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‘We wanted to avoid competing with a company infinitely more powerful than us’: Inside the UTMB World Series and the ‘Ironmanisation’ of trail running

In the spring of 2021, trail running’s most influential company jumped into bed with the largest organiser of mass participation events globally. The result was the creation of the UTMB World Series, a 25-strong collection of events that is set to take the ongoing ’Ironmanisation’ of trail running to a whole new level.

21 March 2022 Michael Long

Credit: UTMB Group

Every year in late August, trail running enthusiasts descend on the French alpine town of Chamonix for the sport’s showpiece occasion. For all bar none, it is the highlight of the racing year, a weeklong festival whose magnetism is such that it has been described as the ‘Super Bowl of trail running’.

First held in 2003, UTMB Mont-Blanc has grown in size and stature to become the world’s largest gathering of trail runners. Drawing 10,000 participants from more than 100 countries and as many as 100,000 visitors to the picturesque, mountainous terrain in and around Chamonix, it has quickly carved out a revered place in the trail running firmament. From next year, however, the event will take on added significance when it doubles as the climax of the UTMB World Series, a global, multilevel circuit that is poised to set the fast-growing sport on an entirely new course.

Replacing the eight-year-old Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT), the series is the latest attempt to professionalise trail running and instil a more formalised competitive structure. Incorporating 25 crown jewel events across 16 countries in Asia, Oceania, Europe and the Americas, it will serve as the only route to qualify for UTMB Mont-Blanc, which, as the newly rebadged UTMB World Series Finals, will crown male and female champions over the 50km, 100km and 170km distances.

The series, which begins with Croatia’s biggest trail running race, the Istria 100, on 7th April, is the product of a strategic partnership between UTMB Group and Ironman Group. At the time of its announcement, the alliance was heralded by one running outlet as a ‘marriage of royalty’, one that united the organisers of the world’s most prestigious trail running event and the foremost endurance triathlon company. Indeed, Chamonix-based UTMB Group is arguably the sport’s first true powerhouse, a company that has itself been dubbed ‘the Ironman of trail running’.

Since its formation 19 years ago, the family-owned organisation has taken Ironman-like steps to control a greater share of the off-road running market, largely by embarking on its own process of internationalisation. In 2014 its co-founders, Michel and Catherine Poletti, were among the architects of the UTWT, while in 2016 the group began licensing its revered UTMB brand internationally to race organisers in places like Oman, China, Thailand and Spain. Yet the UTMB World Series takes this pursuit of expansion one step further.

“With UTMB International, it was clear that, alone, we did not have enough power to develop more than two or five new events per year,” Catherine Poletti tells SportsPro in an early February interview. “We had to find a solution very fast.”

According to Poletti, the sport of trail running has long been “incomprehensible and fragmented”, with numerous circuits and championships vying for attention and the top elite runners rarely competing together at the same races. Cherished events operated by independent organisers, often with modest budgets, remain the beating heart of the sport, but the UTMB Group’s mindset has always been one of consolidation.

It is that mindset that has enabled the group to amass unparalleled influence in competitive trail running whilst positioning it at the forefront of any conversations regarding its future commercialisation.

We wanted to avoid a competing circuit being developed by a company infinitely more powerful than us.

UTMB Group president Catherine Poletti

Poletti recalls how, in 2017, “all the major outdoor sports organisers” – including Spartan and ASO  – began enquiring about an outright purchase of UTMB Mont-Blanc, but that ultimately those advances were rebuffed in favour of a minority investment from Ironman, whose mounting interest in trail running had naturally sparked concerns, not least within the UTMB Group itself, over a potential power struggle at the top level of the sport.

For Poletti, then, the partnership that would give rise to the creation of the UTMB World Series was something of a defensive move.

“We didn’t want to sell the event, we wanted to keep control,” the Frenchwoman (right) says candidly. “We wanted to avoid a competing circuit being developed by a company infinitely more powerful than us which would have set up its annual final in a resort other than Chamonix.”

She adds: “We wanted to keep the stature of the pinnacle of trail running at the same time. We worked a long time for that and we needed to be careful.”

Poletti explains that spiralling demand for UTMB Mont-Blanc was an additional driving force behind the decision to create a unified series. Participant interest in the event, whose flagship 170km race traverses 19 municipalities in France, Switzerland and Italy, has invariably soared in line with trail running’s growing popularity. An entry lottery held ahead of the 2021 edition garnered almost 40,000 applications despite the event’s total capacity, across seven races of varying distances, being limited to a quarter of that number.

In fact, so over-subscribed is the fiendishly undulating schlep across the Alps that an overhaul of the qualification system was already in the works before the likes of Ironman came calling. Up until last year, qualification for UTMB Mont-Blanc was governed by an open points system overseen by the International Trail Running Association (ITRA), an organisation founded and controlled by the Polettis. Not coincidentally, the new system that has been settled upon for the UTMB World Series closely resembles the Ironman model, whereby elite and age-group competitors can only qualify for the annual Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii through a series of branded events spread across the globe.

For the hundreds of runners lucky enough to secure entry into UTMB Mont-Blanc, just making it to the start line is an achievement

For the UTMB World Series, the annual finals in Chamonix will be the top tier of a new four-level event structure, which will also comprise three UTMB World Series Majors each year, as well as UTMB World Series Events and UTMB World Series Qualifiers. Qualification for the finals can only be achieved by collecting ‘running stones’ that will be awarded for completing either a World Series Major or a World Series Event, with the majors serving as the continental championships for the Americas, Europe and Asia-Oceania.

“Connection to the global trail running community is a key point for us,” insists Frédéric Lénart, UTMB Group’s chief executive. “What we’ve built is really oriented towards the runners; you know, at the core of our values is we want runners to lead a transformative adventure. Of course, there are some people that are not fully positive, but globally we can consider that this new proposal has been very positively received by the community.”

As Lénart acknowledges, the UTMB World Series has divided opinion within the world of trail running. Traditionalists see its creation as another step towards the over-commercialisation and homogenisation of a free-spirited sport whose grassroots values run deep. Moreover, detractors have questioned the UTMB Group’s move to exploit its market dominance by employing what they deem to be monopolistic tactics. As well as lamenting the closed qualification system, some decry the potentially stifling impact on smaller event organisers, many of whom are already constricted by local limits on participation numbers and therefore cannot generate the same financial largesse.

Some fear that entry fees, already considerable in ultra trail running, will rise further as a knock-on effect of the sport’s ongoing ‘Ironmanisation’. Still, the inherent opportunities for elite runners are clear. A more coherent calendar of well-organised races, coupled with the prospect of expanded and consistent media exposure, should create a more compelling proposition that benefits athletes who, in the absence of significant prize money in their sport, rely heavily on appearance-based sponsorship income to top up their earnings.

“We’ll keep exactly the same spirit of the sport,” says Poletti. “Of course, the human values need to be maintained – sustainability, solidarity…a clean sport and a fair sport.

“We have the duty to be an example and to continue to help the development of the sport. This is very important for us: to continue to be an example and to drive trail running to become a huge sport.”

Balancing those dual objectives will not be easy; attempts to drive commercial growth invariably sit at odds with efforts to retain the soul and essence of any sport. Yet despite its closely guarded ethos of amateurism, trail running is a fast-growing industry that has notably emerged from the pandemic on a strong footing. For all the perceived trappings of greater professionalisation, such growth has inevitably lured external investors.

When you think of trail running and the events that really capture the imagination of athletes, you don’t have to work very hard before you get to UTMB.

Ironman Group president and chief executive Andrew Messick

“In recent years, there has been a lot of growth in dirt-related sectors in the mass participation sports world,” notes Andrew Messick, Ironman Group’s longtime president and chief executive. “The reasons for that are pretty straightforward. You know, I think the experience of doing hard endurance events in a beautiful place is pretty compelling.

“Our view is that, as we think about what our fundamental DNA is as a company, which is providing great racing experiences to people who want these big challenges, to people who are looking for an opportunity to really test themselves and find out what’s possible for them, being more focused on the dirt side of the business makes a ton of sense.”

Having expanded in recent years thanks to its acquisitions of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series, road cycling’s Haute Route and Fulgaz, a connected fitness platform, Ironman has sought to tighten its grip over endurance sports at a time of heightened interest and rising demand. As the world’s largest organiser of mass participation events, the group’s business now spans more than 50 countries and hundreds of events across triathlon, various forms of running and cycling, gravel racing, and mountain biking. In trail running, its event portfolio includes high-profile races such as New Zealand’s Tarawera Ultramarathon, Ultra-Trail Australia and the Mozart 100 in Austria – all of which feature on the inaugural UTMB World Series schedule.

“We fundamentally believe that one of the things that is increasingly important is that the races and the experiences that you’re able to create are ones that are not just organised at a really high standard, but capture the imagination of runners, cyclists, triathletes, athletes around the world,” says Messick, who is himself a four-time Ironman finisher and an avid endurance athlete. “When you think of trail running and what are the events in the world that really capture the imagination of athletes, you know, you don’t have to work very hard before you get to UTMB.”

Italy’s Lavaredo Ultra-Trail is one of 25 major trail running races that will feature on this year’s UTMB World Series

From an operational standpoint, UTMB World Series events will be managed centrally, but their delivery will vary according to arrangements with local organisers. Some events are owned or operated by UTMB and Ironman, for example, while others, including several in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, will be delivered through a licensing model and badged as ‘by UTMB’. Moving forward, Messick says that flexible, “highly pragmatic” approach will likely remain, with events acquired, licensed or started from scratch depending on where and how opportunities for further expansion present themselves.

Whatever the operational structure, the aim is for series events to offer a consistent experience for participants no matter where in the world they are being staged. According to Messick, minimum standards in areas like athlete safety and aid station amenities will define the UTMB World Series experience, just as they do in the world of Ironman.

“What we want the UTMB World Series to do is to be a really clear signal about what you’re getting,” he affirms. “What we believe is that people want an outstanding, safe, well-organised racing experience in a beautiful place, and that’s really the north star for the UTMB World Series – events that are big enough to feel like they’ve got some scale, but not so big that you feel crowded.”

Aside from the obvious benefits of organisational consistency, the formation of the UTMB World Series creates a unified marketing platform of a scale that has never existed before in trail running. And it is in the commercial arena in particular that Ironman can bring its considerable resources, reach and expertise to bear on the sport.

“We would hope to be able to deliver a global platform to partners – whether those are sponsors, whether those are content creation and content distribution [companies] – to be able to provide a real showcase for elite athletes,” says Messick (left). “Having a global series allows us to have global conversations with a different tier of partners.”

In a model not dissimilar to that which has been applied in more mainstream sports, all media and marketing rights to the series are being managed by one central commercial team whose responsibility is to handle everything from client liaison and planning to on-site activation and delivery across every event. Running brand Hoka has come on board as the series’ first premier partner in a multi-year deal, while Dacia has signed up to serve as the official automotive partner of the European and African events. Lénart says additional sponsors – both endemic and non-endemic – will be announced in the coming months. Licences will also be awarded to consumer goods manufacturers seeking to align their products with the UTMB brand.

Additionally, in the interest of preserving the spirit of environmentalism that permeates trail running, organisers have made a point of talking up the series’ sustainability credentials. To limit travel, competitors will be encouraged to participate in races close to where they live, or to combine their participation at overseas events with other activities in the host destination. What’s more, all commercial partners will be required to sign an ethical charter which sets out targets regarding environmental protection, healthy lifestyles and inclusivity, as well as sporting development. As a consequence, certain products cannot be associated with the series, such as high-carbon emission cars.

“Of course, we are creating a global platform,” says Lénart, who previously headed up motorsport’s 24 Hours of Le Mans before joining UTMB Group in March 2020. “We have a lot of brands that are not connected with trail running right now that want to enter into the series to address this new discipline. We can create some touch points between the sponsor and our community…it’s better than dealing with a large number of independent events.”

American star Courtney Dauwalter claimed victory at UTMB Mont-Blanc in 2021, setting a new course record along the way

Lénart adds that the series’ media strategy spans various forms of content. A mix of live coverage, highlights and other original programming will be distributed primarily via a range of digital and social media platforms, including YouTube and the UTMB’s own website. It is also hoped broadcasters in key markets will acquire live TV rights, particularly to UTMB Mont-Blanc, round-the-clock coverage of which is already provided in seven languages and produced by an on-site team of around 70 people.

For Ironman, too, a deeper foray into trail running presents an obvious opportunity to beef up its own content line-up whilst tapping into an even broader international community of endurance enthusiasts. UTMB’s database represents an expansive pool of engaged people to market to and monetise, one which could be converted to sports like triathlon and cycling, therefore boosting participant numbers at other Ironman events globally.

Messick, however, insists explicit cross-promotion is not an immediate priority. “There’s always going to be opportunities for people to crossover,” he says. “But I think those opportunities are secondary, at least today, to just being really, really good among the passionate verticals where we have races.”

Looking ahead, then, Messick and Poletti are both bullish about the world series’ future, with the latter projecting growth to “maybe around 50 events” in the coming years. Whatever happens, though, both insist the pace of expansion will not be out of step with the steady-as-she-goes mentality familiar to endurance runners everywhere.

“I think, in the first step, we need to work that very well and to take the time, to keep the quality and not to go too fast,” says Poletti. “As you know, in trail running, often time is a friend, so we will take good time to prioritise quality.”

This is a feature from the forthcoming Issue 117 of SportsPro magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here

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