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The language of running is universal, but so are the dialects uttered in the pain cave.
If you’ve spent any time trail running, you know that a shared sense of suffering is both our raison d’etre and what keeps us coming back. It’s the common element of the sport around the world — both in the U.S. and in Europe, but also increasingly in Asia, South America and the Middle East.
As soon as trail running starts gaining a foothold, the community born of shared experiences follows.
“I think that’s what the community and culture of trail running are all about,” says Colorado trail runner Jason Schlarb. “That’s what makes trail running special.”
That commonality of experience is exactly what the UTMB Group — the founding body of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in Chamonix, France — is hoping to spread as it continues to unveil its new UTMB World Series qualifying system for 2023 and beyond. With the help of the Ironman Group, it is developing a championship-style qualifying structure for the three most competitive races held in Chamonix every August — the OCC 50K, CCC 100K and UTMB 171K.
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The Chamonix races have been the gold standard of competitive ultra-distance trail races for nearly 20 years. But another goal, along with developing that qualifying system, is to spread a passion for trail running all over the world. The new system offers the opportunity to run one of the races in Chamonix, but also to create ultra-trail events in regions where they might be less common.
“We want to be able to take what UTMB and Mont Blanc are all about and try to reproduce that so we can share it in with the same spirit in other places and give runners all around the world the same kinds of experiences,” says UTMB Group president Catherine Poletti, who co-founded UTMB with husband Michel Poletti in 2003. “We won’t try to make the same thing that is in Chamonix. That’s not possible, but we can share the spirit that is there.”
So far, 20 races have been announced for the 2022-2023 qualifying period, but an additional 10 UTMB World Series qualifying events, plus three UTMB continental championships known as the UTMB World Series Majors (one in the Americas, one in Europe and one in Oceania), are expected to be announced on Dec. 15.
In the meantime, more than 2,500 runners, including Schlarb, will race the Dec. 9-12 Thailand by UTMB event in Doi Inthanon National Park in the mountainous region of the Chang Mai Province. Schlarb will race the 100K, but the event also includes a 100-miler, a 54K, a 23K, a 10K and a 7K. It’s the last event of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, but it’s also a glimpse of what’s to come — when Thailand by UTMB is part of the UTMB World Series next year — and an indicator of how popular trail running has become in Southeast Asia.
Schlarb has raced the UTMB in Chamonix three times, and has also raced UTMB events in Oman, Argentina and China.
“The UTMB races I’ve been to, I really liked the courses they’ve designed, but more than that I have liked the involvement with the community,” Schlarb says. “In some places, it hasn’t been as many locals running, for example in Oman, but the community there was so involved and excited. But here in Thailand, it’s a majority of Thai people, and that creates a really exciting atmosphere for the race.”
In the past two decades, trail running has seen major increases in popularity in Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Japan and Thailand, says Sabrina Dumont, an account and sales manager for UTMB Asia. Whereas trail running grew in the U.S. and Europe primarily from its roots as a competitive sport, in Asia it seems to be growing around the exchange of culture and exploring new places.
Three years in the making, Thailand by UTMB includes some of the trappings of the Chamonix races, even though it is set in a small agricultural region at the base of a mountain range that doesn’t at all resemble the Alps. The jungle terrain is technical and challenging with steep climbs and descents, beautiful in a way that’s entirely unique.
At the race village at entrance to the national park, there’s a prominent start/finish structure made out of bamboo. The race expo sells UTMB souvenirs and features a livestream production on Facebook that includes real-time race coverage via remote camera crews following the race leaders. Onsite activity includes emcee commentary, live local music, cultural dance performances and jumbotron viewing screens.
“There’s been a real explosion in trail running popularity in Asia,” says Dumont. “But one of the reasons is that these events are not only sporting events in the mountains, they’re cultural events, too. It’s about the exchange of culture, discovering new places and a new form of tourism.”