Last week, I was in bed scrolling mindlessly through my social media feed. (The rest of my bedtime hygiene is immaculate, I swear.) I stumbled across this 90-second video:
No matter what you think of the UTMB World Series – a new international series of thirty trail races created by UTMB in Chamonix, France – the backing of the international sports marketing brand Ironman has enormous implications for trail running, and this video is one of the first products of that new partnership. With its flashy graphics and dramatic birds-eye drone shots, the video blew me away.
I sat upright in bed and immediately shared it with my network. Was this the NBA or trail running? The production value was right up there with a network TV promo featuring LeBron James driving the lane in the NBA finals.
The evolution isn’t surprising. I’ve watched over the last few years as the UTMB organization has outgrown its offices and relocated to a spacious new Maison UMTB building in the center of Chamonix. Since the integration of Ironman as a partner last year, additional management and staff have been onboarded at a healthy clip.
First, UTMB’s live TV coverage, which now includes the flagship races UTMB, OCC, and CCC in Chamonix, will now grow internationally and add live coverage of seven additional races that are part of the UTMB World Series.
Second, the organization is adding support for 300 elite racers from around the world to take part in the UTMB World Series. Those runners will get support for transportation and accommodations. In exchange, the athletes will be asked to promote the events via their social media channels. Among those taking part will be U.S. athlete Abby Hall, who is sponsored by Adidas/Terrex.
“This encourages people to go experience new places and trails in different communities around the world,” said Hall. “UTMB has created some opportunities to financially support elite athletes to go do races in the series. I’m considering a race in Sweden in the fall, the Kullamannen. . . . My great-grandparents came to the U.S. from Sweden, so I have a ton of pride and would love to go run some Swedish trails!”
Hall doesn’t think the UTMB support will cause her increase the number of races she’ll run each year, only that it will offer new possibilities. “I do think it means I’ll expand my search more widely,” she said.
Third, a new UTMB website will launch later this month, which integrates all UTMB World Series races into one online portal, with comprehensive information for registering and following the races.
It’s a lot to take in, which leads one to wonder: what will the impact be for trail racing and trail running more generally?
Two U.S. Race Directors Respond
Nine months after UTMB’s Ironman partnership, several longtime U.S. trail race directors helped place this evolution in the context of the sport’s growth and development over the past decade. One of those RDs is Dale Garland, director of Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. Hardrock, which runs through Colorado’s rugged high country, has 33,050 feet of climbing and descending. Garland, 64, has been with the organization since its first race in 1991.
A non-profit organization that is managed by volunteers, Hardrock is on a notably different trajectory from UTMB. The race, which operates thanks to special-use permits from both the US Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management, is capped at 145 runners, compared to UTMB’s seven races and 10,000 runners. In many ways, the two are at polar ends of the trail running universe. But Garland sees room for both.
“UTMB and Hardrock, we have some basic differences,” he says. “But the tent is big enough for both of us. The sport is growing. There’s a lot of money coming in. Changes like this were bound to happen.”
“[The UTMB World Series] is not going to change what we do or how we do things,” Garland says. “I feel a little weird saying that. Thanks to the lure of the San Juan mountains and of finishing Hardrock, there will always be people who want to run here. My job is to make sure their experience lives up to their expectations.”
That does not mean, however, that Hardrock is immune to trail running’s shifting sands. The growth of the sport combined with changing demographics “have forced us to consider what we are trying to accomplish,” says Garland. One result is that the organization recently had conversations about their mission and goals. The outcome? “We’re going to continue to be who we are.”
But what is that, exactly?
“Hardrock is founded on the principle of humans against Mother Nature, and not necessarily humans against other humans. We’ve tried to develop an event that celebrates everyone,” says Garland. “Every finisher counts.”
These days, Garland tries to keep a balanced perspective. “I’m a bit saddened,” he says, alluding to the growing commercialization of the sport. He points to his own history. Garland left the road for trails four decades ago, when he saw road running taken over by big businesses.
The silver lining? “It’s bringing more people into trail running.”
The challenge, says Garland, is integrating newcomers into a sport with a strong sense of community and culture. “The expectations and attitudes of the new runners are different than when I started. How do you balance your existing traditions with all these new runners? At Hardrock, we’re focusing on trail etiquette and education.”
Meanwhile, in Sedona, Arizona, John Medinger is also closely watching the UTMB World Series development. There are not many people in the US with a greater trail racing perspective than Medinger. He ran his first ultra trail race in 1980, a year when ultrarunning had an estimated 2,300 total participants. In the intervening decades, he created and directed the Quad Dipsea and Lake Sonoma races. Both are now two of California’s best-known trail events. He also served on the board of directors for the Western States Endurance Run for 29 years, until 2020. For nine of those years, he was president.
“I’ve been around since Moses was in short pants,” jokes Medinger. He is a self-effacing man and adored in California’s ultrarunner scene. Today, he’s on a Western States Advisory Committee, where he manages a database of about 200 races that are Western States qualifying events. Medinger has a firm grip on the numbers, a skill no doubt honed during his years as an investment banker working in specialized markets.
“Twenty years ago, there were 55,000 ultrarunners in the world. Today, there are over 700,000. As those numbers started to grow, more sponsors got involved, more money got thrown at trail running and it got more sophisticated,” he says.
To Medinger, the new UTMB World Series is anything but a surprise.
“It’s where you would expect trail running to head. If you follow the arc of amateur sports, you know that what’s happening in trail running is not dissimilar to what happened in road running and triathlon.”
So, where are we on that trajectory? “Explosive growth eventually peaks out,” he observes. “But I’m not sure we’re there yet.”
Meanwhile, back in Chamonix, another outdoor sport might help provide a roadmap for trail running’s trajectory. For generations, this town at the base of Mont Blanc was considered the world’s home of alpinism. In the last thirty years, that single idea of climbing grew exponentially, then splintered into several discrete sports. Now, there are gym climbers, sport climbers, “trad” climbers, even international competitions. Each June, thousands of exuberant fans gather in Chamonix at Place du Mont Blanc, as the town hosts climbing’s World Cup competition, just up Rue Joseph Vallot and around the corner from the start of UTMB.
Could trail running be next?
“They are visionaries, and they have a plan,” says Medinger about UTMB’s founders, Catherine and Michel Poletti. “I expect most of these newer events will succeed. Time will tell if the races that are not part of the UTMB World Series start to be considered as minor leagues. “Hopefully, there will be room for everyone,” he says, echoing Garland’s sentiment. “It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, where he manages the trail running tour company, Run the Alps. With Trail Runner Magazine Contributing Editor Brian Metzler, he is the co-author of the new book Trail Running Illustrated.