Is ultrarunning at a cultural crossroads?

Recent UTMB controversy highlights the tug-of-war between tradition and expansion

The trail running community is reckoning with a cultural crisis after UTMB supplanted Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM), a locally run and well-loved ultra event in Whistler. If you’re not familiar with UTMB, it was a race (Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc) that has grown into the pre-eminent brand/ultra-race series (UTMB) over the last 20 years. Let’s dive in.

A quick timeline of events

After weathering COVID and a successful 2022 event, WAM ran into communication and permitting issues with Vail Resorts (who owns Whistler/Blackcomb) regarding a 2023 event, including new, more stringent safety regulations. While WAM asserts they were willing to work through this, the timeline left them with an inability to publicize or promote a 2023 event until permits were ironed out. In February 2023 race organizer Gary Robbins outlined why WAM was permanently canceled.

Robbins asserts that from late 2022 until May 2023, UTMB was in talks with Coast Mountain Running (WAM’s parent org) about purchasing the Squamish 50. UTMB/Ironman claims that they paused any acquisition discussions in January and only pursued a new Whistler event after hearing about WAM’s cancellation. The talks were under NDA so details are scarce.

In October 2023, UTMB + Whistler announced the new Ultra-Trail Whistler. Robbins was informed the evening before, and published a blog post response; things quickly spiraled from there with a response from UTMB and a final rebuttal from Robbins. The trail running community quickly rallied in support of Robbins, a well-known and loved personality in the ultra community.

Gary Robbins, attempting the grueling Barkley Marathons in 2018

The fallout

The majority of the community immediately sided with Robbins and spoke out against UTMB, some even calling for a boycott of UTMB events. Transvulcania and Eastern States both dropped their association with the UTMB World Series, and in November, the World Trail Majors were announced, a series of independent events organized as an separate competition series. We’ll have to wait and see if this impacts race signups more broadly — Robbins plans to hold another race in British Columbia, and the tight knit community there will likely skip the new UTMB Whistler event.

A bit of history

While true ultra-racing was largely born in the US, with races like Western States, Badwater, Leadville 100, and the Hardrock 100, it’s currently UTMB that dominates international and mainstream influence. Started in 2003, it has grown beyond it’s namesake race, and along the way “UTMB” became the brand, rather than the name of the marquee event. In 2021, UTMB announced the UTMB World Series and a partnership with IRONMAN. Ironman has a minority stake – a stipulation explicitly negotiated by the Chamonix-based owners of UTMB. While they are now partners, there have been many parallels in their development.

A mythical, bucket-list main event. Kona is home of the original Ironman triathlons (despite the first few years being held on Oahu) that became the world championship. Chamonix doesn’t have the same historical significance but is equally as important, and the biggest race of the year. It’s hard to put into words what simply making it to the start line of this race means to people.

Slow and steady, then rapid growth. Around 2009-10, there was a rapid explosion in articles calling triathlon the “new marathon”, and describing the “rise and rise of triathlon”. Sound familiar? How about “The rise and rise of the ultra-running industry (2019)”, “Why ultrarunning is soaring in popularity (2021)”, and “Ultrarunning trends up” (2022). And with growth comes opportunity. And $$$.

Consolidation. Beginning in 2007, Ironman started operating races themselves and buying back licensed events. Many remain concerned about a near monopoly over the sport and a recurring habit of buying smaller races, raising prices, and then cancelling them a few years later if they’re not profitable enough. There are similar concerns with the UTMB World Series and qualification/lotteries being tied exclusively to UTMB-associated events.

Competitors. The PTO Tour is going head-to-head with Ironman – it’s an partially athlete-owned series that has large prize purses and shorter “TV friendly” race distances. The World Trail Majors were announced recently as an alternative to the dominant UTMB World Series.

Is trail running reaching a cultural crisis point?

In one of the most high profile reactions, Jim Walmsley, the 2023 UTMB champion, posted “So what are we running next year?” on Strava. Walmsley dedicated the last several years of his life to winning UTMB, including moving to France to train. Would he be posting something like that if he hadn’t won this year? Is it even contractually feasible for most professional runners to “opt out” of running UTMB (the most high profile) events?

There’s an ideological battle brewing at the heart of ultra-running. Do we want the sport to grow, investing in high profile, consolidated events and coverage, which brings in sponsors willing to invest more, which increases prize purses + sponsorship opportunities? Or, do we want to keep the “heart” of ultra-running and stick with locally run, “grassroots” events? And, because neither opinion is wrong, how do we find that balance?

Last year I learned about fell running for the first time. Notably, it’s codified in their core principles that “fell running is a non-commercial sport. Races should be run on a not-for-profit basis.” It’s a sport that in many ways has remained unchanged for almost 200 years, with little commercialization and strong community support.

That works for fell running, but what is “good” for ultra-running? We are in an era of increasing visibility and professionalization of the sport, and whether we like it or not, UTMB brings both eyeballs and a sense of organization to what had historically been a mosaic of events with no clear rankings, relationship, or “season” to follow. That greater visibility of UTMB creates opportunities for more ultra-runners to make a living as professional athletes, much as the Diamond League does for track and field, and the Golden Trail Series does for shorter trail races.

Does that mean it should have a monopoly over the sport or strong-arm local races and athletes? Absolutely not. But one can’t deny that there’s been a synergy between elites and UTMB. Doug Mayer, author of “The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB” and founder of the trail running tour company Run the Alps says “UTMB helped make athletes ‘household’ names, and now they show up and continue to make UTMB the pre-eminent race in the world. It’s a significant driver of growth in the sport – it has fantastic live coverage and search interest about trail running spikes significantly every year during UTMB week.

The strength and vitriol of athlete reactions is indicative of the deep connection that athletes have to the sport and their favorite races. Mayer likens ultra-running to other “soul sports” like surfing and climbing. People don’t necessarily want shifts to the culture that’s been built over the decades. There’s a natural aversion to any kind of commercialization that might affect an experience they view as tremendously personal.

Takeaways

With Vail Resorts and Ironman involved there’s valid reason to be concerned. Both organizations have a history of aggressive and/or predatory approaches to growth and acquisitions. Was that the case in this particular scenario? If we have an optimistic view, it’s possible that this was more a series of communication breakdowns, poor decisions, and a bit of corporate bureaucracy than a truly malicious act. There’s no question that UTMB could have been more communicative and sensitive to the optics of the situation.

I’m not sure that the WAM situation will have too much of an impact on UTMB globally. While the North American community is up in arms, there seems to be less outrage internationally, and I think the allure of one day racing in Chamonix is simply too strong. There will always be mixed feedback race-to-race and person-to-person about the cost, quality of courses, aid stations, and overall “vibe”.

Whatever the “truth” behind this situation is, Robbins, as an influential and loved personality in the industry, became a catalyst for discussions about changes in the sport. It feels like the community perception of UTMB is at an inflection point, and they should think carefully about whatever moves they make next.

In an interview with Freetrail, Robbins said “We [local race organizers] are building the community that they [UTMB] depend on to succeed.

And they’ll be wise to keep that in mind.

EDIT: Shortly after publishing this, I found out that about Corrine Malcolm was removed as a commentator for UTMB Live. A *really* bad look for their "next move". https://www.instagram.com/p/C0TXXjoNnlD

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