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Now that the 2021 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is in the rearview mirror, the transition to the new annual global racing structure begins.
Instead of the International Trail Running Association points qualifying system and the Ultra-Trail World Tour that has existed for the past several years, next year will see the start of the new UTMB World Series. Beginning in early October, the impact of the partnership between the UTMB Group and the Ironman Group will become apparent as they jointly announce the locations of the World Series races for the 2022 season.
The new series will include 30 races worldwide, including three continental championships — known as UTMB World Series Majors and held in North America, Europe and Oceania — that will funnel into the 2023 UTMB World Series Finals in Chamonix, France.
Don’t worry, trail runners, it’s going to be OK. The 172km Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc will continue to be one of the most exceptional races in our sport, and there’s a good chance the new configuration of the series will benefit the sport in many ways. Yes, this will be a big deal, but trail running will continue exist as small and as community-oriented as we want it to.
Although the news of the partnership was met with mixed reactions last spring — perhaps because some runners are afraid of the change and unknown of how the new events could impact the racing season — it has all the makings to be a great step forward for the sport of ultra-distance trail running. Sure, there will be growing pains, but let’s face it, the UTMB events were already extremely difficult to enter even before the demand in recent years skyrocketed. And the sport certainly needs to continue to evolve in some key areas — including, hopefully, the advent of prize money in the championship races.
To qualify for the 50km, 100km and 100-mile UTMB World Series Finals races — aka the OCC, CCC and UTMB — runners must compete in at least one of the UTMB World Series Events or UTMB World Series Majors, where they can collect “running stones” for use in the lottery, or be rewarded for their performance with direct access with top finishes in each event. (The other events during UTMB week — TDS, PTL, MCC and YCC — will remain outside of the championship series, but will still require points and a lottery for entry.)
“I love races, so the more races, the better,” said Colorado-based and Salomon-sponsored trail runner Courtney Dauwalter, who won the women’s race of UTMB for the second consecutive time on August 28. “I think that anytime you’re trying to gather all of the runners in the same place to experience the same course on the same day, it can be awesome. So I think the potential for it is pretty cool for the sport.”
When Catherine and Michel Poletti launched the initial UTMB in 2003, they knew they were onto something, even though only 67 of the initial 722 starters continued on to complete the full loop around Mt. Blanc. Chamonix had always inspired athletes to challenge themselves in the mountains — by way of skiing, mountain biking, hiking, mountaineering — and they knew a trail running event of a big magnitude would eventually take hold. By 2006, there were 2,500 starters (and 1,152 finishers) and such a huge demand that the Polettis added the CCC that year. It’s been going gangbusters ever since as trail running, ultrarunning and the notoriety of the events grew on a global scale.
With a post-pandemic boom in trail running already afoot, it wasn’t going to get any easier to chase points and enter the lottery. Having new races around the world crafted with the same challenging zest as those in Chamonix could and should only make the effort to get into the finals more interesting and rewarding. And the increased structure, exposure and professionalism — and more trail running gear companies, as well as non-endemic brands, investing in the sport — are vastly needed for the sport to continue to grow.
Perhaps the only remaining unknowns are where and when the UTMB World Series Majors will be held. Ironman is in the process of acquiring races it can grow for those events, but that can be tricky in the U.S., where most races are small because of land-use permitting issues. As for timing, many American athletes are hoping it won’t interfere with the timing of marquee races like the Western States 100 (late June) and the Hardrock 100 (mid-July), among others.
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“It’s an exciting proposition, but at the same time I think it’s going to take a while to develop,” said HOKA-sponsored runner Jim Walmsley, the three-time Western States 100 champion from Flagstaff, Arizona. “There are still a lot more other options in trail running, especially in the U.S., that have more history and depth and more stories. I don’t think too much will change with the structure. I think the main thing will be the addition of the three continental championships. I think that will put three big races on the map across the globe that will be fun to compete at. Hopefully they will be at a different time in the calendar and give us something else to get ready for. There’s always the allure that, if that’s the road to Mont Blanc, then that’s going to be the way we go.”
The Ironman Group was brought on board to help with the expansion of the UTMB World Series, both from a race acquisition and event management point of view. While the relationship between UTMB and Ironman hasn’t been made public — Ironman Group CEO Andrew Messick has said that Ironman hasn’t acquired UTMB but only made a small investment in the group — it’s believed that the connection is built around a revenue-sharing deal that will benefit both sides.
Ironman has vast experience in organizing events and helping scale the sport on a global level. Ironman Group owns and operates 160 triathlon, cycling, mountain biking and trail running events around the world. No, the group doesn’t have a perfect track record, and yes, the cost to enter an Ironman or 70.3 triathlon has gone up quite a bit over the past 10 years.
Messick knows what is at stake, most notably capturing the attention of the growing sport and helping add structure and legitimacy in the mainstream world with well-organized, in-demand events. (And yes, that could also benefit other races if runners don’t want to participate in the UTMB World Series.)
“We’re both used to having our customers being deeply engaged, passionately people, time and effort to achieve these very ambitious goals,” Messick said on August 28, two days after running the OCC 54K race, his first ultra and his first race in Chamonix. “We’re fellow travelers in that world and also understanding how much the races matter and how high of a standard you have to hold yourself to be able to create experiences that are worthy of the effort that your customers put in.”
If trail runners are afraid Ironman will make UTMB into a highly produced spectacle, there’s no need to worry. The events during UTMB week are already part of an awe-inspiring (and perhaps in some ways even over-the-top) spectacle with all of the fanfare of the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Those who have been to Chamonix to participate in one of the events, support a runner or just engage as a spectator know that the UTMB Group has already created an astonishing week of events that includes a celebratory start and finish line showcase that’s unlike anything in running, arguably even more dramatic than the final 600 meters down Boylston Street at the Boston Marathon or the Golden Hour finishers on the Auburn High Schoool track at the Western States 100.
And that’s not just for the winners, but for everyone that finishes at just about any time of the day. Even in the wee hours of the morning, there are fans cheering runners to the finish.
“I have never experienced a race like that before. It was crazy,” said Alex Borsuk, a Portland, Oregon, trail runner who placed 11th among women in the 145km TDS race on August 25. “The finish was awesome. Everyone was at dinner in the village, and I felt like I was winning the race. There were so many people out, and there was so much excitement. There’s nothing like that in our sport.”
The Hawaii Ironman has long been the pinnacle of triathlon, and the UTMB events are as real and as grandiose as it gets in trail running. Just as the combination of swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean, cycling 112 miles on the Queen K Highway and running 26.2 miles in hot humid conditions is a bona fide test of endurance for any level of competitor in Kona, so too is running any of seven events in Chamonix are nothing if not arduous and absolutely authentic. Every one of the racecourses is harder than you might expect and finishing any of them — by any runner in any amount of time — is an entirely worthy and authentic endeavor.
“Part of what makes this event and this week so special and unique is the terrain, it’s the people and the incredible sense of people wanting to push the limits of what they can do and test themselves,” Messick said. “And that’s always rewarding, no matter if you’re younger or older or new to the sport or someone who is super experienced. There is always a reason and a role to push yourself into uncharted territory. That’s what keeps everybody excited and keeps you young. That’s what this is all about.”
Some runners might be afraid that trail running will lose its genuine, close-knit feeling of community. But that sense of community has remained intact — and also become galvanized — as the sport grew rapidly in the U.S. in the early 2000s and also as it became a global sport with the rise of the UTMB in the early 2010s. And anyone who has been to Chamonix for UTMB week knows that it oozes the culture and community of the sport in such profound ways that it’s both tangible and memorable.
“I think it’s a great next step,” said Dylan Bowman, a trail runner sponsored by The North Face from Portland, Oregon. “The UTMB is already the Super Bowl of ultra trail running. It will be good for increasing the standardization and professionalization of our sport. I think the UTMB Group is a fantastic organization and has the best interests of our sport in mind and I look forward to seeing what they do as they put it all together. It’s not to say it won’t be without challenges. I’m certainly looking forward to more announcements of where the races will be, how the organization will be structured, how I can set up my race season based on that structure. There’s still a lot to learn, but I’m excited about the future.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and is now a contributing editor.