time, but there were “other factors” involved in that decision.
Comparing Between Races
The first and most basic assumption in the above chart is that $/km is a good basis for comparison between races of different lengths. From the point of view of the consumer, this is probably a reasonable first approximation for different distances at the same event: when moving from a half marathon to a marathon on the road the number of drink stations doubles; and all else equal the number of marshals will double. [But note that there is more to the story of cost structure and entry fees than this, but that is part of the 5th post.]
However, to be fair, $/km is not necessarily a good basis for comparing between events. When we move from road to trails it may be that $/hour is a better basis for comparison. If the difficulty level of a course means that participants are on the course for twice as long, then marshals and safety personnel are also on the course for twice as long. For some events (such as the Tararua Mountain Race and Kepler Challenge), marshals may even have to pack in the day before. Comparing events on a $/hour basis would also allow timed events such as rogaines and the 24 hour track race to be included on the chart, but for most events participants take a range of times and hence the calculated $/hour would also cover a range.
The example of my decision of Auckland Marathon v Avalanche Peak Challenge demonstrates how we individually have “other criteria” by which we judge events. For me it was something along the lines of city crowds on the road vs a select group of mountain athletes in an awesome scenic setting.
Having looked at a comparison of race entry fees on a basis that might or might not be valid, how about the actual entry prices?
Marathons, DOC Fees, and Traffic Management
The two charts below show race entry prices for offroad marathons and road marathons, respectively. The prices for offroad marathons are clearly higher than the prices for road marathons, with only the Auckland Marathon exceeding $100 for road events, but a price in excess of $100 being the norm for off-road events.
The key question this raises for me is whether the difference is primarily due to DOC fees. If we assume a price difference of $50/entry and 100 entrants, the total difference in entry fees is $5,000. A “non-notified concession” has an application fee of $1,330+GST=$1,529.50. This can then be spread over the three years that the concession is granted ($509.83/year), to which the annual concession fee must also be added. Annual concession fees may include an annual management fee ($500 last time I heard – a couple of years ago), and a per-head fee of $10 + GST for a whole-day activity. So for our hypothetical race with 100 entrants that is an annual cost of $2,009.83 or just over $20 per entrant. What about the cost of the audited safety plan? That should be much the same between the two types of races, but the per-head cost will be less if the road event attracts more entrants.
Road events, and some trail events, also have the cost of traffic management plans. The plans themselves are relatively cheap, but the on-the-day implementation is not. Race organisers are looking at several thousand dollars for someone to tick that every cone and sign is placed exactly where the plan says they will be placed, and that they stay there until the last runner is through the relevant section. And it’s not just anyone who can do this: a special qualification is required for this type of box ticking. A special qualification just to tick boxes restricts competition the provision of box-ticking services, so the price of said box ticking inevitably goes up. And there may also be the cost of hiring all the road cones and signage. So traffic management is a very real and potentially significant cost. A trail race with no traffic management requirements has a safety plan, but does not need to pay for someone to monitor the plan for the entire duration of the race. Does this mean that trail races should be cheaper?
The chart below shows race entry prices for ultramarathons of 50 miles or more, grouped as 50 mile events, 100km events, and 100 mile events. For these distances there are clearly two categories of races: those with entry fees less than $100 and those with entry fees in excess of $300. There is a price gap of over $200 per entrant with absolutely no events in the middle ground! I could try and explain the difference by number of entrants, but I can’t: The Molesworth Run has always had few entrants (although it is held in conjunction with a relay) and a low price; Northburn also has few entrants (it’s a wee bit hard) but has a high price; the Tarawera Ultramarathon is host to the most popular 100km in the country and also has a high price. Race facilities might go some way to explaining the difference: Molesworth is a no frills event, Naseby and the Ultra Trio provide aid stations (but limited to two and one, respectively), Northburn has an event marquee with facilities (and lunch at prizegiving) and a finisher’s belt buckle, Tarawera has well catered buffet-style aid stations strategically located along the course, icebreaker race shirts and a finisher’s medal.
The shorter ultramarathons (<70km) show a lot more diversity in entry prices. For someone who is really just interested in running and not so much in all the extra fluff, the Marton-Wanganui ultramarathon provides excellent value at just $15. I should know, 2012 will be the 10th time I have completed the event. At the other end of the entry fee scale, the Tarawera 60km and the Kepler Challenge provide an “event”, Tarawera perhaps even more so than Kepler.
However, a quality race can be delivered at low cost. The Great Naseby Water Race is a superb event held on a 10km figure-8 loop. Trails suitable for road runners in a picturesque setting. An aid station with basic supplies (and music) half way around the loop, and a fully stocked aid station at the start/finish. Lots of spot prizes, and a great friendly atmosphere. All for an extremely reasonable price. This year there were event t-shirts – a choice of three, with some cool designs in there. Runners were free to purchase any or all t-shirt designs if they value they would personally get from the shirt exceeded the price.
Shorter Trail Races
The chart below shows the entry fees for the short (less than marathon distance) trail races surveyed. I’ve got nothing particular to add to what I’ve already said, so I’ll let the chart do the talking.
So… at the end of all of that, what? There are a lot of events out there, some cheap, some really expensive, and lots in between. There’s different ways of measuring value, and the package for any given race includes different things. I haven’t shown the data here, but some of the most expensive events are hugely popular. The organisers of those events are clearly doing something right and delivering a product that a significant number of runners value. But I personally struggle with the size of some of the entry fees. Slick video clips, quality websites, all the hype of the big event… but it is the experience on the trail that means most to me. Hopefully the charts have thrown up some events that readers weren’t aware of.
The first post of this series attracted just one comment: “There is a simple solution- don’t run in events and pay nothing”. That’s true, but as the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it. Call me a right-wing neoconservative, but it just doesn’t sit well with me that to be “in it” requires a certain level of financial means. In the popular events it’s no longer enough to have the talent to turn up and race, you also need the money to enter the race, get to the resort town where it is held, and pay for accommodation in said town. Heaven forbid that trail running events become like getting to the top of Mt Everest: anyone can do it, so long as they have a big enough chequebook. Are we losing something, with back country trail events turning into slick commercial enterprises with hoards of runners turning the trails and environment on the day into something that is quite different to the treasured trail experience? This segways nicely into the next post in the series… “Everybody’s doing it, so why the hell should I?”.