This article is a continuation of The UTMB through the Eyes of Its Creators
Going on this week in Chamonix, France, is the largest gathering of trail runners in the world. More than 30,000 runners, family and friends are in the famed alpine valley for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the iconic 170-kilometer trail race that travels through France, Italy and Switzerland on its way around Mont Blanc. The event bills itself as the “Sommet Mondial du Trail,” or World Summit of Trail Running. Since its inception 16 years ago, UTMB has expanded to include six races, from the brand new 40-kilometer MCC to the 290-kilometer epic PTL.
Trail Runner Contributing Editor Doug Mayer, who lives in Chamonix, conducted several interviews with the UTMB founding team of Michel Poletti, 63, and his wife, Catherine Poletti, 65. He interviewed them separately on three occasions.
From its inception in 2003, UTMB was quickly embraced by mountain runners. Seven hundred runners started at the first edition, with U.S. ultrarunner Krissy Moehl winning for the women. Today, UTMB is an international brand, as the organization seeks to promote UMTB-franchised races on every continent. Their growth and development has not been without controversy, however, as some observers question their rationale and policies.
The following is part 2 of the Poletti interviews.
The new race for 2018: MCC
And now you have a new race, this year, the MCC. Rene Bachelard told me it was created for him!
Michel: Not only for him. The main motivation was to find a way to have a better involvement for the volunteers.
Catherine: Rene’s joking. Though, since he is 86, we were a little nervous watching him start at the OCC.
Michel: We know that for Rene it’s not good for him to run the OCC because it is run during the night. So, yes, MCC is a little bit for him also. Mostly, though, we wanted to do something for the volunteers.
Catherine: After the volunteers, it’s then open to all of the people in the Mont-Blanc region. Finally, we’ll open registration to the people who were not chosen for a race in the lotteries. For example, in the OCC, there are 1,200 bibs but we got more than 7,000 registrations.
UTMB’s first year with prize money
You announced relatively modest prize money this year. Where did that decision come from?
Catherine: In the beginning, we decided that it was not our role to give prize money. That was for sponsors and brands.
But that has had a mixed result, because brands don’t support athletes the same way from country to country. If you look at a professional European runner, they’re going to be better supported than an American runner. So, we realized that we need to rethink our policy.
Runners now have podium bonuses from their sponsors. So what that means, is brands have ended up with too much power in the sport. We think that athletes should be recognized because they contribute to the notoriety of a race.
The biggest product in the game
How do you answer criticism of places like the South China Morning Post, who said of UTMBs addition of prize money, “The biggest product in the game have literally called themselves the defenders of amateur sport.”
Michel: If the community wants the sport to be professional and the best runners winning millions of dollars, it’s not my preference. Everything would change.
I think that the community of trail runners want to have to keep this sport as it is now. To be able to see Kilian [Jornet] or Jim [Walmsley] at the start of UTMB is unique. If you go to run a big marathon you have no chance to see the elite. It’s impossible.
I am convinced also that if we have a lot of money in trail running, we will not have the same athletes. I’m not sure guys like Jim or Tim [Tollefson] would be in the sport. I would like for them to have a happy life. I would like for them to get enough money to have a good life, but also to keep this good spirit alive we have in trail running.
Look, if I was really a businessman, I would prefer for the sport to become totally professional, it would bring in more money—for everyone, just like cycling. It would bring in much money for athletes, organizers. But that’s not my goal. I don’t do this for money. [At this point, Michel pauses, and points to his heart.]
I can say these things when I am face to face with you. But when I write this on the internet or Facebook, people don’t trust me. I find it very difficult.
And what of the accusation of raking in big bucks?
Michel: I just think that as an organizer I do my best to build the best event that people will enjoy. As I work all the year for that, it seems fair just to be professional and to get some money from that. Maybe I can explain it this way. In the mission statement for our company, Autour du Mont Blanc, it states that we need to be profitable, but profit is not our goal.
You know, it’s a difficult topic. I think maybe part of it is culture. Here in France, you know, unlike the US or UK, it’s very difficult for us to speak about money.
A UTMB near you?
You’re now launched a new company, UTMB International, which will offer races on each continent. Why?
Catherine: For many years people have been coming to us asking to help them, but we really don’t have time for everything even if we wanted to say yes. It got frustrating, because we would give advice, and then they wouldn’t follow it. We’d work with a race and then if the event doesn’t meet the quality standards we expect, it tarnishes the image of UTMB. That’s why we decided to create UTMB International.
Let me give you an example: the UTMB in China. There is exponential growth in the number of Chinese runners at the UTMB. So with this huge boom we thought that we could export the concept, advise race organizers and oversee the event? We’re able to have this control because it’s a franchise.
We want to keep UTMB at the peak of the pyramid. We want to keep it as the World Summit of Trail Running. If you’re alone on the summit, like a King of the Mountain, there will always be people who want to knock us off. That’s normal. So, we thought, we need to reinforce our summit by creating other races that are just as high quality as UTMB.
How many races will there be?
Michel: Our goal is to have several races on each continent that will be called “by UTMB.” In Asia, we think in five to 10 years, we can easily imagine five to 10 races by UTMB. Maybe three or four in China, one in Japan, one in Korea. So, we want to have several races on each continent and between all of these races, the best one will be UTMB China. It will be a pyramid to UTMB China and that will all lead here to Chamonix.
How do you think it will be received? Will there be skepticism that UTMB is taking over?
Catherine: We know that there is skepticism and reticence. We understand we need to welcomed by local communities. For example, if the race is in Switzerland, it needs to be organized by the Swiss. That’s why you have to carefully choose with whom you partner. It needs to be someone with a good relationship with both the running community and the local community. And you need the political support, too.
2018 UTMB Week
So, what’s it like for you during UTMB week?
Michel: For a number of years, to be honest, I found it difficult to arrive at UTMB week. There was so much stress and so much to do.
You’ve hired more people recently, right?
Michel: Yes, we have a great team now. The team responds well to stress. The more stress they have, the more efficient they are. When you are a little bit older, it’s just the opposite.
My goal was to delegate since the last two years and now I’ve done it. Now UTMB week is one of my quietest weeks of the year. So it’s a success! [Laughs] This week I have practically nothing to do. I help them if there are problems.
You’ve actually run one of the races over the years, is that right?
Michel: That’s part of the story of UTMB. I ran UTMB for the first six years. Then, from 2011 to 2016, we decided that I would need to stay as a Race Director. Now I’m delegating more. Last year I ran TDS with my radio and listened to the communications, talking when necessary. This year, I hope to run TDS again.
I hope to enjoy the week. You know, it’s like when you’re organizing your wedding. You are working so hard, and when it’s “D Day” it goes by so fast you don’t enjoy anything. Now, I try just to enjoy it.
Any special concerns for this year?
Nothing special. Weather is always a concern. We worry about weather especially on the TDS. It’s a tough and technical course. Terrorism is always on my mind. We’ve worked closely with the regional prefecture on safety and security.
Looking Ahead—and Back
It was hard scheduling time for these interviews. It strikes me that you both work all the time.
Catherine: We work all the time, yes, but we are also aware that we are extremely lucky to be doing something that we are passionate about. We take vacations on the side of our work trips, a few days here and there. It’s fascinating and fulfilling work.
Looking back, what would you have changed?
Michel: We had three difficult years in 2010, 2011 and 2012. It was not easy. We made some mistakes. For example, in 2010 we were forced to cancel the race. People said, “Why do you not have a plan B in case of bad weather?” We were already the biggest race in the world. It was a mistake. We had tried, but it was so difficult to find a plan B to go all the way around Mont Blanc. It was a mistake not to anticipate that. But, indeed, we are just human.
Trail Runner Contributing Editor Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, the home of UTMB.