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Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc Partners with Ironman

Trail running grows up, and with it comes an uncertain future. 

Did you feel the ground shake under the trail during your last run? You might have. Because this morning at 10 a.m. Paris time, Chamonix, France, was the epicenter of an earthquake that radiated outward and shook the trail-running world. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, our sport’s most prestigious week-long series of ultramarathons, just announced that it is partnering with Ironman, the global triathlon brand. The partnership is comprehensive and international in scope. It’s a fitting moment for the world’s most iconic race, which turns 18 and enters adulthood this year.

The announcement was surprising-not-surprising. The not-surprising part? Trail running has reached critical mass and continues to grow, and for private-equity investors that means that the sport is officially on the radar. On top of the numbers, the trail-running demographic is a desirable one for investors.

The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, our sport’s most prestigious week-long series of ultramarathons, just announced that it is partnering with Ironman, the global triathlon brand. The partnership is comprehensive and international in scope. It’s a fitting moment for the world’s most iconic race, which turns 18 and enters adulthood this year.

“Healthy living is really on fire with investors right now. People have seen companies like Peleton do really well,” says David Lavallee, a former investment banker who lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and now invests and operates endurance-related companies. Lavallee sees opportunity within the sport, too. “Trail running has been synonymous with ultras for the last 20 years. But there’s huge room for downward growth, for individuals who want to run a 10K trail race.” And as more people experience trail running? “That fuels the understanding that there’s something really big going on here,” he says. “And it has all been amplified by the pandemic.”

Media Mashup

In the trail-running-media world, dollars are already flowing in. U.S. trail-running publishers have been snatched up by larger entities. The website irunfar.com has gone to Lola Digital Media, owner of a dozen other outdoors-oriented publishers, among them Gear Junkie. Trail Runner magazine was acquired last October by Pocket Outdoor Media, which subsequently bought Outside Magazine, and now operates under that iconic publisher’s brand name. Last September, the investment division of Nashville software company Atiba Labs purchased the website ultrasignup.com from its founder, Mark Gilligan.

In the case of the new UTMB-Ironman partnership, Ironman’s investment only goes so far. According to UTMB, their company has the majority ownership; Ironman has a minority stake, and there is no option for Ironman to take control of UTMB. Ironman presence at UTMB events will be low key, as well, with no Ironman branding at UTMB races.

“Ironman is a long-distance-triathlon brand,” said Andrew Messic, CEO of the Ironman Group, “and we intend to keep it that way.”

How It Will Work

The surprising part? It really did happen, and now the trail-running world has to think about what comes next. The announcement of the UTMB-Ironman partnership brings with it the potential for deep changes to trail racing, for example. UTMB is calling its new global race series the “UTMB World Series,” which breaks down into four categories of races: World Series Qualifiers, Events, Majors and Finals. Qualifier races, whose numbers will apparently be in the thousands, give “privileged access” to World Series Events and World Series Majors, both of which feature 50K, 100K and 100-mile distances. Each World Series race gives a participant one lottery entry (UTMB calls them “stones”) to the finals in Chamonix. The World Series Majors are the flagship races on each continent, with two entries to the Chamonix lottery. Between the Majors and Events categories, UTMB expects to have 30 to 40 races take part.  

Everything points toward Chamonix and the World Series Finals—and the only way to get there will be through the new race series. To get to Chamonix, runners will also need to finish a race of comparable difficulty in one of the other UTMB race series. 

Everything points toward Chamonix and the World Series Finals—and the only way to get there will be through the new race series. To get to Chamonix, runners will also need to finish a race of comparable difficulty in one of the other UTMB race series. 

Notably, no U.S. races were announced as part of the press release. “Trail running was born in the USA… [but] it’s not easy for a French company to develop something [there],” said UTMB Co-Founder and Co-Owner Michel Poletti. “That’s part of our decision to partner with Ironman, is that it will be easier for them to develop the sport in the U.S. than for us in France.” Poletti noted they are talking with “many other races in the world, including the United States.”

The current Ultra Trail World Tour, in which UTMB owns a controlling interest, will cease to exist in January 2022. Some of the races currently in that series will join the new UTMB World Series Majors. Meanwhile, the other UTMB races that take place in Chamonix, MCC (40K), TDS (145K) and PTL (300K), will continue, with race registration procedures that will be announced this fall, according to UTMB staff.

What Does It Mean For Trail Running

In the trail-running world, Ironman is not without its branding challenges. Corte Madera, California’s Jeri Howland, 65, has known both the trail-running and Ironman world for several decades. She’s ticked off 21 Ironmans, is a seven-time champion, and at age 46 set an age group world record. When it comes to trail running, she’s won her age group in over 30 races and twice has been female champion in the Bay Area’s legendary Quad Dipsea race. She spoke to Trail Runner broadly on the idea of Ironman possibly entering the trail running.

“Ironman would bring in a lot of hype,” says Howland. “They think it’s part of the attraction. I don’t think trail runners would like that.”

Culturally, at first glance, the two worlds do seem somewhat at odds. “Triathletes have a ‘look,’ dressed in the latest gear,” Howland says. “Runners are simpler and colors are muted. One is glossy and the other is matte.” It’s a polite tension that already exists in the trail running world—between European runners in their pricey “kits” and American runners, for whom duct tape and shirtless running are their own form of fashion statement. 

Fashion aside, Howland thinks that trail running could ultimately benefit. “Once triathletes realize how great the return on investment is for them in ultrarunning, they may turn to the sport. It’s much simpler than taking a bike and wetsuit with you. And triathletes are always looking to expand their endurance capacity. They’d jump in.”

And, always, there is the profit motive, as both UTMB and Ironman are for-profit entities, and the latter sometimes seems intent on pushing the envelope on pricing boundaries. During the pandemic, Ironman offered deferments but refused to offer refunds. Many registered athletes were irate, and filed a class-action lawsuit, which was summarily dismissed by a US District Court Judge this past January. Even in more normal times, says Howland, “The cost of Ironmaning is off the charts.” Will that pricing come to UTMB? “That could be a huge turn-off,” says Howland. “Triathletes expect to spend a lot of money,” she says. “Trail runners don’t.” For his part, Poletti offered awareness of that concern, saying, simply, “We want to deliver high standards events at a fair price.”

One clear benefactor in the new partnership will be Chamonix, France. Already considered by many to be the world’s home of trail running, the town also hosts CMBM, one of the largest trail-running clubs in the world, the eight races of the Mont Blanc Marathon in late June, and the more under-the-radar Trail des Aiguilles Rouges in late September, three races whose marquee event is a highly technical 54K route. All of the new UTMB-Ironman races will point toward a climax at the end of August in Chamonix. An estimated 130,000 runners, family, friends and fans already converge on the Mont Blanc region at the end of each summer. It’s hard to imagine that number getting any smaller. And if the triathlon world shifts its attention to UTMB and starts trail running? Those numbers will keep growing, even with entrance caps on the races. 

What Comes Next

Perhaps more interesting than the announcement itself, is what comes next. Will the trail-running culture embrace a “big tent” approach and accept corporations with deep pockets and little history in the sport, alongside diehard trail runners who toe the line each weekend in local races that finish with beers back at the trailhead? Is there room for both in trail running? 

“This is essentially one of the big debates of the sport coming to a head: what is trail running all about?” says Hillary Gerardi. Originally from Vermont, Gerardi has set course records on technical trail races around the world. She is sponsored by the Utah-based company Black Diamond. Gerardi has lived in France for ten years, the last four in Chamonix. “We’ve been wrestling with that question for the past decade as the sport grows and evolves.This partnership between UTMB and Ironman is a big jump. It’s forcing people to decide where they stand on the issue.”

This is essentially one of the big debates of the sport coming to a head: what is trail running all about?” says Hillary Gerardi.

“This is an interesting arrangement and one that brings a lot of unknowns,” says Brian Metzler, the founding Editor of Trail Runner magazine, who now serves as a Contributing Editor and freelances for numerous media outlets. “Of course, some purists will criticize it as being a bad thing that’s contrary to the easy-going, community spirit that we all know and love.” 

Metzler has completed four Ironman triathlons and has run two of UTMB’s races, CCC and OCC. He’s also run the UTMB course, and knows the Chamonix scene well, having been to nine editions of UTMB. And while he’s concerned that the UTMB qualifier events might become cost prohibitive for some runners, he is optimistic that the UTMB-Ironman relationship could yield positive results. “I think it could add structure, professionalism, exposure and prestige that could benefit elite athletes in the same way the Ironman World Championship in Kona has for triathletes.”

And for eager recreational runners? “It’s an inspiring incentive to travel to unique events with the hopes of getting to the UTMB in Chamonix.” And as Metzler is quick to point out, it was already hard to get to a starting line in Chamonix. “Let’s face it, UTMB was already impossible to get into just as getting into Kona was before qualifiers were developed 25 or 30 years ago.”

The dust is still in the air. When it all settles, it will be interesting to see what takes shape—and what comes next. Like every big tremblor, there will be aftershocks as well, some of which may go on for months if not years. 

For her part, Jeri Howland finds commonalities between her trail running and triathlon worlds.  

“Both triathletes and trail runners share a love of doing something where there is great uncertainty in the outcome,” she says. “And they share a love of meeting their tribe—people with the same passions.”

And, she says, there is that feeling of toeing the starting line, with miles to go before you can rest. It’s a sentiment felt since 2003 in Place du Triangle de l’Amitié in Chamonix—an addictive mix of tension, excitement, fear and uncertainty. Many trail runners are now feeling that same stew of emotions as they ponder the future of a sport they love. Now, the gun has gone off and our toes are across the start line. It’s time to settle in, rise to the occasion, and see what awaits us on the long miles ahead. 

 

Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, where he runs trails with his labradoodle puppy, Izzy. He has run UTMB twice, along with UTMB’s TDS, CCC and MCC trail races. He oversees the trail running tour company, Run the Alps.