For seven days every year, Chamonix finds itself at the centre of the trail running universe. Over the course of a lively week in late August, around 10,000 runners from more than 100 countries and over 100,000 spectators swarm upon this otherwise placid mountain town in the French Alps, lured by the magnetism of the much-celebrated Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
When SportsPro arrives in town on the eve of the big occasion, invited by the organisers to run the MCC, a 42km race starting in Martigny, Switzerland and ending in Chamonix, the pre-event buzz is palpable. Bars and restaurants hum with the excited, many-tongued chatter of locals and tourists, busloads of whom have arrived on transfers from Geneva International Airport.
Lampposts and shopfronts are bedecked in UTMB branding, the faces of past winners and trail running royalty splashed across hoardings throughout the town centre. In the shadow of Saint-Michel church, the arch that marks the race’s famous start-finish line stands tall and intimidating; an obvious backdrop for selfies and an ominous motivator for the thousands of runners who will pass through it as they tackle one of eight races over the coming days.
Bathed in sunshine and adorned in the colours of summer flora, Chamonix is dressed to impress. Since the first running of the race in 2003, UTMB week has been a shopwindow for the resort and the Haute-Savoie region, but the 2022 edition carries added significance. This year marks the first year of a strategic partnership between the organisers, UTMB Group, and Ironman Group, who in 2021 teamed up and co-invested to create the UTMB World Series, a unified circuit of 25 races that spans the globe but which firmly positions UTMB Mont-Blanc, the original and best-known of all UTMB events, as the pinnacle of competitive trail running.
In 2023, to coincide with its 20th anniversary, UTMB Mont-Blanc will double as the UTMB World Series Finals and will crown male and female champions over the 50km, 100km and 170km distances. Before then, though, there is the small matter of ensuring what promises to be a truly historic racing spectacle is also the biggest and most visible edition yet.
A true festival of trail running
Perhaps the most immediately apparent evolution of the UTMB can be found in its visual identity. A branding refresh, conceived by Paris-based agency MNSTR upon launch of the UTMB World Series last year, introduced a slicker, more premium look and feel, creating a cleaner canvas on which to splash a leaner group of commercial partners.
Fast-growing running brand Hoka has signed up as the top-tier premier partner of the entire UTMB World Series, while carmaker Dacia and fitness tech firm Wahoo are second-tier partners and Buff, Camelbak and Compressport are serving as technical suppliers. Each of those brands receives branding and exposure across all UTMB events and channels thanks to the newly centralised marketing platform, as well as prominent placement in the bustling, considerably upsized sponsor village in Chamonix and the ability to run on-site activations – Hoka’s technicolour light tunnel being perhaps the most creative example.
UTMB World Series premier partner Hoka activated its partnership with a light tunnel, bringing a never-before-seen twist to marketing around trail running events
Limiting the commercial portfolio to a select few companies is intended to deliver greater value and visibility to those partners, yet the UTMB Group has been careful not to exclude the countless other international brands that comprise the outdoor gear industry and are particularly active in trail running. While Hoka is the series’ exclusive footwear and apparel partner, rival brands like Brooks, Altra, Adidas-Terrex, The North Face, Salomon, Black Diamond, La Sportiva and Merrell are all visibly present and active on the ground in Chamonix, fronted by their respective athlete ambassadors and, in many cases, top-level company executives.
Those brands, as well as any others that do not sponsor the event in an official capacity, are not permitted to produce content on the course during the races, but they are able to purchase image and video packages for the purposes of promoting their sponsored athletes and teams. They can also buy exhibition space in the sponsor village, while there is nothing to stop them from putting on promotional events at their own retail outlets and other locations across town.
“We commit to keep a good balance between partner brands and other brands because there are a lot of brands with teams,” says Isabelle Poletti, the event director. “For the possibility of all the sport to grow, these teams absolutely need to be able to continue to grow with their own athletes.
“Also, we have more than 200km of track. It’s not like a football [stadium], we do not have a closed area, so we cannot control everything in the mountains. This is absolutely impossible, so it’s better to give the possibility to everybody to use the event as they want, because if we just forbid they will find a solution to do it out on the place where we don’t have the eyes.”
Canada’s Marianne Hogan finished as the second female in the main UTMB race after a battle with winner Katie Schide
For brands and runners alike, the weeklong UTMB Mont-Blanc is an unmissable content opportunity. Anyone who is anyone in trail running is here. Popular YouTubers and vloggers abound, roaming the streets and nearby trails wielding GoPros and gimbals, while athlete influencers, chiselled and bronzed by countless hours spent traversing the backcountry, head to the hills to shoot social segments for brands like Strava against the breathtaking backdrop of the French Alps.
As excitement builds towards the showpiece races, satellite events and promotional activities continue throughout the week. Autograph signings, talks and Q&As, early morning group runs, yoga sessions, new product drops, parties, film screenings: this is a true festival of trail running, a yearly gathering that brings together a like-minded community of elites and amateur enthusiasts.
For the UTMB Group, too, this week is a unique chance to showcase the revered appeal of the UTMB brand of events to potential new partners. Commercial discussions with a host of companies are taking place at Maison d’UTMB, the event HQ situated in central Chamonix, and across town as the organisers, supported by an Ironman delegation, look to build out their partner portfolio heading into 2023.
As Poletti, whose parents Catherine and Michel founded UTMB almost two decades ago, says: “This week will be very, very intense in terms of business.”
Expanded coverage of this year’s UTMB races delivered record-breaking reach and viewership for the event
More coverage, more exposure
UTMB’s stature ensures the event always draws the best of the best. Not for nothing has this occasion been dubbed the ‘Super Bowl of trail running’. But this year feels different, with just about every element ratcheted up several notches. The field in the main races is arguably the deepest ever assembled in Chamonix, adding to the hype and anticipation among fans and the media, while the organisers have clearly taken steps to scale up the reach and visibility of the entire spectacle.
In July, French media group L’Équipe acquired broadcast and digital rights to the UTMB World Series, including its showpiece event. A team of around 70 personnel based in a hotel located in central Chamonix oversees the production of the feed, with the newly launched UTMB Live streaming platform and UTMB’s official YouTube channel carrying live coverage of the three main races – the 56km OCC, the 101km CCC, and the 171km UTMB – in six different languages.
Enhancing the broadcast operation has naturally been a key focus for the organisers. Improvements in content production have been made in recent years and there has been a clear uptick in production quality, even if the budget hasn’t necessarily increased following Ironman’s investment.
“We are not investing more, we are investing differently,” says Poletti. “For a lot of years, we have spent a lot in promotion, in the broadcast, in signage. This year, because we are not alone now with the World Series, we changed a little bit the model, but [we have not spent] more, just differently. But sure, I think that the visibility for all partners, especially in this event, is amazing.”
Despite the connectivity challenges that come with operating in rugged mountainous terrain, the broadcast is certainly impressive. Streams hold strong, largely unblighted by the broadscale buffering issues that dog many mainstream events, and the production value is unparalleled in trail running. Alluring aerial shots are delivered by helicopters and drones circling overhead, while camera operators on foot and mountain bikes skilfully bring viewers close to the action out on the course.
For casual viewers and hardcore fans alike, the broadcast product, combined with expert commentary and continuous live tracking of the athletes, makes for a compelling, easy-to-follow experience. But if there’s one criticism that simmers loudest, at least on social media, it is the lack of airtime given to female competitors.
Calls to improve gender equality in the coverage, and across the event generally, grow louder as Friday’s marquee event draws closer. Corrine Malcolm, a sponsored trail runner and commentator for UTMB, is notably vocal in her criticism following the event’s conclusion, describing the apparent decision by the producers to prioritise coverage of the men’s race as “a culture that needs to change”.
Still, the lack of equality in exposure does not seem to hurt viewership numbers. Barely has the week concluded when the organisers issue a stat-laden press release hailing the record-breaking reach and impact of the 2022 edition.
Nearly 14 million views and 100 million minutes of video have been watched on the UTMB Live platform and official social networks over the course of the week. Official content has generated 2.4 million interactions across the event platforms. No fewer than 50,000 people have set up a MyUTMB account, which is required for participation at UTMB World Series events, while 460 accredited journalists from 34 countries have produced 964 articles. Tellingly, some 2.9 million people watched the live broadcast on L’Equipe’s platforms.
All told, according to the organisers, the media impact will be at least twice as great as during the 2021 edition, underlining the growth trajectory that trail running has been on for some time. For the UTMB Group and Ironman, then, there is plenty of cause for optimism as the event prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.