By Mathias Eichler
Winter, trails, darkness, and all the weather.
One last hurrah before the end of the year. Runners, get ready for a fun and festive holiday treat along the trails of Squaxin Park.
Last week I had the immense honor to chat with Frédéric Lénart, CEO of the UTMB Group on Singletrack. (I hope you go check out the episode and hear from him directly). But I also wanted to highlight a few things here on Electric Cable Car, so people can easily scan and reference what we discussed. My overarching questions were around the corporate ownership structure of the UTMB Group and Ironman Group, how this affects the races in their growing World Series, and in turn the experience for runners, volunteers, and organizers on the ground.
Here are the highlights:
About 30,000 runners put their hat into the ring (lottery) to run one of the various UTMB Mont-Blanc races each year.
I’m not a statistician but if I do the math right, that’s roughly a 1 in 3 chances of getting to race. These odds are better than I expected, given the popularity of the event, and especially compared to the big races in the US*.
What strikes me, is that even with these ‘reasonable chances’ (compared to other big races) the Polettis felt the need to re-think their qualification and lottery system to find a better way to give more runners the chance to experience Chamonix. This tells me that at the heart of the UTMB organization is still the focus on the individual runner and the invitation to come and have their own mountain adventure. We touched on this briefly as we agreed that by and large trail running is a participatory sport, more so than a spectator sport.
This is also reflected in Frederic’s comment on how the revenue they generate is considered internally. The cost of the bib for each runner is supposed to cover everything the runner needs to have a successful event, that includes aid station support, race tracking, medical and swag. The dollars generated from sponsorships are there to sustain the organization, help them expand their media presence, and position themselves for the future. How much that is actually separated internally can’t be verified, but it’s an interesting way to express UTMB’s strategy.
Quick 2023 entry fee comparison with some of the most well-known US 100M races:
Frederic mentioned that the UTMB Group currently owns 12 events and the Ironman Group owns 16 events, with the remainder of the 36 events being managed via a sort of franchise model to allow local organization to ensure a successful event in regions where neither Ironman or UTMB have a foothold, this includes Latin/South America and China. He also mentioned that the UTMB group owns the European races and the Ironman Group focuses on Oceania (where they’ve owned the Australian races for several years) and now North American. I would’ve loved to have gotten a bit more detail from him but it sounded to me that even Eiger and Lavaredo (two massive races in their own rights even without the UTMB attachment) are now owned by the UTMB Group. It also seems the Ironman group doesn’t not own any races in Europe, but again, I’m 100% how that math breaks down, because looking at the map there are a few loose ends I can’t fully connect.
But what is more interesting to me in this conversation is how the corporate ownership model affects the local race organization on the ground and Frederic confirmed that in each region they employ a local race director who’s tasked with permitting, volunteer recruitment, and overall race management. This for me is a crucial piece that affects runners and the overall health of each of the events into the future (No runner wants to come to an aid station that’s out of food) . In trail running we don’t have a corporate ‘chain store’, ‘cookie cutter’ model that is workable (one could argue it isn’t really working anywhere, except for Wall Street shareholders). The Olympic Games only visit a city once and can command a legion of volunteers, but the annual nature of our trail races, and the remoteness of our trails requires dedicated volunteers to drive on dirt roads to far away aid stations, and spend countless hours there. That isn’t something that will work sustainably year after year if the race director and his team aren’t on the ground taking care of these dedicated volunteers and all the other loose ends that come with it.
Will be announced at UTMB Mont-Blanc in Chamonix later this summer.
Our sport is growing and growth in many (most) ways is always a healthy thing. Some entity would’ve jumped on the chance of building what we now have as the UTMB World Series to take advantage of this growth. The way I see it, is that I’m glad that the Polettis are at the heart of this driving force and that their vision, which created UTMB Mont-Blanc, guides this partnership between UTMB and Ironman. This gives me hope that the UTMB races will always be accessible for the average runner in some way. Yes, this growth will also need to provide and consider professional runners, but this is a conversation for another time. The answers I was looking for were coming from a place where I, the average bloke and back of packer, was wanting to know if dreaming of running UTMB is still a worthwhile goal of if it would make sense to look elsewhere. What has also been clear to me beyond this conversation is that trail running has many forms, and will always have many forms. At the heart of trail running is the active participation of runners, lacing their shows and running along on a trail looking for adventure. This can be found in a small group run, a multi day adventure outing, a personal FKT attempt or toeing the line at one of the countless races that are happening each weekend all over the world. Ultrasignup lists hundreds of events within a 500mile radius from may hometown each year. The UTMB World website lists 5,174 independently hosted races on their 2023 Index Calendar. There are 36 races, globally owned by UTMB.
Trail running will be just fine.
And yes, their compounding lotteries make it easier each consequential year, but there are still many stories out there of folks waiting for years to get to run these events, while I haven’t heard anyone having given up getting into UTMB due to their odds in the lottery.