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Edose Ibadin refused to consider himself a professional runner. Even as he ran at the highest levels and raced against future Olympians, he responded with “semi-pro” or “post-college runner” when anyone would ask what he did.
That feeling didn’t change after he competed in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, reaching the semifinals in the 800-meter race. Or when he broke the Nigerian national record in the same event for the first time this February.
He still had to work outside of the sport to make money. Ibadin did not have a sponsor.
“You wouldn’t call someone a professional engineer if they don’t have the degrees,” he says.
Ibadin earned prize money at a few races while representing the local elite post-collegiate District Track Club and saved by living with his parents in Glenn Dale. He worked a few shifts a week at an information technology internship for about half a year in 2017. He also attended graduate school at Towson University from 2016 to 2018—just in case the whole running thing didn’t pan out. Ibadin accrued roughly $16,000 in student loans that he’s still paying off.
On top of that, Ibadin would wake up at 5 a.m., head to the New Carrollton Metro station and ride the train to Rosslyn, where Tom Brumlik, the coach for District Track Club, would pick him up for weekday practices at Washington-Liberty High School (formerly Washington-Lee) in Arlington or on the C&O Canal.
His family and friends started to worry. A “decent amount of people” in his life, Ibadin says, didn’t understand his dedication to running.
“It was kinda like you need to face reality, like, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re not getting that much money out of it,’” Ibadin, 26, recalls his parents saying. “Those were the main things: ‘You got two degrees, like what are you doing?’”
The lack of financial resources in the post-collegiate world of running can act as a barrier for promising athletes attempting to enter the professional ranks. And without a national league like in team sports, there’s no set path for talented runners to follow. The individualistic nature of track and field also makes it difficult for athletes to compare their situations against a standard.
Will Crocker ran his fastest time in the 1,500 meters (three minutes, 41.44 seconds) while competing for the District Track Club, which launched in January of 2016 from the efforts of Brumlik, long-time track coach Drew Mearns, and two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz, the former American University cross-country and track and field coach.
Crocker joined the team in January 2017 after finishing his eligibility at the University of Missouri, where he holds the school record in the 1,500-meter race (3:41.89). Crocker says he was good enough to keep running, but “just not good enough for a team, an elite sponsored group.”
District Track Club, which at the time did not have a sponsor, was one of the few clubs willing to give Crocker an opportunity. While in the D.C. area, he worked at Potomac River Running and lived in a four-bedroom house in Arlington with five other runners. The club paid for his housing.
Crocker looks back fondly on this time, but calls it “definitely a struggle.” He lived in the basement lounge in a small room inside the utility closet next to the water heater and furnace. He put up plywood in front of both and threw carpet on the ground to make his bedroom slightly more livable. The “room” did not have a closet. He would sleep in one of the bedrooms when his roommates were out of town—with their knowledge, of course.
“I pretty much lived out of my bags,” Crocker says. “I brought four, five duffle bags and suitcases and left everything in there. I had portable hangers for things that needed to be hung up … But we made it work. Most of us came close to [reaching a personal record], so we made the most of our situation.”
After about eight months, Crocker returned to Missouri. He owed somewhere between $70,000 and $80,000 in student loans, and payments had kicked in. Crocker says he could not justify living the semi-pro runner lifestyle for much longer.
He is now the head track and field and cross country coach at Westminster College, a Division III school in Fulton, Missouri.
“Probably 90 percent of the reason I left was mostly the financial situation,” Crocker says. “Most of what we were doing came out of Tom’s pocket and some other grants and aid from other people … The housing situation wasn’t the best … and the Arlington area isn’t the cheapest place to live. We were doing what we could to survive. It just wasn’t the lifestyle that I was really enjoying … Since then, they’ve done a great job of getting athletes in better situations where they can thrive and be able to work as a runner.”
Talented post-collegiate runners who want to stay in the D.C. area have few options. Clubs, while growing, are still relatively rare and located in only select cities. Besides District Track Club, which primarily focuses on 800- and 1,500-meter runners, Georgetown Running Club has the biggest membership of elite post-collegiate runners.
There’s also the Maryland-based Riadha team, but most of its athletes reside elsewhere. District Track Club wants to fill the void left by the Reebok Enclave, which had successful professional track and field athletes among its ranks from 1993 until it folded in the early 2000s.
About 40 men and 30 women compete for Georgetown Running Club, according to its coach, Jerry Alexander. But unlike District Track Club, Alexander’s runners work full-time or are full-time graduate students.
New Balance sponsors Georgetown Running Club, but none of the athletes have individual contracts. Members pay a $75 annual fee and the club provides New Balance gear, coaching, and logistical support in terms of entries for races. Alexander declines to give specific terms of its deal with the shoe company.
“Even with All-Americans, there’s not necessarily a lot of options where you’re gonna get paid,” he says. “So if you want to continue your career, there’s not a lot that’s analogous to what we do at GRC. In D.C., there’s the District Track Club and GRC. Their mission [is] a little different than us and a little higher level, but they don’t have true distance runners. If you’re looking to move up to [road racing], we’re pretty much the only game in town.”
When Michael Crozier graduated from Georgetown University last May after earning second-team All-American honors at the 2018 NCAA outdoor track and field championships in the 10,000 meters, he thought he’d never race on the track again.
He spent six years studying and had received a master’s degree in public policy. The life of a regular 24-year-old Georgetown graduate awaited. But still, Crozier wanted to know his post-collegiate running options. A few developmental groups were interested, Crozier says, but he would have had to move.
In the end, Crozier decided to put his degrees to use instead.
“I’m not going to get a Nike or Adidas contract. I’m not going to go race in the Tokyo Olympics,” he says. “For me, it wasn’t really worth it. It’s kinda like the starving artist situation. You either have a Nike or Adidas contract or a really good ASICS or Brooks deal and you’re doing all right. You’re making maybe $30,000, maybe $100,000 with some benefits, or you get gear, travel stipend, and massage once a week and that’s it—if that, and that’s pretty good. I was looking at probably the latter, maybe $500 stipend a year, gear, some health coverage for massages, travel to races. That to me was like, why did I work so hard to get a master’s degree at Georgetown to put that on hold?”
“If you really want to be good at running I learned that you can’t be 99 and one, you have to be a hundred point zero,” he adds.
After pacing a friend in a road race, Crozier got the itch to race again, and recently joined Georgetown Running Club, where he can train with elite runners but not feel the pressure of having to run on a shoe contract.
It’s the perfect combination for runners like Crozier and Melissa Salerno.
The 32-year-old Salerno joined Georgetown Running Club last year after spending several years as a sponsored, professional runner for the Furman Elite post-collegiate club in Greenville, South Carolina.
Furman Elite paid Salerno quarterly, and also provided housing, food, and travel for the athletes. She estimates that the cash value amounted to “around $12,000.” Salerno competed at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Trials for the 1,500 meters and her then agent, Paul Doyle, was able to get her appearance fees for pacing jobs (known as “rabbiting”) during races, where she made between $400 and $500. She paid Doyle 15 percent of anything she made, a typical fee for agents in the sport.
But Salerno missed working. After graduating from Fordham University, she did research for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and valued time away from the track. The low pay in the sport and the stress of running professionally wore her down.
“A fellow runner said to me at some point in my career, ‘Well you might just have to go into a bit of a debt.’ And I was just like, that is not a reasonable solution for me,” Salerno says. “I have no idea if that’s what people do, but I just remember that being a huge source of stress for me after having left my job. It was one of the main motivators for me to want to get back to working … It takes a really special person to focus solely on running and it wasn’t just the case for me.”
Salerno moved to D.C. last year and now works for Children’s National Health System as a clinical research program director. She has not raced on the track since 2016, but runs workouts with Georgetown Running Club and plans to run a half marathon this fall.
“It’s a crazy world,” she says of professional running. “I was a part of it for eight years and was really happy, but honestly, I like being a part of GRC just as much.”
Georgetown University alum Josette Norris is all-in on professional running. She had her best season during her last year of school. As a fifth year graduate student, Norris capped her college career with a fourth place finish in the 5,000-meter run at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships this June.
She recently hired prominent track and field agent Ray Flynn, and is considering several options with different post-collegiate groups. One option would be to run for District Track Club while training under her Georgetown coach, Julie Culley.
Norris says she probably won’t make a decision until after the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, next week, where she is slated to run the 5,000 meters. She recently lowered her personal records in both the 1,500 and 5,000 meters in races against professional runners.
“Now that I’ve exposed myself a little more, I’ve shown that I can handle some races with pros,” she says. “I want to continue racing because I feel I still have more in me.”
Last week, Norris attended the RunPro Camp hosted by the Road Runners Club of America at the Holiday Inn in Rosslyn. The camp, which completed its eighth edition, is designed to connect aspiring professional runners of a certain caliber with industry leaders as they begin the next chapter of their running careers.
Norris was one of 13 post-collegiate runners who attended the two-day camp that included panels featuring speakers from USATF, different elite training groups, and sports agents.
“What RunPro Camp does is to say, based on the financial difficulties in running, this is sort of the financial reality,” says program manager Andy Smith. “You graduate from college, you had the support system in place in terms of coaches and training systems. You had times and talent to suggest that you can run professionally. How do you go about doing that when there isn’t the prescribed track or obvious track like in other sports? That’s the goal of the camp.”
The process of choosing a team reminds Norris of the college recruitment process. Except now, she’s choosing how to make a living. Because there isn’t a league or collective bargaining agreement in track and field, salaries are not made public. In reporting for this article, most athletes declined to give specifics about their contracts out of concern of breaking trust with their sponsors.
Last September, the running-focused website LetsRun.com polled agents on how much they estimated professional runners made. In a list of “distance stars,” the agents that the site polled guessed an average of well into six figures for some of the top runners in the country, but their average estimate for professional steeplechaser Courtney Frerichs one year out of college was $60,000.
Culley, who qualified for the 2012 Olympics after finishing first at the Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meters, signed with ASICS in 2010 and says the company paid her $22,000 a year. During that time, she continued to work as an assistant coach at American University and estimates she pulled in around $32,000 to $35,000 total with work and performance bonuses.
Claudia Saunders, a District Track Club athlete, ran for the Brooks Beast group in Seattle after a standout career at Stanford University and says she made around $40,000 for the year. “That’s considered a really good contract,” she says.
Due to the secrecy in salaries, it’s hard for runners to advocate for themselves. Running contracts are notoriously cutthroat. Most, if not all, have performance requirements written into the language, according to track and field agents, and some include reduction clauses, which means companies can reduce compensation if athletes don’t meet performance goals.
“Unfortunately it definitely contributes to brands being able to give people less, because we don’t know what other people are making,” says Saunders. “Honestly, I don’t know why … Unfortunately, it stops [runners] to ask for more or what they deserve. They don’t know if someone is making three times as much.”
John Hricay, a licensed agent—or athlete representative, as the industry prefers—agrees with Saunders that more transparency would help the sport. He believes some of the power lies with the runners in creating change, and points to the controversy over how shoe companies, including Nike, stopped paying women while they were on maternity leave.
The companies reversed course after some prominent female athletes spoke up and the subsequent outcry from sports fans.
“Greater transparency, I would love to see that,” Hricay says. “It’s not there. Being able to now not have contracts reduced during pregnancy, that’s great. Six months ago I would’ve been like, ‘No, that would never happen.’ But one article in a high-placed newspaper and change was made. I’m amazed. And that’s Allyson Felix, who’s on the highest of pedestals in this sport. She’s proven herself to be a great ambassador and great athlete, and she took a stand.”
And while Hricay praises how the U.S women’s soccer and hockey teams have been able to advocate for more money, he predicts it would be far harder for track and field athletes to come together.
“Try and organize them,” he says. “You can’t even organize a college team. There’s a shot putter, a triple jumper, a long jumper, a distance runner. They all have different priorities. They don’t train together. They don’t know each other. It’s hard to have a union with people who don’t have anything in common.”
For Duffy Mahoney, USATF’s chief of sport performance, the return on investment for the governing body is medals. In 2017, USATF spent $16 to 18 million of its $33 to 34 million budget on direct and indirect athlete support, Mahoney estimates.
The USATF developed a tier system in 2011 and 2012 in which it supports the most accomplished athletes and those with the most potential across all the sport’s disciplines. Tier 1 athletes must have medaled in either or both of the two most recent world major championships or Olympic Games or achieved a top world ranking by Track & Field News in previous years to qualify for USATF and United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee benefits. The more accomplished the athletes are, the more money and benefits they can receive from the governing body.
Many elite post-collegiate runners would not qualify for this list.
Below the four-tier system, there is also minimal support for developmental athletes, which Mahoney admits is not the biggest priority of the federation.
“I’m a sports businessman, a general manager, and my business is medal attainment at Olympic Games and world championships,” he says. “I’m looking for return of investment … our business is medal attainment. 83 percent of medals are won by tier 1 athletes, only 7 percent of individual medals are won by tier 2. So where should our investment be? Where’s the better return on investment? We’re doing it. That’s why our tier program is structured the way it is with very stringent requirements. It’s one of the things that leads it to tiers that are producing medals.”
While USATF has been criticized by its runners, Hricay, who works for HAWI Management, says that a governing body operates differently than a sports league.
“It’s like, oh why isn’t USATF marketing us better or whatever. That’s really not USATF’s job,” he says. “USATF’s job is to select the Olympic team and promote the sport.”
Athletes like Crocker still think more can be done. USATF listed a revenue of $35,085,838 for the 2017 fiscal year and had $33,667,946 in total expenses. In 2017, USATF chief executive Max Siegel made $1,146,130 in “reportable compensation” based on the federation’s tax form.
“I think they are a company that brings in a lot of money, but don’t give a lot to athletes,” Crocker says. “More support from them … would be nice.”
The thought of eventually receiving a professional contract motivated Ibadin.
“In my heart of hearts, I knew my time would come,” says Ibadin, who graduated from DuVal High School in Lanham. “I knew if I stuck with it and kept the faith, good things will happen.”
In March, Ibadin signed his first professional running contract with Under Armour. The District Track Club has a one-year deal with the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company, retroactive to January. Ibadin, who has represented his parents’ native country of Nigeria internationally since 2017, can now focus solely on his running. There’s no homework, exams, or IT work looming over his head.
Four of the 10 District Track Club runners—Ibadin, Saunders, Maddie Kopp, and Quamel Prince—are contracted Under Armour athletes. They receive a quarterly stipend from the company, in addition to gear and travel expenses.
“I think [life has] changed, not going to say changed a lot, but definitely has changed. I’ve been able to get checks that I haven’t gotten in a very long time,” Ibadin says with a laugh. “And just support from different people, different family members. Everyone is a lot more supportive of my running career now than they were before, which I’m not surprised about. Because when money comes in, everything automatically makes sense.”
The rest of the team—Jacob Dumford, Michelle Howell, CJ Jones, Andrea Keklak, David Timlin, and Alex Amankwah—are considered brand ambassadors and do not receive a quarterly stipend. The club helps some of the athletes out with housing, and most of the runners work a part-time job, including Kopp and Saunders. All are qualified for the Under Armour bonus structure given to athletes who make national or international teams or hit a certain time in races.
Brumlik declines to give specifics about individual contracts, but says the group receives “under six figures in cash.”
“Ten athletes plus four staff members making ends meet off of under $100K is not a high number,” he writes in a text.
At the recent DC Road Runners Track Championship, Ibadin got caught behind a few runners rounding the first corner of the fastest heat of the elite men’s 800-meters. He spent the next lap and a half trying to gain a better position. In the final straightaway, Ibadin went into a full sprint and crossed the finish line in fourth place, with a time of 1:46.50.
Prince, his Under Armour teammate, won the race in 1:46.06. Erik Sowinski, who runs for Nike, took second, and Sam Ellison of the Adidas-sponsored Boston Athletic Association was third. Ibadin just missed out on winning prize money given out to the top three finishers.
But it didn’t matter. Professionals still get paid.