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UTMB/Ironman partnership draws head shakes in trail running world

News of the deal is being greeted with skepticism by those who decry the commodification of the sport

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc

On Thursday, UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc), the most popular and prestigious series of trail ultramarathons in the world, announced a new partnership with Ironman, the international triathlon megabrand – and the trail running world is not exactly celebrating. 2022 will see a new series of international races called the UTMB World Series, of which the main event will be called UTMB Mont-Blanc, with a complicated, multi-tiered series of events and qualifying races. Some athletes reacted negatively to what they see as the further commodification of trail running by investors who don’t really care about the sport.

RELATED: UTMB announces stacked fields for 2021 races

UTMB was born 18 years ago, in 2003, and after a few years its popularity exploded, with thousands of entrants and fans descending on Chamonix each year. (By contrast, races like the Western States Endurance Run have maintained a tiny field of 369 runners since its inception in 1994.)

The new system replaces the Ultra-Trail World Tour, though some UTWT events will remain; it also replaces the ITRA (International Trail Running Association) as the administrator of the “Running Stones” points system for UTMB qualification, though the system itself will remain in place.  

The UTMB World Series events announced so far include the following: 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 organization cites endorsements from athletes like Lucy Bartholomew, Dylan Bowman and Ryan Sandes, who waxed enthusiastic about the growth of the sport. But John Kelly, who holds the unusual perspective of an accomplished ultratrail runner who has also participated in multiple Ironman events, expressed concern about “Monopolization of events through exclusive qualifiers to the “premier” race, leading to sky-high entry fees & closure of independent races, complete disregard for host sites, athlete experience & safety, or anything in the way of $, different cultures/goals… ”

Beyond the details of the announcement, detractors appear unenthusiastic about the association with the Ironman brand, which has suffered from bad press over what some see as its poor treatment of athletes and its litigiousness – though the organization has said there will be no Ironman branding at UTMB races. (A recent story in Triathlon Magazine Canada detailed its beef with Canadian athlete James Lawrence, who is on his way to completing 100 full-distance triathlons in 100 days, over his use of the name “Ironman.”) 

RELATED: Damian Hall vs. John Kelly: the running rivalry we didn’t know we needed

The following is from a story published in Ultra Running Magazine back in 2017, but summarizes how many ultrarunners and race directors, particularly in the U.S., feel about the current situation: “Because of various federal, state and local restrictions, American ultras do not have the luxury of putting ten thousand runners on our courses as UTMB may, and thus cannot generate the revenue that UTMB can. Even if American races could, many would choose not to, considering it contrary to the spirit of ultrarunning. We recognize that as our sport grows, increasing commercialization and a desire to monetize the sport’s popularity may be inevitable, and indeed, for better or worse, UTMB and the “Ironmanization” of our great sport might be the unavoidable future. But while we certainly understand why many runners want to run UTMB, these aren’t the values that we think represent the best of our sport or that we wish to further.”

(The story was written to explain why some U.S. ultras, such as the Hardrock 100, have always refused to pay for the privilege of becoming UTMB qualifiers.)

The 2021 UTMB events are scheduled from August 23 to 29, 2021 and will feature a stacked lineup of competitors, including Camille Herron, Jim Walmsley, Canadian Ailsa Macdonald and past winners Courtney DauwalterFrancesca CanepaPau Capell, Xavier Thévenard and François D’Haene.