Aerial shot of a lot of runners on road at UTMB start line.
(Photo: Run the Alps)

UTMB is Teaming up with IRONMAN. Will It Be the Ultra-Starbuckization?

A merger of two race event giants leaves trail running leaders concerned about rising entry fees, homogenization of racing experiences, and bulldozing of smaller events.

Aerial shot of a lot of runners on road at UTMB start line.
Run the Alps

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Two seemingly disparate organizations are joining forces today, as UTMB Group and The IRONMAN Group announce a partnership, launching the “UTMB World Series” an ultra-distance trail run circuit that culminates in the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, held in Chamonix, France.

The announcement states that this is an effort to “boost the sport’s international development” to “launch the world’s ultimate trail-running circuit: the UTMB World Series.” According to Michel Poletti, who, along with his wife, Catherine Poletti, helped start and then co-direct the UTMB since its beginning in 2002, the race is not being sold to IRONMAN, it is a partnership.

The new series will mean the end of the current Ultra-Trail World Tour, effective 2022, when the UTMB World Series kicks into gear. Some of the UTWT events, however, will be part of the World Series. The partnership announcement also signals the end of what had been a key role of the International Trail Running Association, an organization started by and under the control of the Polettis: that of maintaining a point system that served as the gatekeeper for UTMB qualification and entry.

The World Series

Instead of the ITRA points system, next year will see the start of the UTMB World Series, bringing together many of the crown jewels of international ultra events that serve as exclusive access to the pinnacle event, UTMB Mont-Blanc. The World Series’ full calendar will be announced in the third quarter of 2021. Eight leading, international events are already confirmed across Europe, Asia and Oceania, including: 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), and mozart 100 by UTMB (Austria).

The UTMB World Series Finals will be held at UTMB Mont-Blanc and will serve as the official crowning of the UTMB World Series male and female champions. UTMB World Series titles will be awarded in each of the three key distances of the UTMB race week: the OCC (50K), CCC (100K) and UTMB (100M). Qualification can be achieved only by participating in one of the UTMB World Series Events or UTMB World Series Majors the and the point system – now called “Running Stones” – has not been fully developed, other than making clear that the gateway to the UTMB World Series will be the World Series Qualifiers, with thousands of races around the world that are open to all.

A Promise of Safe, Well-Organized Events

Andrew Messick, President and CEO for the IRONMAN Group, said that he respects the cultural differences between the different endurance sports his organizations serve, given it’s the world’s largest provider of road running (Rock ‘n Roll Marathon), mountain biking (Cape Epic, et al.), and triathlon (IRONMAN). In a phone interview yesterday, he said “We believe fundamentally that we have an ability to be able to deliver well organized, safe events, to serious endurance athletes, irrespective of whether it’s in mountain biking, it’s a long-distance triathlon or it’s in running. And, that’s what athletes are looking for. And there are fundamental differences, and they [are] super clear between trail runners and triathletes and road runners and cyclists. But I think that what all endurance athletes have in common is to have their ability for their big race, you know, their A events, to be safe and well-organized, and to be at a really high standard.”

Messick credits the Polettis with the ability to suss out quality events, to define the event experience and believes IRONMAN will be able to replicate it. When asked, he said it wouldn’t be too surprised to see an IRONMAN M-Dot calf tattoo paired with that of the UTMB logo, in either Chamonix or Kona, but attributed that to the type of endurance athlete, those “always looking to do something harder,” who are part of their “tribe.” While the Polettis put together a “gathering of friends” and unique, life changing and transformative events, IRONMAN is pragmatic and will serve the collective goal of well-run events. And Messick feels they’ve done just that with the Tarawera Ultramarathon in New Zealand, Ultra-Trail Australia, with more than 5,000 runners, and the mozart 100 in Austria, all of which will be part of the inaugural UTMB World Series.

Concerns and Cautions

Ironman banner hanging on an elevated walkway at an event with spectators all around.
Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Despite the potential of better coordination and organization that the merger promises, leaders in both the trail and tri communities expressed mixed emotions and harbored concerns. Although IRONMAN will not put its name on any UTMB events and UTMB retains all intellectual property rights under the partnership, there will be some questions about these two giants teaming up together.

Nancy Hobbs, Executive Director of the American Trail Running Association quipped, “The title of this narrative could be, ‘IRONMAN leaves Hawaii in its wake and moves to Chamonix with its new ami UTMB.'”

“I’m a bit conflicted,” commented Erin Beresini, former Editor-in-Chief of Triathlete Magazine, when she heard of the UTMB-IRONMAN partnership. On the up side, she sees “the cash and streamlined organization” from the IRONMAN brand. On the down, she sees “the frustration of losing your local, homegrown feel — and that’s a little sad.”

Greg Vollet, Salomon’s Global Running & Community Marketing Manager, who put together the Golden Trail World Series, another international championship that draws the attention of ultra trail runners, observes that the “world of ultra running is getting more and more complicated” and that many event companies are interested in this new “mass market” model, but he fears “it will bring a lot of confusion, tension and in the end dilution of top athletes across many different series.” Vollet notes that “all the races are already full and there aren’t many elite athletes in ultra running, so what are they looking for beside business?”

Vollet hopes that entry prices will not be at the same level as the Ironman in triathlon, because triathlon has become a sport that isn’t accessible to all. “The essence of trail running is to be able to explore new places (through races and with the security and assurance of an organization), to share experiences and emotions with friends. I am afraid that we will enter in the sports business industry, which is moving away from this spirit, because only those who have the financial means will be able to register.”

Messick recognizes that the UTMB World Series will draw elite runners away from other races but sees choice for the athletes as a positive. Michel Poletti agreed, noting that cyclists have separate races, such as the Tour de France and World Championships from which they need to select.

Hobbs said that she’s seen some of these same questions come up with Spartan’s initial foray into trail running. “The positives of Spartan’s involvement resulted in new participants to trail running, additional press coverage, and more opportunities for individuals to engage with a known and proven brand with a model of success. Perhaps some of these factors will translate into the UTMB/Ironman marriage. But, will the end result lead to higher entry fees and more hurdles to qualification, as well as an increased spotlight on a little village in the French Alps, leaving smaller events in its ever-growing wake and trails in the Chamonix valley destroyed by too much traffic? Or, will this merger create a powerful engine that provides more awareness to our growing sport in the media resulting in a growing fan base as well as offering a platform for more brands eager to secure impressions on a global scale?”

Hobbs advises the new UTMB-IRONMAN partnership not to “bulldoze the smaller events.” And to keep entry fees reasonable so as not to turn off people thinking about trying the sport. “Remember the grassroots and authentic nature and spirit of trail running in all that you do,” she says. “Give back to the environment. Consider your carbon footprint, which will certainly grow. Provide education to newcomers into the sport: Respect the trail, public lands, and wildlife. Be a climate action champion, stay on marked trails, don’t litter, don’t cut switchbacks. Embrace and welcome diversity including LGBTQ and BIPOC. Share tips and techniques basic to trail runners to insure newcomers into the sport have a good experience.”

A Giant Force, For What?

The UTMB World Series and combined firepower of the Polettis and IRONMAN will certainly be an awesome force. But, like the recent failed European Super League, unless this joint effort serves the desires of a discerning audience, it will be for naught. US ultrarunners tend to want their eccentric and eclectic races with a lot of local flavor and that’s something that ITRA and ATRA fully support in providing services to help small race directors and community events for runners who don’t want to travel far to celebrate their sport with friends.

But, as Messick points out, when you really want to test yourself and put it all on the line, you want to be sure the course will be marked, the aid stations stocked, the distances measured, etc. Sometimes you want the bohemian café for real flavor and other times its consistency and dependability. For the latter, there are multiple options, be they Spartan, Sky, Golden, Xterra,and now UTMB, and for the former, there are still hundreds of choices. And, hopefully, with the growth of the sport, none of them will go away any time soon!

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Run the Alps