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.
This morning after a stealthy media embargo the news of a new trail racing series dropped on various trail media outlets. In 2024 runners worldwide have the ability to compete in yet another trail race series: The World Trail Majors.
The timing of this announcement is of course impeccable given the challenges UTMB has faced over the past few weeks. Nothing wrong with trying to strike while the iron is hot, I suppose. And while no one suggests that this group of race directors pulled this together within a few short days I do think it all feels a bit rushed to take advantage of the news cycle. The website has several important components missing or labeled “coming soon”. Which might be fine for a little neighborhood race, but this is aiming to be the “World Trails Majors” – a name that suggests ambition of grandeur. On the Freetrail podcast the invited race directors (Janet Ng, Steve Brammar, Jamil Coury, & Stu McConnachie) shared their excitement to collaborate while staying independent races and organizations. Again, nothing wrong with it, but then the question arises: What, and for who is it?
The best answer to that I found in the explanation of the name. Inspired directly by the World Marathon Majors the idea behind the new series is not to be a qualification system for a Final, or even a focus on a leaderboard, but rather an invitation to travel and explore and race in exciting places around the globe. Seems noble, but also: all of these races existed before, not sure how this new series brings them closer to me.
What we’re getting with the World Trails Majors is a collection of exciting, high profile races that have successfully withstood the UTMB sirens call (so far) and have, with this announcement declared that they aren’t for sale, or at least not for sale to the UTMB/Ironman Group. Many of these races had previously partnered with UTMB Mont-Blanc on the Ultra-Trail World Tour which shuttered just before the pandemic.
In the words of the race directors, the hope is to share best practices and offer a truly local racing experience. This kept coming up in various interviews, but it felt a bit forced to me. Was this answering a call from the community? Is UTMB serving alpine cheese at their races in Asia? Are these UTMB owned events loosing their local touch?
One thing I have not been able to do, and I hope the community with help with this, is check on the various policies and community guidelines for this new group and hold them to the same standards as what we all expect from UTMB. The website seems to be thin on these for now, and perhaps therein lies the rub. There are plenty of races out there that are just local “show up at your dusty trailhead and run for a long time through the woods and hope for the best” type of races. If the aim is to be the ‘best of the best’ then it needs more than showcasing beautiful locations, the community has called for that ‘more’ for awhile now. And nothing seems to have been answered here. We, as the trail community are after this announcement sort of in the same place as before. Questions around elite racer consideration, prize money, pregnancy deferral + adaptive policies, environmental considerations, the list goes on – all are missing so far.
So, if this isn’t really for us runners, but more for the race directors to create a shared pool of experience, then why is it happening?
My best guess is that newly formed group is playing the long game here. None of these experienced RDs need advice from each other on how to mark the course (maybe the need help with developing community policies), but where the proverbial treasure sits is media rights, and marketing the races to an audience thirsty for live coverage of these unique and historic events. If this group can figure out how to consistently stream their races, in multiple languages, to a global audience, then this has the chance to attract sponsors and partners wanting access to those eyeballs. Each event organization can keep their local sponsors, but they can sell the media rights to a series sponsor. This has the opportunity to ‘up-the-game’ for the organization, and for each of the events in turn.
Finally, and I know you’ve been waiting for this: The World Trail Majors logo is awful.
I have no words. Yes, I get that it’s trying to be simplistic, and usually that is something I appreciate, but this is just unfinished and uninspiring.
Yes, this is my initial impression dump and there certainly will be more new to be shared in the coming weeks. I’m not writing them off, there is too much experience at the table to call this rushed or ill-advised. It’s good to have competition on the organizational level in our sport, even if it’s just for keeping UTMB honest, and for giving elites a few new ideas on where to race in the coming years.