Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Ironman form new Partnership

You read that right. UMTB, the iconic series of races at the close of every August in Chamonix, France, has partnered with Ironman, the global triathlon and endurance sports brand, to create a new worldwide series of trail races. Called the UTMB World Series, races around the world will take part.

Trail Runner Nation received the news early, and we were able to record a podcast in advance of the news release, with some of the top trail running writers, athletes and commentators in the US. We were joined by UTMB Co-Founder Michel Poletti, in Chamonix, France.

You can hear the podcast and check out highlights on the Trail Runner Nation web site.

You can see video highlights from our Zoom podcast taping on Trail Runner Nation’s Youtube channel.

Take a listen to the podcast, watch the video clips, and read the highlights.

Then, tell us what you think! How will this play out? Is this change good for trail running and trail racing, in your mind? A sign of corporate money flowing into an authentic, low-key sport?

Would you race in one of the UTMB races, with a goal of getting to Chamonix and the UTMB World Series Final?

Share your thoughts here. Scott, Don, and the rest of the crew from Trail Runner Nation will be chiming in here too. And thanks!

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Oh wow! Cant wait to listen!

I’m very interested to see which “values” which out in this relationship. This is being labeled a “partnership” but with most companies of this size, there really is one leading the way. Is that (or will that be) UTMB or Ironman?

Also, seems to me that in order to make this financially viable for both sides that there is going to have to be additional revenue generated somewhere. Where are they planning on generating new revenue to create value for both of these “partners”?

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Joining forces with UTMB is a smart move by private equity IRONMAN. Triathlon participation peaked years ago and the pandemic accelerated its decline like runners coming off Mt. Marathon. When a third of the triathlon (swimming) is essentially unavailable for over a year, the sidewalk turns steep and rocky for the profit center.

Over the last year, we saw a major shift in athletic attention and ambition. Getting outside on trails and backroads was a clear winner while triathlon became nearly extinct. Many of my coached triathletes and endurance friends turned to homespun outdoor adventures—hiking, trail running, nordic skiing, gravel grinding—for new ways to challenge themselves.

Indeed, the pandemic revealed that an IRONMAN-brand race was no longer needed in order to define an athlete’s identity. Athletes discovered self-curated endurance challenges that didn’t require hundreds of dollars in race fees. They could train and complete a DIY endurance challenge with the same feeling of satisfaction they used to get on race day. Meanwhile, use of apps like Strava skyrocketed, as these platforms provide a form of social interaction, signaling, and attention that many crave on race day. What’s not to like about a long mountain day which checks all the same boxes as the IRONMAN circus?

Trail runners have reasons for concern. As private equity pours into popular trail running events, there will be an underlying current of return on investment on every race director’s decision. While the marketing department works the ‘this race is for you’ angle, it’s not. It’s a sharp business with shareholders demanding a high return. Sport and race cultural change is inevitable under these conditions.

For many, trail running is a lifestyle and less an event. While triathlon still has many true believers, many IRONMAN athletes view the race as an event to check off the list. Sure, they share the same desire as most trail runners to use exercise to enhance their life. But some IRONMAN athletes are there for the bragging rights, swag, and their finisher’s medal. There will be challenges moving forward mixing the traditional trail runners with the newcomers while in the background, private equity seeks to extract the most value from the crowd with dirt under their shoes.

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Very good points. It will be interesting to see if the mDot culture exists in trail.

I come from a triathlon background and I certainly agree that there were a lot of midlife crisis racers that were driven to race Ironman for the mDot and not, so much, for the experience. I think for many it was life-changing and set them on a new path, but as many new racers came in they had a single focus - race an Ironman.

It was great for the coaches and gear manufacturers because there was this constant stream of new racers in the sport…

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Just got a chance to listen to the podcast. I think I tend to be more on the optimistic side of things. Michel Poletti could have sold outright and said that he’s had multiple bidders over the years, but elected not to do so, saying that it is a family event and he wants it to remain that way.

It was also interesting to note that one of the speakers who founded Trail Runner Magazine (I’m forgetting his name) said that there were the same complaints back in 1999. I imagine that ppl who were running trail ultras for decades prior to the founding of TRM had similar concerns re “professionalizing” the sport.

I dont doubt this will be an evolution of trail running, but it seems to me that the real appeal of it all (i.e. the supportive, congenial community) wont be harmed as long as actual members of that community remain in charge, a al Michel Poletti.

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In the course of writing the article for Trail Runner Magazine, the quote that really resonated for me was Hillary Gerardi’s comment that we are being pushed to answer the question, “What is trail running?” (Paraphrasing here.) We’ll all have different answers, of course, but there is a sort of reckoning being forced upon us now.

I do think things could have turned out a lot worse, Here in Chamonix, I’ve known the Polettis for perhaps four years now. I have always thought that UTMB was really in many ways a reflection of their combined personalities-- perhaps like all businesses with leadership firmly in the hands of one or two people. And, like all of us, that’s complicated. One moment, you hear a passionate discourse on the spirit and values of trail running, the next moment, you have a dramatic partnership with a company valued at over $700 million. There’s a natural tension there, and I think we’re going to see it continue to play out in the years and months ahead in different ways as this partnership gets implemented.

Already, 24 hours after the announcement, there are more questions and speculation. The move, while being perceived as bad for ITRA, actually in my mind leaves breathing room for the organization to chart its own course, free of UTMB influence. It will be interesting to see how elite runners chose to race under this new World Series arrangement, too.

This is just the beginning. A creative revolution feels inevitable. I hope everyone who cares about trail running will take part as they can in shaping the future of something we all care so much about.

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Another good write up on the news:

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sad to see it, infusions of private equity and venture capital are never a good sign…
the business model of PE/VC is pump-and-dump, or stripmine-and-dump.
The only hope here is some VCs might be endurance athletes, so willing to compromise their guiding principle (maximize profit) for the sake of the sport.

and of course it raises disturbing questions around the volunteers, without whom the races cannot be run and profits cannot be made. I won’t volunteer at an Ironman but do volunteer at smaller race organization events - don’t have an issue with race directors making money, only with PE/VCs descending to gulp down their profits…

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It was hard to listen to as a non elite runner without a huge bank account. I know it’s early but any dream chances like UTMB doing the qualifying races in the states getting the points and now listening to this is like my chances are pretty much gone. The thing I love about our sport is the chance to line up in the same group with the elites and know we celebrate the finish all together. Time will tell just hoping for the best.

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Ironman? Gross! I’d be only slightly more disappointed if UTMB announced a partnership with the Proud Boys, or Taliban. I don’t begrudge the founders of UTMB for wanting to sell out and cash in, I’m just sorry that the new owners are such vilans.; they will surely ruin something that has been quite special.

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Ha! well to be fair, UTMB hasnt been sold to IRONMAN, they’re just forming a partnership. The Polettis still have the controlling stake in UTMB, so they’ll still be in charge…but whether their being in charge is a good thing or not is probably up for interpretation!

Now it is “more” than being associated with UTMB/Ironman…it looks like to be in the club you have to sell you race:

To be part of the UTMB World Series circuit, the races must be sold to the UTMB or The Ironman

by Nicolas Fréret, co-editor in chief

May 12, 2021, 11:45 a.m.

The news caused a stir in the trail industry last week: the UTMB Group and the American company The Ironman Group are joining forces to create a new world trail circuit, the UTMB World Series (UWS), at the same time. time they scuttled the Ultra-Trail World Tour. What has not been announced, and that Distances + has understood by asking many questions, is that, to be part of it, trail running organizations will have to become the property of one or the other of the two corporations. At least one major French trail running event, the Festival des Templiers, has already said no.

The Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT), which existed since 2014, and whose rights had belonged to the UTMB group for two years, will no longer exist at the end of the 2021 season. The UTMB Group claims to have invited all the races of the schedule (25 in total if we exclude the CCC, TDS and UTMB) to integrate the UWS, which will begin in January 2022.

“The races must be 100% affiliated with the UTMB,” said Hugo Joyeux of the UTMB communications team. “Yes, it’s an acquisition logic,” confirmed Marie Sammons, director of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, who is working on the transition from the old to the new circuit.

“Nothing will change on the organization of the race itself,” said Marie Sammons. The organizers will continue to manage this as they know how to do with their volunteers and keeping local teams ultra involved. We will provide guide lines that must be observed so that all races have the same standards as those of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, especially in terms of safety. "

Even if the races will keep their name and visual identity, they will have to add the mention “by UTMB” at the end of their name, like four races which were already under this label, namely Val d’Aran by UTMB in Spain, Thailand by UTMB, Panda Trail by UTMB and Gaoligong by UTMB, in China, which automatically join the new UWS circuit.

Please note that the Ushuaia by UTMB and Oman by UTMB races do not appear in the preliminary list of UWS races and no longer appear on the UTMB World website.

Who, Ironman or UTMB, will win which race? “With Ironman, basically, we split the world,” says Marie Sammons. Ironman will approach races in the Americas, Asia (excluding China and Hong Kong) and Oceania. The UTMB will be everything else. "

In terms of communications, a single web platform is planned to bring together member races, with dedicated pages that they can manage directly, explains Marie Sammons. There is the idea of ​​pooling resources, knowing that not all races manage their digital communities homogeneously. Some are very dynamic and generate a lot of interaction, others less. For tracking races, the LiveTrail application should be common to everyone.

“We have six months to build the circuit,” explains Hugo Joyeux. Because even if the project is tied up in terms of marketing, it is still at the construction stage: all the races approached by the UTMB group have not confirmed their participation in the circuit. The full schedule will be announced in the fall. You should know that only the races that are members of the circuit (the Events and Majors races) will allow access to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc races, which will constitute the “finals”.

Mixed reactions

Among the races of the current Ultra-Trail World Tour, the organizers of the Mozart 100, in Austria, had already announced last fall the purchase of their event by Ironman. It will thus become part of the UWS.

“Thanks to the Ultra-Trail World Tour, the mozart 100 has become the biggest trail race in Austria with participants from more than 70 countries,” they say. We are proud to shape the future of our wonderful ‘Life Project’ with a strong, professional and global event. "

Two other UTWT races, already acquired by Ironman, will also be part of the circuit. These are the Tarawera Ultramarathon by UTMB, in New Zealand, and the Ultra-Trail Australia by UTMB.

The Ultra-Trail Harricana of Canada, in Quebec, for its part publicly expressed doubts, explaining on Facebook that the organization "would look carefully at what the UTMB World Series wishes to offer, but that its organizational values ​​are not aligned. right now to join a private tour of this kind ”.

In Spain, the organizers of the Penyagolosa Trails told Distances + that the talks with the UTMB were very recent (only two weeks) and that they had not been concluded. “We need to listen to them again to give us a full opinion,” they said.

Several other UTWT races have so far remained silent on their position. We do not find any publication about the UTMB World Series on social networks or on the websites of the Western States, the Ultra-Trail Cape Town, the Hong Kong 100 or even the Ultra. -Trail of Mt Fuji, for example.

The Templars, that’s no!

Even if she did not want to be precise on the question, Marie Sammons does not hide that several French races are also in the sights of the UTMB Group, so that the trail runners of France benefit from a real choice if their objective is to run the UTMB. The group hopes to convince them to embark on its project with, among other arguments, being one of the few races in France to offer access to the prestigious Chamonix races.

Several organizations contacted by Distances + confirmed that they had been approached, but did not want to be mentioned while negotiations were underway, even though their decision has already been taken.

The famous Templar Festival, which is not part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour or any other circuit, has also been approached by the UTMB Group, but the event, which brings together more than 10,000 participants each year, prefers to remain independent.

“I am in a different current of thought,” commented calmly Gilles Bertrand, the founding president of the Festival des Templiers for more than 25 years. He exclusively told Distances + that he had sent an official rejection letter to the UTMB earlier this week.

Gilles Bertrand likes the popular and “accessible to all” side of trail running and wishes to “cultivate positive communication” with his community by continuing to manage his races with Odile Baudrier, his wife. “The UTMB is playing the globalization and modeling card,” he observes. I say this without animosity, but we do not recognize ourselves in such a system, which is why we prefer to keep our independence and stop there. "

Putting an end to the rumors, the director of the Maxi-Race, Stéphane Agnoli, replied to Distances + that he had not been approached by the UTMB and that if that had been the case, the answer would have been “no” , without denigrating this competitor. "The UTMB being the benchmark international event in the field of trail running, it seems logical that they increase their international development by creating their own challenge with their own qualification method. They are, in my opinion, the only ones or almost who can do that on the trail planet ", analyzes Stéphane Agnoli.

“So far, I don’t feel any rejection,” said Marie Sammons, confident that “99% of all deals will be closed on time to announce the schedule in September.” “There is a real desire not to miss the boat,” said Hugo Joyeux of the UTMB.

However, several organizers with whom Distances + spoke believe they feel a certain discomfort with this new circuit. “We ask ourselves a lot of questions,” said one event director, for example. “We don’t understand everything,” said another. “We do not want to lose our identity”, we have also heard several times. “Our DNA is unique and non-negotiable,” hammered a popular organization. “The pressure is intense”, summed up a race director who feels “his ass between two chairs”.

As for the issue of UTMB or Ironman acquisition, the terms were not clear to anyone Distances + spoke to.

The competition of world circuits

In recent years, the Ultra-Trail World Tour has seen some setbacks, although it seemed in a dynamic of expansion and development. The Grand Raid de la Réunion left the circuit after a few editions, as did the Marathon des sables. More recently, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, the Transgrancanaria and the Patagonia Ultra Trail left ship to join another newborn in the field of private global trail circuits, the Spartan Trail World Championship.

Note that, in the latter case, Spartan’s avowed intention is to become a shareholder (and not 100% owner) of the races that make up his circuit.

Another player, Salomon, founded the Golden Trail Series world circuit, with several prestigious partner races, but positioned on shorter formats (maratrail distances and less).

The promoter of races Xterra also inaugurated this year its international trail running championship with races in marathon format (42 km): the Xterra Trail Marathon, made up of 10 stages around the world.

The weak point of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, according to Marie Sammons, “is that it’s a structure with independent events. So that limits us. We want to do something more “inclusive” with a common marketing plan. We want global communication. That’s what will make the circuit so powerful, ”she said. Every race needs to feel like it’s part of a whole. "

“Even if it stops at the end of the year, we’re going to go to the end of the story and end this season as it should be,” Marie Sammons promises. I really want to stress that the UTWT is not a failure. I have forged a strong bond with the various organizers and we have succeeded in creating a racing community that has grown everyone. "

“We also helped events in their development, and to be better known internationally,” assures the director of the Ultra-Trail World Tour. The year 2020 has been super complex [due to the pandemic, editor’s note]. I kept in touch with disillusioned and disoriented organizers who wondered what would become of them. I must say that this fed our thinking. That and the initiative of Spartan, who picked up races from the UTWT. I was personally frustrated of course, because I had contributed a lot to the relationship of trust with all these races. "

Marie Sammons is also honest in recognizing that the goal of the UTMB World Series is to be a “more dominant circuit.” The alliance with Ironman will consolidate this desire, since it presents itself as the “world leader in the organization of endurance events and mass events, with teams established in 26 countries, on all continents” . The two partners make no secret of their intention to create “the world’s largest trail running circuit”.

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Wow… thanks for posting that article - it is interesting and very detailed. The UTMB/Ironman hegemony is even more sinister than I could have imagined. The quotes from Gilles Bertrand best represent the true spirit of our sport.

As someone who has previously done (and loved) CCC and UTMB, and who is running TDS this fall, I can’t believe that I find myself wishing for the failure of the UTMB organization. But I do hope that these new plans fail; I hope races avoid takeover, and that runners resist the urge to participate in this new pyramid-shaped money-funnel.

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Wow…much different than it was presented during that podcast. Thx