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What the UTMB-Ironman deal means for trail running

By Henry Howard

The recent UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) partnership with Ironman reverberated deep in the trail and ultra running community. In the United States, the announcement was met with a range of emotions, mostly negative.

Four years ago, UTMB drew criticism from American ultra runners and race directors when it tried to extract money from Hardrock Hundred, one of the races that is in UTMB’s current points system for qualifying. Basically, UTMB was asking for a small race to pay for something it had no vested interest in. It was an attempted money grab, pure and simple. The story has renewed relevance today.

So now we see the marriage of royalty, the world’s most popular and prestigious series of trail ultras and the preeminent triathlon brand. In 2022, they will birth the UTMB World Series.

The multi-tiered series appears to include: 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 fallout will not be limited to international races, elite athletes or even the stakeholders in the deal itself. There will be wide-ranging changes to the sport, especially the scene in America. Here’s an analysis of some potential changes and what they might mean:

Global growth: The prestigious UTMB race and new series will become the premier international event in the sport. Expect the series to dominate headlines, attract elites from around the world and create interest beyond those passionate about the sport right now. Though that increased audience might have a decidedly international flavor.

Drought continues: American trail and ultra runners celebrated Courtney Dauwalter’s victory in 2019 at UTMB. But an American man has never won the race. With UTMB choosing to attract more of an international audience, the U.S. drought will likely continue. Although never count out athletes such as Tim Tollefson, who finished third in 2016 and 2017; Jim Walmsley, who is scheduled to run this year, and Dylan Bowman, who placed seventh in 2017.

A different look: Major U.S. races will lose elite ultra runners from across the globe. Already, Lucy Bartholomew has shown her support for the race series. Other international elites will likely join her for the multi-race series, opting for the year-long competition over a one-and-done top race in the U.S. However, it appears that John Kelly will not be among those lining up at a UTMB race. In a tweet, Kelly wrote, “In my time as a triathlete I did 8 Ironmans (plus a handful of half IMs... sorry, I mean 70.3s), went to Kona twice, and even went pro for a race. And I can't even begin to put into words all the horrible thoughts I have on this.”

Sincerest form of flattery: We have already seen partnerships and consolidations among media properties in the sport. In January, Lola Digital Media struck a deal with iRunFar. One month later, Outdoor Pocket Media added Outside Magazine to its portfolio. And the Spartan Trail Race Series earlier jumped into the racing series game. It’s a natural evolution to see the popularity of a sport grow to the point where there are money grabs at stake. The door is open for a creative arrangement tying in race director(s) and a brand interested in sponsoring a similar series or championship in North America. The North Face abandoned its series in 2019, which was a collection of races rather than a multi-race championship event. Will another brand jump in and create a championship-style race series? My gut says yes, with the unknown being whether it will be all from existing races, new ones or a hybrid.

Mid-major trail events will feel the impact: The UTMB-Ironman series will attract top American men and women. Same goes for top American ultra events like Western States, JFK50, Hardrock, etc. However, some of the mid-major trail races may be challenged by attracting the elites they have hosted in previous years. That in turn may have an impact on filling registrations from mid- to back-of-the-packers.

Another boon for FKTs: Every action has an equal opposite reaction, or so the saying goes. Some ultra runners are turned off by the UTMB deal due to the commercialization of the sport. It’s conceivable, perhaps even probable, that they will turn their energies and efforts 180 degrees away from the pomp and circumstance filled UTMB championship and toward the quiet, low-key journey of self-exploration through FKTs. It’s likely that the interest and surge in FKTs will continue for some time.

Growth in Ironmans: The brand wouldn’t be jumping into this arrangement if it did not think that it would be able to increase its own number of competitors. It’s very likely that some trail runners with previous triathlon experience, or a passing interest, will be more inclined now to dust off the tri bike and pull on the wetsuit and give a triathlon a try.

Whether you love or loathe the new deal, there will be reverberations for years to come in the sport and trail and ultra running. One thing is for certain, however: this deal will have no detrimental effect on the amazing trail and ultra running community.


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