Recently, UTMB announced a new entry process, which on the surface seemed like an inclusive way to bring more runners to UTMB. However, some race directors and avid trail runners are questioning the new system and concerned about the future of trail running.
Beginning in January 2020, the new system will enable more runners to gain entry to the UTMB series of races. Runners will also have the chance to complete “Running Stone” races, which allow them to bypass the lottery system.
Many race directors are not content with paying for ITRA points in the first place. In 2017, trail running race directors united in an open letter to UTMB expressing their concern regarding the “Ironmanization” of trail and ultrarunning. As predicted, these concerns seem to have manifested in the new UTMB entry policies. As trail and ultrarunning continue to grow, it is only inevitable that the risk for its commercialization will also increase. Canadian ultrarunner Leo Fung thinks that the “monetization of this sport is natural and inevitable.”
It’s not a secret that running trails and ultras is a privileged hobby. Races aren’t cheap, and neither is the dream of UTMB. The introduction of “Running Stones” can be perceived as another method of monetization. Finlayson Arm Race Director Myke Labelle explains it’s almost “forcing people to run a particular brand of races.”
The “stones” business model helps runners guarantee their entry. Yet, it may discourage runners from racing the more grassroots or local races–even if those races have ITRA points. “If people want to get in, they will support the bigger races, which are more expensive. If you have money and can travel the world to run these races, then great. But it’s a business move. ‘Mom and Pop’ races may not see the support because they don’t give you guaranteed UTMB entry.” Says Labelle.
Rainshadow Running founder and race director James Varner is committed to providing the friendliest trail races, and will jump through all the necessary hoops for their runners who want UTMB points. However, Varner also expresses that “UTMB seems to be, once again, throwing their weight around and doing only what’s best for themselves. Not to mention these seemingly yearly changes to the process aren’t friendly to anyone (race directors or runners).”
HighLonesome 100 mile race director Caleb Efta is also keen to support his runners in any way possible, but has a “low opinion of UTMB and ITRA. “I understand UTMB is a business and they have to turn a profit. Nothing wrong with that. But UTMB has continued to be forced on growth and wanting more.” He considers the policy positive in the sense that it can discourage runners from wanting to race a corporate-style event such as UTMB. Efta’s race has a more authentic and grassroots vibe. Efta believes it is possible for our sport to grow without the effects of corporatization. HighLonesome 100 is in its third year of operation, and always sells out.
Above all, the new UTMB policies affect the runners. The new system helps those wanting to run UTMB cross it off their list, however, it may minimize the prestige. Ultrarunner Doug Jackson explains that “CCC at UTMB hold the top stop on my running bucket list. While this change will ultimately help me cross it off, part of the appeal was that it was exclusive and hard to get into. While this may help bring the race to the people, I feel it will be at the expense of the races’ cache.”
“Overall, I’m pretty pumped with this ultra scene right now. The UTMB policy does not define our sport.” Says Efta. Despite criticisms, the new UTMB policy is more flexible than before and favours the masses. Fung thinks it favours those having to opt out due to pregnancy or injury. Yet, questions around how this controls the demand are looming. UTMB may be easier to get in, but much harder to place.
Know your why
Like anything in life, trail runners ought to look inward to determine their reasons for running any race at all. UTMB is no different. These days we have options to pick and choose what kind of trail race resonates with us, whether it’s the Ironman style of trail running with the big screens and the glam, or Silverton High School where 10 humans see you finish one of the toughest races in the world.