Is the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, in short the UTMB, the greatest ultra trail running race of all time, or is it a commercial monstrosity? And how did the UTMB become the holy grail of ultra and trail running? In the book The race that changed running, the inside story of UTMB, Doug Mayer tries to find the answers.
The UTMB is special, I think everybody who has been in Chamonix when the race is happening will agree, and probably everybody who has seen the live streams on YouTube will agree as well. In the words of Topher Gaylord: ‘You put yourself in Chamonix and have the opportunity to run through three countries and around the rooftop of Europe, and experience all the emotions of life in a single day. UTMB delivers you back to Chamonix as a changed human being.’
Maybe it’s that special place that UTMB holds in the world of trail running, that makes it also one of the most scrutinised races in the world. There is a Dutch saying that, if translated, comes down to: High trees catch a lot of wind, which simply means that if you’re continuously in the spotlights, you will receive a lot of criticism.
UTMB has, being big and popular: ‘In 2006, the race filled up in three weeks; in 2007, it took just ten hours. And in 2008? The race filled in nine minutes.’ It does mean almost everybody has an opinion about what UTMB does, and almost everybody knows better. And as we live in the age of social media, almost everybody feels the need to share their criticism online, without often knowing what they talk about. Mayer: ‘UTMB, I began to realise, was both the most important race in trail running and the least well understood.’
The thing is, the Poletti family, organisers and owners, of the UTMB didn’t make it easy for themselves in the last couple of months by signing Dacia as their title sponsor, a (mainly fossil fuel) car company that isn’t known for its green policy. On top of that the Polettis started to work together with the Ironman Group, which has the reputation of having a bigger love for money than for sports.
Lots of athletes spoke out against the Dacia sponsorship, like Francesco Puppi and Damian Hall. The last one even skipped the UTMB of 2023. Now Dacia isn’t a smart choice, but there is alway another side to a story. The Polettis run a company, a company that organises the UTMB and companies have to make money. It sounds simple, but I’m afraid this is something a lot of people forget.
Hundreds of euros
My wife and I run a company. Lots of people look at ‘what is coming in’, but nobody sees what is going out. We have an office, which has to be insured against fire and burglary. To get that insurance, the insurance company demands that the electricity installation is officially certified and checked every two years. Same for the burglar alarm. That costs hundreds of euros a year. And that’s just one small thing out of many.
Maybe you have to have a company to understand what it takes to run a company, and to understand how much money you have to make, just to cover your costs; especially when you have staff. So, the Polettis signing sponsor deals is totally understandable. Maybe signing Dacia isn’t, but was there an alternative? ‘We discovered it was very difficult to run a large sports event as a non-profit organisation. … We knew that if we were going to organise an event, it would have to be as a professional company. If you want to do something perfectly, you have to do it professionally.’
Same story for the Ironman Group. Is it a company trail runners like? Clearly not. Was there an alternative? Not, if you read Doug Mayer’s book. The Ironman Group was already sinking their teeth in ultra running. ‘They (Ironman, jk) had come into the trail running world quietly, acquiring Ultra-Trail Australia and New Zealand’s Tarawera Ultramarathon. They were smart, taking their time.’ So for the UTMB it was to eat or to be eaten. That’s not a choice of luxury.
‘And then there was the matter of the pandemic, still roiling the world and threatening to send UTMB into further financial turmoil. Lockdowns were coming and going in France and around the globe, and the future was uncertain at best.’
The full story
To know that, you have to know the full story and that’s the story Mayer has written down. Not in defence of the Polettis, nor as an indictment against the UTMB organisers, but as an attempt to bring back the nuance in all the accusations that are flying around, without any context.
But The race that changed running is more than fodder for discussion. It tells you the history of the UTMB, of the young Michael, ‘involved in the nascent world of computer science’, and the young Catherine Poletti, ‘studying psychology’. It gives you a little insight of what’s happening behind the scenes and into the values of the Polettis. In the words of Catherine: ‘We need to never forget that the biggest part of our runners are the regular runners. Some of them fight the time cut-offs. Most of them just want to finish back in Chamonix.’
‘People are going to love this’
On top of that, Mayer’s book is filled with stories of great athletes and locals who have won (or at least tried to win) or have helped to create the UTMB, like Karla Valladares, now finish line announcer, but back in the days working for The North Face: ‘I knew this (UTMB: jk) was going to be big. I saw the runners in my mind and thought, people are going to love this.’
The race that changed running made me laugh, cry and happy and proud that I will be one of the lucky ones that’s going to be on the startline of the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex-lac, Chamonix) in 2024. I finished the book in a week, picking it up every free moment I had. It’s interesting, inspiring and easy to read. It is a book that belongs on the bookshelf of every runner that’s going to do the UTMB, or one of the other races during the Mont-Blanc finals.