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UTMB/Ironman partnership draws head shakes in trail running world

News of the deal is being greeted with skepticism by those who decry the commodification of the sport

On Thursday, UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc), the most popular and prestigious series of trail ultramarathons in the world, announced a new partnership with Ironman – and the trail running world is not exactly celebrating. 2022 will see a new series of international races called the UTMB World Series, of which the main event will be called UTMB Mont-Blanc, with a complicated, multi-tiered series of events and qualifying races. Some athletes reacted negatively to what they see as the further commodification of trail running by investors who don’t really care about the sport.

UTMB was born 18 years ago, in 2003, and after a few years its popularity exploded, with thousands of entrants and fans descending on Chamonix each year. (By contrast, races like the Western States Endurance Run have maintained a tiny field of 369 runners since its inception in 1994.)

Related: Ironman buys mozart 100 trail running event

The new system replaces the Ultra-Trail World Tour, though some UTWT events will remain; it also replaces the ITRA (International Trail Running Association) as the administrator of the “Running Stones” points system for UTMB qualification, though the system itself will remain in place. The UTMB World Series events announced so far include the following:

UTMB Mont-Blanc (France, Italy, Switzerland), Val d’Aran by UTMB (Spain), Thailand by UTMB (Thailand), Panda Trail by UTMB (China), Gaoligong by UTMB (China), Tarawera Ultramarathon by UTMB (New Zealand), Ultra-Trail Australia by UTMB (Australia), mozart 100 by UTMB (Austria).

The organization cites endorsements from athletes like Lucy Bartholomew, Dylan Bowman and Ryan Sandes, who waxed enthusiastic about the growth of the sport. But John Kelly, who holds the unusual perspective of an accomplished ultratrail runner who has also participated in multiple Ironman events, expressed concern about “Monopolization of events through exclusive qualifiers to the “premier” race, leading to sky-high entry fees & closure of independent races, complete disregard for host sites, athlete experience & safety, or anything in the way of $, different cultures/goals… ”

Beyond the details of the announcement, detractors appear unenthusiastic about the association with the Ironman brand, which has suffered from bad press over what some see as its poor treatment of athletes and its litigiousness – though the organization has said there will be no Ironman branding at UTMB races. (Earlier this week we wrote about Ironman’s beef with Canadian triathlete James Lawrence, known as the Iron Cowboy, who is on his way to completing 100 full-distance triathlons in 100 days, over his use of the name “Ironman.”)

The 2021 events are scheduled from August 23 to 29, 2021 and will feature a stacked lineup of competitors, including Camille Herron, Jim Walmsley, Canadian Ailsa Macdonald and past winners Courtney DauwalterFrancesca CanepaPau Capell, Xavier Thévenard and François D’Haene.