What Does Sub-Elite Mean?

Sometimes being a sub-elite isn’t as clear as I wish it were.

I’ve been mulling over the words “sub-elite” and “elite.” While most of us have some idea of what an elite runner is, the concept of “sub-elite” is slightly less tangible.

There are differences between being received or perceived as elite, identifying as elite, and training like an elite, but no single item on this list necessarily qualifies a runner as being truly elite, does it? What about two items from this list? What about all? We like to compartmentalize, but I have a hard time creating categorizations and instead judge on a case by case basis, which might seem elusive or unfair, or maybe exactly right. According to the comments on a Salty Running Readers’ Roundtable, “What the *blank* is an Elite Runner?“, there’s no clear answer. As with most things, the top and the bottom are better understood than what lies between.

The Term Sub-Elite Requires Definition of ‘Elite.’

Definitively speaking, I like Dan John’s definition of “elite” in his article, “What is Elite?,” which explains an elite athlete as one who is no longer on a steep learning curve, has a year-round approach to the sport, uses focused training periods before competition and who has made the personal choice to be elite.

I like Cinnamon’s definition from the Readers’ Roundtable too: “If I’m talking about a particular race and I refer to an elite woman, I’m referring to a woman who races at the very front of that race, whether it’s the town 5k or the OT 1500m or the Chicago Marathon. When I talk about ‘elites’ as a group I’m talking about women who train at high levels. Not even the highest level, just high levels. To me there’s no firm line like a pace or race time; instead there’s an area where ‘I’m really fast,’ ‘I do this for something other than fun’ and ‘I train my ass off’ meet. There’s more than one variable that defines who fits into that part of the Venn diagram.” Wonderfully said.

Defining Sub-Elite

bk5c28aiaaery_6There’s not much by way of defining “sub,” with informative definitions created more by Reddit contributors than anything else. Still, these Reddit definitions are helpful: “For post-collegiate’s [sic] not at the professional level, who usually work full time jobs.” Or, “It can potentially encompass a wide range … imagine people who are just below the threshold of elite, people that you see mentioned in the list of American invites to major marathons and who are running in the OTQ races but don’t have a real shot at winning, but are working just as hard as the ‘real’ elites.”

Or, from a NY Times article titled, “Sub-Elite Runners Chase Improvement” by Jere Longman:

“For some, the sub-elites are a throwback to distance running in the United States in the amateur era of the late 1960s and into the ’70s. There was a seriousness of purpose. Running fast was the goal, not simply maintaining health and fitness. Nearly every runner seemed to be working or attending school and trying to train for 70 to 100 miles a week, following the lead of Frank Short and Bill Rodgers.”

But who do we trust to hold the highest essence of identification? If we say the big-leaguers, the majors, we’re talking about USATF and IAAF standards as elite standards, and to apply the prefix ‘sub’ to that, we can infer sub-elite as being just below that standard … right? That’s pretty consistent with most races’ definitions. Still, by looking at how just a few races identify elites and sub-elites via time standards, we can easily see there’s a lot of variety:

Berkeley Half Marathon – Elite women = sub 1:28 / “subseed” = sub 1:40
Miami Marathon and Half – Elite women = sub 2:35 or sub 1:15 / sub-elite = sub 2:45 or sub 1:20
New Year’s Race (Los Angeles) 5k, 10k & Half – Elite women = sub 18:00, sub 37:00 or sub 1:25 / sub-elite = sub 20:00, sub 43:00 or sub 1:35
Rock’n’Roll Marathon and Half Races – Elite women = sub 2:33 or sub 1:11 / sub-elite = anywhere between 2:35-2:59 in the full and 1:13-1:25 in the half (the benefit structure is divided up depending on what standard you fall under).

Based off this small grouping, the definition of “elite” v. “sub-elite” is not black and white. There is general consensus that can help identify what category you fall under, but in the end, there are different considerations via different organizations that offer different benefits. In other words, shopping for a race as a sub-elite runner is kind of like shopping for jeans: one brand’s size X does not necessarily mean you’re another brand’s size X.

Whatever definitions ring valid or invalid, there are prize purses, entries, and athletic careers for athletes who haven’t quite made it to ‘elite’ status but are close, and it’s pretty safe to say sub-elite runners are those who qualify for those opportunities.

So can I say I’m Sub-Elite?

The good news is that, if you’re running just below the elite level, it’s kind of up to you! You could call yourself elite, sub-elite, elite-in-training or don’t use any of those titles. When you dial it down, you’re a runner, and so am I. Whatever we call ourselves, however we identify, we’re all on the path to athletic evolution, and improving requires increasing commitments to bettering ourselves. That’s something runners of every classification identify with.

What does sub-elite mean to you? Are you a sub-elite?

Spikenard is a writer, film librarian, wine P.O.S. artist, Saucony Hurricane and co-founder of Bellingham Distance Project, a post-collegiate competitive women's running team in Bellingham, WA. Outside of drinking copious amounts of wine, she nourishes herself in literature and thrifting. Most of her writing centers on relationships, food and travel. She is training for an eventual Beer Mile and the 2020 Olympic Trials in the Marathon.

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  1. Man, I thought I was finally going to have THE answer! Great points. I agree, it’s pretty fuzzy. I tend to think of elite as those women who are pros or are running trials-level times. Sub-elite is the middle ground of those training hard for certain goals, and running times in the top 1-2% of most races (obviously a wider percentage for uber-competitve races). Usually I refer to myself as a “competitive” runner when talking to other people, because “elite” sounds, er, elitist (and I’m not that fast, anyway!) — but it makes the distinction that I take it quite seriously.

    In terms of races, I’ve seen all sorts of standards. Some races will provide comped entry for “elites” but just seeding for “sub-elites.” Others might comp entry and lodging for top tier and just entry for the next tier. You might get water bottle stations, you might not — so if you’re on the cusp, do your homework on that front!

  2. Wow. Something I’m sort of opinionated about. Let’s look for a standard that we can use more-or-less to locate the percentile ranking of elite athletes within the population at large. I propose the NFL because it appears to me to be the most elitist of our country’s sports. “Each NFL team is allowed to have 53 players on its roster (plus a five-player practice squad). As of 2011, the NFL has 32 teams, making a total of 1,696 players.” That works out to 11 players per million men in the United States or 1/1000th of 1% of men in the US.

    So where does the top one-thousandth of one percent lie in running? well, the olympic trials standards in the marathon is 2:45:00, and 246 women qualified. So the OTQ standard is about 1.5 out of a million women in the United states. Definitely elite by our ‘NFL professional sports’ standard.

    I’ve never scraped all the marathon results in the US to build a percentile table (something which I’d like to do), but I imagine that the cut-off for the fastest 1696 women falls somewhere in the upper 2:50’s of marathon times.

    So I propose this definition:
    * The professionals are those on sponsored teams with major contracts
    *The elites are those that make the olympic standard and maybe also those that are legitimate contenders to attempt qualifying times.
    –However, if we dip into the 2:50’s using the NFL percentile standard, maybe California International Marathon’s standard of 2:52 is elite.
    *The subelites are those that make the elite standards for local competitive races. In the midwest, that is typically sub-3 hour.
    *The seeded/subseeded are next couple of a percent after them.

    P.s. according to AP style guide, subelite is not hyphenated.

    1. Interesting! I have no skin in this game as a middle/ back-of-the-pack runner, but I wonder: how does perception and treatment of nationally-competitive (or ‘sub-elite’) runners help to improve the standard of distance running in the US? How might it serve to deepen the field or, on the flip side, discourage runners?