Elite Running: A Low-Budget Labor of Love
Elite runner Carmen Graves sounds off on the financial realities facing American track & field athletes.
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Carmen Pelar Graves is the prototypical example of an athlete not giving up on long-held dreams becoming successful.
The 32-year-old Denver-based athlete has been an elite-level American runner in the 3,000-meter steeplechase for almost a decade, but without a sponsorship contract from a shoe brand, she’s had to fight and scratch and claw — not to mention work full-time jobs and numerous side hustles while managing training on the side — to remain at a high level.
And yes, at times, largely because of a lack of financial support, she’s gotten frustrated to the point of quitting the sport. But after COVID-19 shook up the world, she refocused on running fast again. Since then, her resilient spirit and a patchwork of key elements of support have helped her come back and, as she enters the 2023 season, she’s better than ever.
Last summer, she lowered her personal best in the steeplechase to 9:37.73 and also placed seventh at the U.S. championships in Eugene, Oregon.
But in an interview this week with Women’s Running and a blog she posted under the headline “The Starving Runner,” Graves admitted she’s frustrated with the financial barriers to success for elite-level runners. She works full-time in the non-profit sector, coaches high school athletes in suburban Denver and is the meet director for the Denver Twilight Mile.
Graves says she’s extremely grateful for the assistance she gets from her being a part of Tracksmith’s Amateur Support Program (ASP) and her affiliation with the Garden State Track Club, not to mention the support and guidance from her husband, Sean Stetler, who also serves as her coach.
For the several hundred athletes who are selected for ASP, Tracksmith provides a modest stipend of $1,000 plus a Tracksmith racing kit, warmups, and, beginning this year, its new Eliot Runner training shoes, as well as virtual coaching and support through Zoom-based seminars.
But, Graves says, she still has to be extremely frugal and scrape together money just to be able to travel to competitions that will provide race seasoning and earn her a qualifying time for the U.S. national championships in July 6-9 in Eugene, Oregon.
“Just giving us something to help is sometimes enough to get to the next level, and I think that’s really important,” Graves says. “Tracksmith definitely stepped up to fill that gap between under-sponsored and unsponsored athletes when a lot of other companies have been pulling back on their support programs. It’s hard for elite athletes, who might even be ranked in the top 10 of their event, to make ends meet.”
As a hard-working, multi-tasker, Graves does the best she can to keep moving forward while also inspiring the kids she coaches. But she’s notably frustrated about the financial inequities of the track and field world and the lack of investment in the development of athletes below the top-tier level. While some high-ranking American professional athletes earn a good living from partnerships with big running shoe brands, most do not, she says.
Combined, she says, the USA Track & Field Athlete Support Program supports a total of 160 athletes with a yearly stipend of up to $16,000 per year, $6,000 for coaching, up to $6,000 in travel reimbursement, and health insurance. “Although this could be a game changer for under-sponsored and unsponsored athletes, we need to recognize that even with this financial support an athlete would still be making under the U.S. livable wage of $36,311 per year if this was their only source of income,” Graves says.
The minimum USATF needs to do as an organization is to provide a yearly salary that reaches a livable wage with benefits and health insurance, she says.
“We’ve all heard of the term ‘starving artist’ — a person who sacrifices their material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. Likewise, the running community has a sub-culture of ‘starving runners’ who sacrifice their material well-being in order to prioritize their training,” Graves wrote.
She also points out that USATF CEO Max Siegel made $3.75 million last year and COO Renee Washington earned $1.5 million — a huge portion of the organization’s annual budget — while many athletes ranked in the top 10 of their events (like her) are making less than minimum wage.
“It’s unnecessary to pay the CEO and COO that high of a salary in a non-profit organization and doesn’t promote the USATF mission statement to “drive competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport,” she wrote.
Also in her blog, Graves looks into the financial barriers that high-performance American track and field athletes are forced to overcome in order to compete at the national level. She also suggests how the running community can create a more supportive structure so that Olympic hopefuls don’t need to train in poverty.
Excerpt from ‘The Starving Runner’
There are very few runners who are lucky enough to receive a contract upon graduating college that reaches above a livable wage. Within the sport of running, both under sponsored and unsponsored Olympic hopefuls can fall within the “moderate poverty” range which is when basic needs are met, but just barely. For some runners, this can create an inability to afford basic training needs such as quality food and supplements, coaching services, access to a gym, training gear, massage therapy, and basic health insurance that promote general well being and sustainable training.
There is a long list of sacrifices that under sponsored and unsponsored runners experience in their daily life in order to reach their running goals. Right after college, I decided to put my professional career on hold and pursued the elusive running dream. There was no handbook for what I should do next. The only advice I received was to get a part-time job so I could focus on my training. Just like that, I picked up a job making minimum wage at a running store and started my journey towards becoming a “starving runner.”
I struggled to afford training essentials like quality food and supplements. I was exhausted from making daily food related decisions that didn’t promote my health or well being, just to keep my pockets full enough to pay for rent and gas. I’d envy people at the grocery store shopping in the organic section while I settled for produce with a side of pesticides. When I would splurge and grab a meal out with friends, more often than not I would eat a meal before and order an appetizer because I couldn’t afford the entrée.
Additionally, I opted to travel to local races because I couldn’t afford airfare, and missed out on a number of competitive meets that were set up for fast times and personal bests. If I saved up enough money to travel, I was forced to buy discounted tickets and cheap motels. In 2014, I qualified for my first USATF Outdoor Championships, but I couldn’t afford to travel to Sacramento, California at the time. I hustled and set up a GoFundMe account to raise enough money for airfare and hotel accommodations so I could race.
Read More: Carmen Graves ‘The Starving Runner’
She concluded her blog with five changes she’d like to see to benefit a wider range of American track and field athletes:
- More transparency in the selection process used for the discretionary selections for the USATF Athlete Support Program.
- Increase funds for the Athlete Support Program to a livable wage with benefits, and health insurance.
- A shift in funds from over-supported athletes to under supported athletes through offering voluntary withdrawal of ASP financial assistance.
- A shift of organizational funds from the CEO and COO pockets to help hire staff to develop the USATF organization and the sport of track and field as a whole.
- Support from USATF in the implementation of the developmental Track & Field League.