On Thursday October 26th 2023, the IRONMAN-owned UTMB organisation announced that it would be putting on their first Canadian race. A full scale UTMB World Series event over the weekend of September 28-29th 2024. Ultra Trail Whistler – UTW.
But rather than the positive reaction they hoped to get from North American trail runners, the announcement seems to have been met with anger from some areas of the community.
On the surface some people may think that this is just another arrow being added to the growing UTMB quiver of races around the world. Just another high profile race for all of us trail runners to get excited about, right?
It seems that according to Whistler locals, the race has effectively pushed out the already established WAM (Whistler Alpine Meadows) race series put on for 5 previous years by Gary Robbins and Geoff Langford of Coast Mountain Trail Running.
Image courtesy David Miller
In his blog, Gary Robbins points out some interesting facts. Firstly, the UTMB Ironman group tried on a number of occasions to acquire some of their already established Whistler races during 2021.
Gary and his business partner refused the offer twice, but then eventually agreed to at least hear them out.
On the one and only zoom call meeting that they had, Gary laid out to UTMB that there were certain ‘non negotiable aspects’ to what they had established with their races, should they be acquired by them. This point was dismissed for a later time. But the later time didn’t come.
What happened next was that WAM was ghosted by their contact at Vail – Whistler Blackcombe and their own race permits were lost in what seemed like pointless bureaucracy.
This unfortunately resulted in them having to cancel their own races in February for September 2023.
Gary received some hope in the fact that the person responsible for their ongoing issues was actually fired from their job. This was thought to be a lifeline for the possibility of putting on their WAM races again in September 2024.
However, it just so happens that UTMB have gone ahead and decided to put on their race on the exact same weekend that WAM usually uses in September, effectively hammering the final nail into the coffin for Gary and his team!
Was this intentional? Did UTMB plan this all along? Or was it convenient for the management at Vail and Whistler for this combined race project to go ahead?
According to many people in the trail and ultra running community, it seems like this is the final straw for many of them.
When UTMB was acquired by IM some years back, it was initially met with positive reactions. An injection of money into the sport could only be a good thing.
I interviewed Dylan Bowman, US ultra runner, entrepreneur and member of the Western States board (a race subsequently obtained by UTMB) back when the takeover happened.
He agreed that money coming into the sport can only be a good thing. Ultra trail running is enjoying a boom and the extra money and coverage could help younger, up and coming athletes get the support that he himself would have liked when he was new to the sport.
But since then, UTMB seem to have gone from being a fatherly figure wanting to help out, to being more of a dominating force in the sport.
The cracks started to show when the flagship race in Chamonix came under fire for its gas guzzling title sponsor Dacia, which seemed to go against everything that trail running stands for.
Many runners openly said that they wouldn’t compete at a race that doesn’t care for its environment.
Then just last month, Transvulcania announced that it was no longer part of the UTMB World Series. Is this a sign that races are getting fed up with the corporate arm of trail running? Possibly.
This morning I opened my social feeds to see post after post of people venting their anger at UTMB.
People like Billy Yang and Ellie Greenwood giving their take on the news.
But it’s not just the pros who are outraged, the average Joe trail runners also feel compelled to voice their own frustration at what seems to be an unstoppable freight train of money and sponsorship. A freight train that doesn’t care about the path that it blazes through the the physical landscape, but also the rich traditions of local races run by small local race directors. Races that you and I run every weekend around the world. Races like WAM.
The last post I saw on a Facebook page simply said ‘so are we going to boycott UTMB in 2024 then?’
Well are we? It seems like it could be the start of the tide turning on UTMB.
As of right now, Gary Robbins has announced plans to put on a rival event on the same weekend in Canada, which many have already voiced their support for in defiance of the UTMB event. ‘Good luck getting volunteers for that weekend’ was a comment made on a post about the event.
I think Ellie Greenwood summed up the feeling of defiance with part of her post on Facebook yesterday.
“you sign up for races, you get to decide which direction you want our sport to go in. Let’s not be bullied by UTMB, they are not guiding our ship, WE the runners are!”
So maybe it’s time we all have a think about the future of our favourite sport. Yes money in the sport is good. But does it have to come at the sacrifice of the rich traditions that have gone before it?
As Ellie says, only WE the runners can decide that.
Read the UTMB Announcement here
Read Gary Robbins blog here