USATF Support for Sub-Elites

2014 U.S.A. Trail Half Marathon Championship My teammates at the 2015 USATF National Trail Half Marathon Championship

Two weeks ago, I explained who sub-elite runners are. Last week I told you about the many benefits races offer for sub-elite runners. This week, I want to explain the ways that U.S.A. Track and Field (USATF) supports sub-elites. Sure the USATF is not without controversy, but with part of its mission to promote the pursuit of excellence, from grassroots to the Olympic Games, the organization’s job is to help you reach your goals.

Athlete Development

USATF offers lots of opportunities for sub-elite runners through its Athlete Development program. While some of its offerings are unavailable to those of us who can’t commit to training full-time, many others could be just what you need to take your running to the next level. This program includes performance workshops, high performance training centers, nutritional information, and a bevy of helpful training recommendations.

Athlete Support

The USATF does pay some athletes stipends and provides them health insurance, among other benefits, but the pool of those athletes is very small. USATF uses a tier system to determine what benefits athletes are eligible for. The higher performing the athlete in her event, the more benefits she is eligible to receive, and most of us, if we fall into the sub-elite category would not qualify for these benefits, but it’s good to know they’re out there — another thing to strive for! You can read more about that here.

USATF Championship Races

USATF also puts on many championship races each year. Many of these races are qualifiers for world championship races. Sub-elites may or may not be eligible for these races, so it’s important to know what is required to participate in each.

Cross Country

Let’s start with cross country. Say you’re interested in competing at the USATF National Club XC Championships, which will take place on December 10, 2016 at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, Florida or at the USATF Cross Country Championships on February 4, 2017 in Bend, Oregon, either as an “Open Athlete” or as a part of a team. It’s simple to do so, and qualifications include:

  • You must be a citizen of the U.S.
  • Women must be 14+ years old and men must be 16+ years old on the day of competition.
  • You must be USATF registered for 2016 or 2017 as an individual;  if you’ll compete with a team, you must be affiliated with that team as part of their USATF membership. USATF memberships can be purchased online here.
  • “In addition to a club affiliation, athletes are able to represent (1) corporate sponsor. This corporate sponsor must be a registered USATF Corporate Member and be part of the athlete’s membership profile…”

Ok, you’re all squared away with the pre-reqs, now it’s time for the Open Registration Form, where you can register as an individual or for a team. Then you’re good to go!


USATF Track and Field Nationals is a different, slightly more complex process. The coming year will see the USATF Indoor Championships in Portland at the Oregon Convention Center on March 11-12, 2016. (Masters will be in Albuquerque, NM earlier in the month). In order to qualify see the eligibility requirements. Bottom line, you need to have run a qualifying time on an indoor track within a little over a year’s time frame, processed by Fully Automatic Timing (F.A.T.). Qualifying Standards can be found here (note: they are the 2016 standards). The same standards exist for USATF Outdoor Track and Field Nationals.


USATF Road Championship Races like the USA 25 km Open Championships, which will take place in Grand Rapids, Michigan on May 13, 2017 and will be held in conjunction with the 40th Annual Fifth Third River Bank Run, are accessible in multiple ways. For the 25 km Champs you can apply for elite status by having won a past Fifth Third River Bank Run, by having previously placed high in the USA 25 km Open Championships division, by placing high in other USA Championship events, or if you’re a part of the U.S. Distance Runners Development Program. If any of these are applicable you will need to contact Greg Meyer, the Fifth Third River Bank Run Elite Athlete Recruiter. If you don’t possess any of these pre-reqs, you can register here, and simply pay to take part in the championships. Similar to the 25 km Champs, most if not all USATF Road Championship Races operate this way, where you need to find out the rules for elite entry via USATF as well as what the host race offers by way of elite entry. Personally, I think this is awesome because it opens more doors than not.

Mountain, Ultras, or Trails

OK, so you’re not into cross country, track, or roads. (Or maybe you are into those things, but your coach talks you into racing up a mountain. Hi, Spearmint!) You’re into mountain or trail running or ultras and want to vie for a spot on one of the U.S.A. Mountain, Ultra or Trail Championship Teams. What are your options? These teams are typically made up of the top few finishers in a qualifying race. The teams are selected several months before Worlds.

You’re too late for Trail Champs, which were held in Moab, Utah earlier this month. The team has already been selected and the race is over, but next year you could compete in the race and be afforded the same opportunity for USATF awards as long as your USATF Membership is up-to-date.

As for ultras, the USATF Road 50K, 50 Mile, 100K, and 100 Mile Trail Championships are possible in two ways – you can qualify by placing in a qualifying race, or you can pay to run in conjunction with the race. For example, Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile will host the 100 Mile Trail Champs in 2017. All you have to do to compete in the championship portion of the race, is have a valid USATF membership and follow USATF rules.

USA Mountain Running
Spearmint killing it at the 2016 USATF Mountain Running Championship where she qualified for the U.S.A. World Championship Team!

The way the championship teams are set up, it would be hard for a sub-elite to make the team, although not impossible. Often the mountain, ultra and trail championship teams are minimally if at all funded, and the athlete must pay a good deal to compete on the championship platform. This leaves some of the top athletes in their events declining a spot on the World Championship team, allowing the next available or willing athlete the opportunity to compete. It all depends.

The long and short of it is that for many of these events you have to be invited to compete in the championship race for a spot on the World Championship team. You may have to compete just for a spot on the starting line, by submitting a qualifying time and a resume to the coordinator of that prospective race. If they decline your entry, because you don’t fall under “elite” qualifications, or because you don’t have recent proof of ability, you can (sometimes) pay your entry into the host race, and as long as you have a current USATF membership, you can still compete in the championship portion of the race. Make sure you double check with the race coordinator if the USATF or host race information is unclear!

Have you received help from USATF or participated in a USATF Championship race? How was your experience? What else would you like to see USATF help sub-elites with?

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. I wish they’d post the specifics of the national championship races earlier. For instance, the half marathon championships are April 29, which is right when I would normally run a marathon. But since there’s no location, it’s hard for me to know if that would be a viable spring option. Also, from what I could tell the workshops are also only for Tier 1-3 athletes now?

      1. Helpful for me but not the general public who doesn’t have a Spearmint handy! I was just using that as an example. This article was super helpful but I would generally describe using the USATF site as a forehead-banging-on-desk experience.

        1. I agree Chicory that it isn’t always easy to find what you are looking for. I very well could be wrong (paging Catnip!), but I think a lot of that also has to do with the fact that each of the races may be championship races but are also put on/sponsored/funded/advertised by other races. Example, like Spearmint said…the HM champs are actually part of the Cap City Half in Columbus. Now YES it would be way easier if the USATF would acknowledge this on the site for planning purposes, I won’t dispute that at all. But sometimes I THINK the lack of information is also due to the races themselves and how well they do with making it available.