“When you have two big things come together, it makes for big news” – Don Freeman, Trail Runner Nation, May 6, 2021
We’re excited that Trail Runner Nation podcast got to be the first podcast to tape a show with Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc’s Michel Poletti, announcing a new partnership between two major endurance sports organizations that will reshape the world of trail running as we know it. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, or UTMB, is headquartered in Chamonix, France and is one of the world’s largest trail race organizations. They have officially announced a partnership with Ironman, the global triathlon and endurance racing company.
This marriage will bring with it many changes to UTMB as well as our sport as a whole. In our podcast, taped a few days before the announcement and held under embargo, we talked with UTMB Co-Founder Michel Poletti about the new partnership and invited an expert panel of trail running guests to discuss the intricacies of this partnership, what it means for our sport, and how it might affect everyday trail runners in the US and around the world.
Below are transcribed highlights from the show and video clip excerpts from our Zoom taping. The conversation was wide-ranging, and touched on topics such as the magical race atmosphere of UTMB, the growth and increasing professionalism of trail running, the values of our shared trail running culture, the environmental impact of international race travel, and much more.
Here’s an overview of our guests:
Michel Poletti: UTMB Co-Founder and trail runner based in Chamonix, France.
Krissy Moehl: Winner of first edition of UTMB in 2003 (she also won in 2009!), author of Running Your First Ultra, and running coach.
Brian Metzler: Colorado-based sports journalist and one of the founders of Trail Runner Magazine, where he is still a contributing editor…he is also an expert on the subject of pack burro racing.
Hillary Gerardi: American living in Chamonix, France and one of the world’s top skyrunning athletes. Hilary just recently set the record for the “haute route” ski through the mountains from Chamonix to Zermatt, Switzerland.
Adam Chase: President of the American Trail Running Association and captain and manager of the Brooks Off-Road Running Team.
The Magic and Magnitude of UTMB in Trail Running:
When I ran my first UTMB, there was a clear distinction between this race and any event in the states I’d ever run or have run since. Everyone starts together in the heart of Chamonix and the streets are lined with people cheering you on. – Krissy Moehl
I came to cover the race as a journalist and it was crazy. Trail running was not at that scale in the US and I was blown away by the participation from the local community and how excited they were about runners. In the US, the best trail races might have a couple hundred people and you rarely get spectators outside of family and support crew. To witness that kind of participation speaks to the magnitude of the event relative to the sport and international running events. – Brian Metzler
Living here in Chamonix, I can say there’s no mistake when it’s UTMB week, it’s trail runner central. – Hillary Gerardi
Everyone is really fit and they’re wearing plenty of Lycra! – Adam Chase
The Ironman Partnership
We had experience working with Ironman in 2017 when they acquired our Ultra Trail Australia event, as well as the Tarawera in 2018. They were interested in buying our company but we wanted to build a partnership instead. Our children are involved in our UTMB business and we want to pass on the baton to them. We have had other offers but the answer has always been no. We want this to be a family business. -Michel Poletti
One value of trail running is the idea of inclusivity. Given this new race format for UTMB events, how will the organization put an emphasis on inclusivity and making sure a more diverse group of people can participate? – Hillary Gerardi
The US is at the center of our new system. It’s not easy for a French company to develop in the US and yet we know some of the world’s most classic trail running races are in the US. We’ve been happy to have the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in the Ultra Trail World Tour, but we’re still missing partnerships with many major races in the US. To partner with Ironman will make it easier for us to develop these US race partnerships. – Michel Poletti
Professionalism in Trail Running
When I think of Ironman, I think very professional. How has your vision of the professionalization of trail running evolved with this partnership? -Hillary Gerardi
There should be more professionalization in trail running, but I recognize there’s good and bad to this. I’ve been in favor of athletes getting prize money to some extent and raising the level of the sport, and having more international competitions has been good for the sport overall. I’d love to see more athletes benefit; this is their livelihood. – Brian Metzler
When I got into this sport sponsorship meant a couple of pairs of shoes a year. A pro athlete being able to make a living doing running is an evolution that has just happened in the last ten to fifteen years. – Krissy Moehl
Athletes in 2021 don’t have the same expectations that they had fifteen to twenty years ago. We respond and provide what they need, but we aren’t going to push too much prize money into our events all at once.” -Poletti
Environmental Impact: “During the pandemic, trail running has become a way to recenter and connect with nature. As an athlete who travels a lot, I recognize there is a huge environmental impact with big events like the UTMB that encourage international travel. – Hillary Gerardi
Initially, we wanted to encourage runners to run as many races in our series as they could, but we don’t want to go on like this. We want to give people all over the globe the chance to find a wonderful race of the highest quality close to home, then provide the opportunity to travel once or twice a year but not for every event. – Michel Poletti
Trail Running Community and Values
This partnership will not make us lose the values we’ve had putting on this event for the past eighteen years. Joining with Ironman is the next step in putting on the best events we can. – Michel Poletti
We’re all endurance athletes, trail runners and triathletes. The real question about this partnership is what the two businesses stand for and how that trickles down to the athletes. – Krissy Moehl
I’m wondering about potential resistance from your everyday trail runner striving to do an ultra and run these races. The might see that Ironman logo and say ‘I can see myself trail running but I don’t see myself in Ironman. -Hillary Gerardi
If you’re going to get along together as a globe you have to come together as a globe. – Don Freeman
What Does This Partnership Mean For Trail Runners? This new partnership between UTMB and Ironman is another step in the evolution— and perhaps revolution— going on in our sport today.
We’re seeing larger corporations like Ironman and other entities providing more organization and support to events and athletes across the country, with a primary motivating factor of these companies being profitability.
But, when the races are over, what it means to be a trail runner remains the same. We look to connect with nature, challenge ourselves, and move quickly through wild areas. We aren’t afraid of a little mud, of getting blisters, or bonking during a race. These are the things that bring us together and create wonderful, funny, and warm memories for years to come. Staying true to the core values that make trail running what it is will keep our sport true to itself even as it grows and changes. We encourage you to have a discussion with your trail running buddies about your trail running community and values. You can continue the discussion in the Trail Runner Nation section of the new community at UltrasSignup.com.