By Mathias Eichler
Here are some (somewhat random) observations about my first visit to a ‘by UTMB’ trail running event: The Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB that happened this last week in Auburn, CA.
Initially I was invited by Canyon’s race director Chaz Sheya to host the Trail Running Film Festival as an official entertainment offering during the race weekend at the Auburn State Theatre, but, you might’ve heard, that didn’t work out. Long story (for a different time).
A newly announced nutrition sponsor of the UTMB World Series offered samples in the vendor village. They had their liquid electrolytes and solid food offerings at the aid stations.
Mind you, it was hot, 90 degrees!, but their solid offerings were pretty boring: ‘stroop’/energy waffles (we’ve seen those on the ultra scene for a many years now) and gooey bars that sort of melted in the heat – not great.
Their liquid electrolyte drink (I tried the lime flavor for the last 7 miles when I was sure that it wouldn’t screw with my nutrition plan anymore) was sort of amazing. It wasn’t sweet, but tart and refreshing. I gotta do some research and see how “good” this powder is in comparison to my trusty Tailwind, but after having run 6hrs in the heat and only having had Tailwind and Spring Energy the tartness and not-sweetness of the Lime electrolyte drink was a welcome and refreshing change. Stay tuned for more on that.
Didn’t seem as bad as many had feared. The race had enough runners (1,900 across the 4 distances offered) that a vendor village made sense. Of course there was a merch store and almost more HOKA signage than UTMB World Series banners, but that’s about it. It all seemed pretty reasonable to me, but I am also someone who gets, and even likes a festival atmosphere at trail races, so why not. I am not originally from the Pacific Northwest, can you tell?
Outside from a couple event staff members wearing Ironman safety vests, I didn’t see the Ironman logo anywhere. Interestingly, the medal I received at the finish felt very corporate. Not bad, just mass-stamped and massive. A friend of mine just finished an Ironman and showed their medal on Facebook and you can clearly see that they are using the same vendor for both events. Me thinks that that’s where Ironman will save the most money, by leveraging the already existing machine they have built.
What I still don’t know, and quite frankly it’s driving me crazy, is how the partnership with the race directors and UTMB/Ironman actually works.
We sort of know how the partnership between UTMB and Ironman works and even there are still a lot of missing pieces, but how does UTMB/Ironman partner with the race directors on the ground.
I’ve said it before, I cannot for a second believe that, the Swiss team that build Eiger Ultra-Trail would sell their entire event to Ironman. It’s not happening. But maybe it’s different for races in the US?
After having observed at Canyons what UTMB/Ironman brings to the table and what the local race directors lift I don’t believe that UTMB/Ironman will be successful if they own these races outright and ‘just employ’ the race directors. Every aid station is managed by local volunteers who put in a sleepless weekend to ensure these events go off without a hitch. The race directors need the connections to the local community. If you remove this ‘people management element’ into a corporate office somewhere at “Business Park Drive 1” how is this supposed to work on an annual basis? These races happen all over the world, every single year. This isn’t like the Olympic Games where a giant corporate machine asks of for hundreds of unpaid volunteers to help in exchange for a once in a lifetime experience and a t-shirt.
Were there in Auburn. It was after all, the first UTMB World Series Major in the Americas, which was kind of a big deal. Michel (a seven time finisher of the UTMB) ran the 50K, and beat me by over 45minutes. Catherine (who was named race director for the inaugural UTMB event because she was the only one in the organizing group that didn’t also wanted to run the race) greeted the runners ahead of each race start and it was all pleasant and quite nice. There clearly is a language and cultural barrier there, and (for obvious reasons) I don’t mind that. It’s a good tension to have in our global sport.
On Friday afternoon I caught an interview with Catherine and Michael, conducted by Brian Metzler from Trailrunner Mag/Outside in the expo/vendor village. The interview was mostly fluff, but it was interesting to see them trying to create something that isn’t just HOKA Pro athlete content. Thank god.
The feeling I get is that the Polettis are genuine, love the race they build in Chamonix. Their World Series effort is strategic. They approach it from the point of view that if they wouldn’t step up someone from outside the trail running world would, and that would be worse than whatever UTMB is building right now. And I also think that whatever business deal the Polettis struck with Ironman ensures that whatever happens internationally, the actual UTMB Mont-Blanc event will always be in the hands of the Polettis. Again, this is just a feeling.
One interesting tidbit Catherine Poletti mentioned is that their children work for the tech company responsible for the live tracking and data presentation of all the races.
LiveTrail SARL is a start-up who is specialized in IT development in the outdoor sport area. Known for many years as the leader in live following of very long races, its more important client, UTMB®, is today the world summit trail races.
Didn’t happen. After big media fanfare in the weeks leading up to the event a brief press release had been sent out that I had missed mentioning the cancelation:
Following the recce of the contingent courses (due to the exceptional conditions in the area) carried out by our production team last week, unfortunately, we have had to take the decision to cancel the live streaming.
Corinna Malcolm send me a bit more detail:
Combination of service and heat. For much of the WSER and canyons course you have to utilize starlink to get anything out (which is shaky) then you have equipment in the heat which is a whole other problem to contend with.
I told them in December that it would be an issue – they sent their crew out to the course ~3weeks ago TM preview the routes, filming locations, and service. They then decided that the data coverage wasn’t adequate and we were informed roughly a week before the event.
So clearly we have a very long way to go to, both in bringing tech to the races but also in communication and setting expectations around these events. Or they could just ask Aravaipa which seems to have this figured out. (fewer trees/less heat in Arizona?)
Was everywhere. As a sponsors of the UTMB World Series they really were ever-present. And clearly HOKA currently is everywhere, even beyond the trails. Free People, Nordstroms… every fashion outlet is featuring the “cute, colorful and blocky shoes from the outdoors”.
But this got me thinking. When Hoka One One launched, that’s what was their name. A mouthful no one could pronounce. In fact back in 2018 Hoka.com was still owned by a Dutch Technology firm. HOKA didn’t own or use the domain Hoka.com until the Fall of 2021. Around that time HOKA must’ve acquired the domain (4 letter domains aren’t cheap!) and redirected it to hokaoneone.com, their homepage. Now hokaoneone.com is redirecting to hoka.com.
This tells me that HOKA was aiming to simplify their brand and what better way than to use a simple four letter word, designed in sans serif font that looks similar to NIKE. But also similar to UTMB. In Auburn the white UTMB on dark blue and the white HOKA on light blue felt almost interchangeable to the casual observer. Almost.
Calls itself the Endurance Capitol of the World and I don’t want to take this away from them, but I just got to chuckle at of the most American things ever. Every American small town seem to have the need of a marketing slogan, some pick the claim of the WORLD’S largest lava lamp or host an WORLD’s largest onion festival. Baseball in American plays a World Series…
Another thought I had is that Ironman might be getting ‘not great’ advice from the team in Chamonix who might be dealing with difficult mountain terrain in the Alps but clearly have infrastructure in place (Helicopters! Cell coverage! eBikes! mountain huts!) which allows a complete different level of support when it comes to media coverage and racer safety.
Which brings me to a conversation I had with a local trail runner who mentioned some safety issues for the 100M and 100K runners and the aid station captains receiving subpar support from race headquarters when calling for support for runners. My thought is that Euro races are trying to promote self-reliance and individual responsibility of the runners, but this comes from a perspective and mindset which puts runners into mountainous and potentially treacherous terrain, but at the same time these Euro mountains offer a certain level of support (huts every couple miles, cell coverage, search and rescue support, helicopters on standby). That infrastructure doesn’t exist in the US wilderness. Further, while Euro races are comparably cheaper than US counterparts most require you to obtain a special insurance policy that will take care of any evac. needs. Growing pains? Maybe. But UTMB/Ironman wants to sit on the top of the heap. They gotta step up and deliver a race experience for every runner and not just the elites. A trail race experience that raises the bar, and keeps them out of legal troubles down the road.
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