By Mathias Eichler
The Trail Running Film Festival - Back on Tour for 2024.
Every few months the internet’s selective voices of trail running find their collective pitchforks and storm the gates of the ever-growing behemoth that is UTMB World, and increasingly I can’t blame them.
Here’s what UTMB/Ironman Group are doing wrong in their expansion, especially here in the US. Of course I am saying this, without actually know if any of this would help reduce the amount of pitchforking… this is the internet after all.
Most sporting events do. The communities have to WANT these events to occur. That’s why permits are being issues to control the crowds. But more so than the permitting, trail races rely heavily on volunteers. Locals who are willing to spend their free time helping others having a great racing experience. And I bet anyone who’s ever participated in a race and experienced the friendly helping hand is willing to help when they are called up. This all gets tricky, when the person asking for volunteers isn’t a local race director anymore but a giant out-of-town corporation. If said corporation’s brand is cool, then folks are willing to spend a weekend volunteering walking away with nothing but a free meal and a t-shirt. I assume that’s how the Olympics have been operating for decades. Thousands and thousands of volunteers enabling a giant corporation to bulldoze themselves through city after city. But, these giant corporations don’t have the best reputation anymore. And in a funny twist especially here in the US, the country that invented giant bulldozing global corporations.
So, here’s UTMB expanding and adding more and more races, but not surprisingly struggling in the US, of all places. I bet, especially if you compare it to other regions, UTMB had hoped that by now things would look differently over here in North America.
We all could foresee that this would be a bumpy road. And clearly UTMB knew this as well, otherwise they wouldn’t have partnered with Ironman for their international expansion. In fact, UTMB had tried going solo before and they weren’t able to break into the American market. Now with a partner like Ironman they are hoping for more success. But, so far the road has been just as bumpy, so it seems.
The races that UTMB has partnered with across the globe don’t give a good indication if these races are in fact sold to UTMB, or if they are indeed still a partnership between the local race organization and the UTMB group. Why not be more transparent about this?
IF! UTMB is truly, as they are saying, only taking on races they can actually buy outright that would create lots of problems locally on the ground. And, as seen in the case with Western States, UTMB has the ability to partner with a race without having to buy it. I can’t imagine that Lavardo, mozart100, or Eiger completely have sold their races to the UTMB group. So, who can get us insight on how these partnerships are spun? And NDAs be damned, I think we as local runners on the ground deserve to know how this sausage is made.
The Polettis aren’t sitting in their chalet in Chamonix filling out hundreds of land use permits for various city/state/national forest areas across the US and beyond. They need locals to understand the nuances. The permitting is done by local jurisdictions and nothing fucks up the ability for anyone to get a permit faster than a corporation acting like an elephant in a china store.
Races rely on local volunteers. No one volunteers for Walmart. One might volunteer their time for the Olympics, but that’s a once in a lifetime experience for most.
And that’s where it all can fall apart very quickly, and, I don’t know if UTMB has thought this through. They’ve already made it plenty clear that their perspective on what a trail race is, is completely different than what has grown over decades here in the US. Americans and Europeans think very differently about many things. Where does UTMB draw their volunteers from for their big dance in Chamonix? If the company is as evil as many American trail runners make them out to be, UTMB shouldn’t be able to get thousands of volunteers to ring cow bells on some col on the way into Courmayeur all night long.
American races are driven by identity, just like American politics. We know who stands at the finish line offering cheers, hugs, and that medal or buckle. If UTMB replaces the race director at their races with a corporate entity no one will come race that event. Especially not if there are other local races in the area that still offer that finish line feel.
So, especially in America trail races will only succeed if the organization has locals on the ground, understanding and respecting the permitting system. The races will need a local race director to be able to activate local participation and help in forms of lots and lots of dedicated volunteers.
If UTMB buys these races, what prompts the local race directors to stay put and continue to operate them. Are these buy out offers that generous? Are they employing race directors and staff in all these locations?
I started off telling you what I think UTMB should be doing. And in turn I asked a lot of questions.
So maybe UTMB should just answer all these questions, publicly.
Let these race directors speak and share how the arrangement has come to be for a race to be a ‘by UTMB’ race.
Give the organization in the US a face, so we know who reports to who, who we can ask questions to, and who we can blame if things go sideways. This faceless operating isn’t great for our sport and doesn’t fly in our culture.