Readers Roundtable: What the *blank* is an Elite Runner?

Definitely, probably, no way.
Definitely, probably, no way.

Last week we introduced you to Emma Polley, a Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier who some LetsRun posters skewered for calling herself elite. We laughed this off as petty insecure trolling, but Emma’s story brings up a good question:

What is an elite runner?

We hear the term bandied about along with other gems like sub-elite, local elite, and, on the other side of the spectrum, hobby jogger. We have vague understandings of what these classes of runners are, but is there a formal cut-off between, say, elite and sub-elite? And how about between sub-elite and local elite or local elite and … everyone else?

I recently spoke with a runner who began a sentence, “When I became an elite …” She clearly knows where she stands and I know where I stand. All of LetsRun might laugh, but I’ve even been referred to as an elite runner before.ย While that was certainly flattering, I know, even when I was at my fittest, I’m most definitely not an elite runner. I won some local races way back when, so maybe I could be a local elite, but that’s the best I could possibly say for myself without feeling like a complete fraud.

Beyond where I personally stand, though, I really couldn’t tell you where the lines are between runner classes.ย So naturally, we want to hear from you!

Do we really need to separate runners into classes? If we do, well, why? And then what should those classes be? How should they be defined?

What the ____ is an elite runner?

Whether you are a back-of-the-packer, someone who considers herself an elite runner or somewhere in between we want to know what you think.

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. If you’ve ever run fast enough to qualify to enter a race as an elite runner…then you’re an elite. I also think of an elite as someone who trains almost, if not as much, as a professional, but does not support themselves full-time by running. I don’t think we need to divide ourselves into classes of runners, because races often do that for us (aka the corral system).

    1. I like your distinction between elite and professional. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always felt elite was sub 2:45-2:50, sub-elite under 3:00, and local elite under 3:15 or so. This probably has to do with the standards for comped race entry v. expenses paid and comped entry. But there is such a big gap in support for women around 2:45 and women around 2:30 there should be another category (like your professional)

      1. Is adding categories the way, do you think? I think expanding them might be a better option. Also, the major reason for the support gap is sponsors grabbing at potential Olympians, no? If there were more fan support of runners at the elite level you might have sponsors grabbing at popular athletes who run just behind the potential Olympians.

  2. There are 53 players on a pro NFL team. There are 32 NFL teams totaling 1696 players. It is very hard to be elite enough in the sport of football to make an NFL team. Out of 151 million men in the united states 0.0011% of men are pro football players. or the prevalence of 11 men per million. Olympic trials qualifiers represent roughly the fastest 0.00017% of americans. less than two per million americans. THe olympic trials standard is much harder sport standard to meet. There are one sixth the number of olympic trials qualifiers as the number of NFL players. They definitely meet the standards for elite, and that term probably goes a lot deeper into our sport than just the OT field.

    “Elite” is just a term strategically used because it was selected to avoid problems with NCAA eligibility requirements. A professional would lose her NCAA eligibility.

    1. Is it actually harder for someone to qualify for the Olympic trials than become a pro football player or is there a much greater incentive for more people to try to be a pro football player?

    2. Oh yeah, and what trials are you talking about? Surely Olympic trials qualifying isn’t a necessary condition to be considered elite. Are the top grand masters elite? What about runners in other countries? Were you only looking at women or men? I don’t think Olympic trials qualifying is the right metric. It is a fact to consider maybe, but alone does not help us to define the term.

    3. Actually NCAA D-I and D-III athletes can accept quite a bit of $ now, as long as it doesn’t exceed training costs for the year! (Check out the Collegiate Running Association! I need to write a post on that!)

  3. Such a sticky question!

    From what I’ve heard, the term elite is used in our sport because “professional” used to be a dirty word during the age of amateurism. But really, so few runners are true “professionals” (i.e. making enough $ for running to be their profession)…

    The term elite does make me a little uncomfortable. To me it connotes a division between elites and everyone else and seems to be strongly associated with talented vs. not. I don’t know if anyone else feels that way, though!

    1. It can definitely make me uncomfortable. Do I like the recognition or think it’s cool when my times qualify me for an elite field- yes not gonna deny that one. But it’s not like I want to run around all the time telling everyone I’m an elite runner. Yes I love running and am competitive but that doesn’t mean that others are less runners because of it. Most of my friends are runners, some faster than me and some slower- but I’ve never looked at it as a division of us, more like…hey we all run and I love that. But in general, throwing around terms isn’t necessary in my book. You’re pro runner and it’s your job or you’re a runner who does XYZ for a job- either way you are a runner.

    2. Right now I don’t really care who characterizes who as what, BUT when I was training my ass off with other runners who would be considered elite or subelite and doing the same training, even the exact same workouts (including paces much of the time!), it felt pretty shitty to be considered “less than” just because my race times didn’t reflect the work I did. I’m not saying I *deserved* to be in this or that classification. I am just saying how it felt at the time.

  4. Do we NEED to classify runners? No, but can it be nice sometimes as a form of recognition, yes. The way I see it, the pro’s are the ones that are getting paid for it and it is their MAIN job (I know some pro’s still carry part time jobs). Elite is such a trickier thing to classify though. I’ve been in “elite” fields before at races, I’ve placed well and won small and some bigger ones- but then you get me to Boston and I’m like heyyy oooooohhhh waving from like the 6th corral back. Local elite: consistently placing top 5 overall in local races (regardless of how “fast” or “slow” your local running community is). Elite: Consistently places top overall in local races but also in top 5-10% outside of the local scene including bigger races? Who knows.

  5. Oooohhh, I love this conversation! I definitely do NOT think of myself as an elite masters runner, because I know that when I was 39 years and 364 days old I was nowhere near capable of winning a larger race or qualifying for any events in the Trials…but as soon as I began racing after I turned 40 I was getting do
    categorized as “masters elite” by other people (obviously though since I can’t run right now I am merely a masters elite treadmill walker). In my opinion though the term elite is a bit of a sliding scale: I think of all my friends who have qualified for the Trials as elite runners, and I also think of my masters friends who are able to still run age-defying, ass-kicking times as elites. (I’m talking about folks like Catherine Watkins, Jenny Hitchings and Marisa Sutera Strange in the masters category.) But at the end of the day I do think it is up to an individual to decide whether they consider themselves an elite or not. I know masters runners who haven’t run as fast as I have but consider themselves elites and that’s just fine by me.

  6. This question is so interesting! I agree with those who have said a pro is someone who makes their income off of running alone. However, even some of my friends who are professional have side jobs because they still can’t pay all their bills (which is sad). Elite appears to definitely be a fuzzy term in the running world. I asked my friend Matt, who I look at as an elite–he has sponsors including Brooks and has ran 2:23 in the marathon. He said he considers himself elite too, but he also said the term “elite” isn’t a clear cut term to describe a fast runner. Maybe it’s just contingent on the terms of a race? Most races allow a certain amount of elite runners in who have ran a certain time, right? So if you meet those qualifications pretty often, maybe you can consider yourself elite then?

    1. That’s a kind of metric. If I qualified for the elite field of one race I might not consider myself “an elite,” I might just consider myself lucky! But if I qualified for elite status on the regular maybe I would? It’s not sponsorship alone that makes it, it’s not qualifying times that make it, it’s something more…

  7. Interesting question…I am faster than the “average” female runner and can enter most marathons as an “elite”. My coach considers me an elite runner. I personally have a hard time calling myself an elite athlete – I think this is because I look at professional runners as elite runners, and while I am fast to most people, I do NOT put myself in the same category as a Desi Linden or Shalane Flanagan. Do we need an official distinction? Probably not unless it is for race entry purposes.

  8. My mom told everyone she met that I was elite when I broke 3:45 in the marathon for the first time :o)

    1. That’s so cute! My friend Julia is my biggest cheerleader – she’s always talking about how fast I am. It’s a little embarrassing, cause, like, I’m not that fast really and she’s an equally awesome runner. But at the same time it feels really nice, like I’ve got a superfan. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Iโ€™d love if more back-of-the-pack and mid-pack runners spoke up! Iโ€™m in the middle.

    As a writer who talks about elite runners, I like having a word to replace โ€œshe who is really fastโ€ in my lexicon. If Iโ€™m talking about a particular race and I refer to an elite woman, Iโ€™m referring to a woman who races at the very front of that race, whether itโ€™s the town 5k or the OT 1500m or the Chicago Marathon. When I talk about โ€œelitesโ€ as a group Iโ€™m talking about women who train at high levels. Not even the highest level, just high levels.

    To me thereโ€™s no firm line like a pace or race time; instead thereโ€™s an area where โ€œIโ€™m really fast,โ€ โ€œI do this for something other than funโ€ and โ€œI train my ass offโ€ meet. Thereโ€™s more than one variable that defines who fits into that part of the Venn diagram.

  10. back-of-the-pack/ mid-pack runner weighing in!
    I guess I’ve never given a lot of thought to what defines elite/ sub-elite/ local elite, since that is so far outside my realm.
    I understand a need for labels at times, but in general sort of hate that there HAS to be labels. I mean, I suppose if I worked my ass off and dedicated my life to the sport and had the fast times to back that up, I would probably WANT a label that set me apart a little bit? But then it gets super complicated with all the other labels. For example, compared to the average person, as a person who trains for at least one big race per year and participates in a number of smaller races throughout the year, the average person would probably label me as an avid, dedicated runner. Sure, I’m not running 40-100 mile weeks on a regular basis (or… at all), but the average person probably doesn’t consistently put in 20+ miles either. Through the eyes of many, I train hard and my times improve. BUT, when thrown into the ranks of, say, people who read and write for awesome sites like Salty Running, I would imagine that at face value, I might fall closer to the “hobby jogger” label, which I guess I had never considered myself to be. (this also brings up my disgust at the word jogger..ugh). When I first started writing for SR, I immediately felt like I was incorrectly invited to the WRONG party… like um, are you sure I should be weighing in on ANY of this? What I’ve come to realize is, as I have gotten to know a lot of the Salties, though the weekly mileage and paces may be wildly different, we are all dedicated and involved in the sport, at whatever level makes relative sense to our lives. As someone who just began running 5 years ago, who NEVER ran or had been athletically inclined until age 32, and someone who works FT, is a mom to 2 little kids, has a lot of kids activities to attend and has a number of hobbies of her own, to run even a few days a week is a pretty big accomplishment.

    I’m rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is… we are all awesome if we choose to think we are. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. This is super interesting and something I’ve definitely wondered about. For what it’s worth, I don’t consider myself an elite; I personally define it as elite = professional or at least sponsored. But I’m super flattered when someone calls me elite. (I’m just remembering that the first time I broke 3 hours, it was at Boston and the next day Boston Globe had a list of the top 100 women and called it “Elite Women.” I was like 99th or something, and I literally teared up at being considered elite.)

    But I get that everyone has their own definition. And certainly races vary WIDELY in their definitions. I do get into most races (certainly not all) for free, but some (like certain Rock and Roll ones) won’t let me in the VIP/elite warm up area because I don’t reach the standards for that. But last year I saw some women with marathon times near mine got to run in the elite field at Boston and I was super excited, like maybe someday I could be in the elite Boston field?? (It blows my mind that the Boston standards are easier than some of RnRs.) I think the labels are pretty pointless, but in terms of race entries/corrals/race day treatment, it would be nice to have a clearer understanding.

    1. I’m pretty sure the Boston elite standard is lower than the RnR because Competitor doesn’t like the idea of athletes who won’t pay extra for extra amenity. Which – hey, they’re a business, I get it…I guess… But that’s pretty cool about the Boston thing. Maybe after the trials you have a new goal. Today Boston – tomorrow the WORLD.

  12. My mental definition is tied to specific numbers… When I hear sub-elite, for women I think a marathon pr in the sub-3:00 to 2:45 range. Elite means sub-2:45 to me. Not sure where I even came up with that…