The Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) is a major fixture in the trail running world. As part of a week-long festival of ultras in the Alps encompassing three countries, it attracts huge crowds, big names and no doubt appears on the bucket list of many ultrarunners.
Major changes were revealed on Thursday with UTMB Group announcing they have joined forces with IRONMAN Group “to boost the sport’s international development and, together, will launch the world’s ultimate trail-running circuit: the UTMB® World Series.”
The pinnacle of the UTMB World Series is, unsurprisingly, the World Series Finals in Chamonix, and is where the male and female champions are crowned for each distance (50km, 100km and 100miles). Places are earned by entry into other categories of races; World Series Majors, Events and Qualifiers.
The Qualifiers are badged as the “gateway” to the World Series with thousands of races available and open to all, allowing privileged access to the World Series Events.
The World Series Events are the place to earn “Running Stones” which ultimately provide one entry into the Finals lottery. Twice as many stones are available in each category of the three World Series Majors events giving athletes an increased chance of entry into the Finals.
The full list World Series Events hasn’t yet been announced but there are eight international events already confirmed:
- UTMB® Mont-Blanc (France, Italy, Switzerland)
- Val d’Aran by UTMB® (Spain)
- Thailand by UTMB® (Thailand)
- Panda Trail by UTMB® (China)
- Gaoligong by UTMB® (China)
- Tarawera™ Ultramarathon by UTMB® (New Zealand)
- Ultra-Trail Australia™ by UTMB® (Australia)
- Mozart 100® by UTMB® (Austria)
The highest performing at the Majors and Events will win a place at the Finals; the first ten men and women in the Majors, as well as the first three men and women in the Events.
The UTMB has grown in popularity since the first race in 2003, which led to a points system to gain entry in 2007 and then the introduction of stricter qualifying criteria and a lottery in 2009 to limit the numbers racing. With many of the top ultrarunning names appearing on the start line during its 18-year history, the race series has gone from strength to strength but, with such a major revamp announced, how has the trail running world reacted?
Whilst there’s clearly lots of excitement behind the new World Series structure, there are also concerns on the influence of the IRONMAN Group on the scene, particularly in relation to the cost of events and the potential impact on other races given the exclusive route to Finals.
Many see the glamourous triathlete world as limited to those with the money to purchase the wide variety of equipment and afford race entry fees. Running may be considered a more accessible and less financially draining sport (although my bank account’s eyebrows raised dramatically as I typed that) and some are concerned about the potential impact on the scene.
One UK fell running club has already tweeted the costs of their full season of races, which equates to the cost of buying a pair of last season’s running shoes. Of course, there was already a huge gulf between the cost of entry to the UTMB (and other major events) and the local running scene, and they’re such a different type of event they’re barely comparable.
RunUltra founder Steve Diederich knows a thing or two about ultrarunning. Involved in numerous ultras, not least organising the British contingent for the Marathons Des Sables for many years, he clearly understands major ultrarunning events. Here are his thoughts on the partnership:
“It was always going to happen of course, Trail running was always going to be wooed by big business, the big brands going to be collected and traded like football cards.
When the Poletti family started the race in 2003, they had their sights firmly on building an iconic brand that could be both popular and profitable … the seeds were sewn then and now have come to fruition. Inevitably this will be divisive in the running community. Social media is populated with sniping between the seemingly slick elitist triathlon community and the more bohemian purists within trail running.
All is not lost of course, the small local races and those born and nurtured with passion and energy are still alive and (Covid dependent) looking like they will continue to flourish. I genuinely wish the new World Series the best of luck – the more attention and recognition trail and ultrarunning have, the better.
If there is one cautionary note I would raise, have a look at the recent grass roots protest at the proposed European Super League… taking the community with you is essential. Ultimately no amount of media fees, sponsorship packages and destination contributions are worth anything without the support and participation of the running community.“
What are your thoughts on the alliance and changes to the race structure? Is this a big boost to the sport that could increase exposure to our top athletes? Will it encourage triathletes to engage in the trail running scene? Will it drive some trail running purists away? No doubt one beneficiary is Chamonix itself with the huge number of visitors during the events and the buzzing atmosphere unlikely to decrease any time soon.