The Trail Running Film Festival - Online Watch Party Get your tickets.

The Trail Running Film Festival - Online Watch Party Get your tickets.

Here it is. The inevitable has come true. UTMB/Ironman announced a new event in North America and for the first time it’s not just a rebranded/acquired/previously existing event, but a brand new one. Except it’s not.

For the past 5 years Gary Robbins’ Coast Mountain Trail Running held the Whistler Alpine Meadows on the trails of Whistler Blackcomb resort. But the resort, under new ownership of conglomerate Vail Resorts didn’t renew the permit and the event was permanently cancelled just this past February.

Now UTMB announces Ultra Trail Whistler

The race is in a perfect location. I previously said, when Gary Robbins announced Whistler Alpine Meadows that this location has the makeup to become THE UTMB location in North America. A lot has changed since, but the mountains still exist and the location is still incredible. It’s close to a major city, close to an international airport. The trails aren’t at insane altitude (my personal favorite!) and most of the trails are in a resort, so permitting should be straightforward. So one thinks.

Fast forward a few years and Coast Mountain has had a few challenging COVID years (which RD hasn’t) and then the announcement arrives last February that WAM is dropped due to Gary and team not being able to come to terms with Vail Resorts.
So a beloved, albeit new-ish and not without complications (grizzlies, snow…) race is shut down. Not unheard of, but still somewhat surprising because it certainly felt that Coast Mountain had wanted to continue to operate it. CMT is clearly a highly regarded, professional organization that shouldn’t have any problems getting permits for an event like this. CMT didn’t walk away from it due to ‘difficulties’ or ‘lack of runners’, they couldn’t get a permit from resort owner Vail. No real reason given beyond that, but rumors have been floating through the grapevine that Vail was particularly complicated in trying to make this event happen. It almost felt like they didn’t want WAM. Which is surprising because Whistler has had a history of summer trail events beyond mountain biking and even after Vail took over several events continued to operate.

  • I am not sure how fast UTMB/Ironman can move but clearly the question arises now if Vail had been in contact with Ironman prior to them cancelling WAM’s permit.
  • It could be that Vail and/or Ironman asked Gary to make WAM a UTMB race and Gary didn’t want to.
  • It could also be that Ironman had nothing to do with Vail dropping WAM and they just took advantage of the situation and had deeper pockets (keep in mind that Ironman previously held the Ironman Canada race in Whistler, so they weren’t unfamiliar with the location).

In any case we now see what this expansion is going to look like. Here in North America UTMB/Ironman still doesn’t seem to be able to find good locations for races unless someone did the legwork for them. So they end up buying an existing race or in this case, taking the work someone else did and stepping in and in many ways all over.

Should this be an unsettling reminder for race directors? Is this the turning point on how that Ironman/UTMB partnership is perceived in the community? Is this fair game? Squamish was oversold over year anyways and Gary walked away from Whistler. Is it just a blip in the news cycle and we all just move on and sign up to race anyways because the draw to race in Chamonix is just too great?

One thing is clear, the initial reaction online about this event is all negative. There’s a lot of behind the scenes moaning that this is, on paper, the perfect event – and this in the end might be UTMB’s financial saving grace, but the stench stays. And while this might not affect registrations this could really bite UTMB in the ass when it comes to getting folks to volunteer. I am not envying race director Christine Cogger, who previously managed the Ironman Canada in Whistler, to try to build an event under these circumstances.