So what do we race next year then?

Jim Walmsley, on the UTMB/WAM dispute

I’ve debated discussing this topic since before this blog existed. I knew at some point I’d want to cover it, but wasn’t sure how soon into launching the blog that I’d cover it. For whatever reason, today is as good a day as any.

For those unfamiliar, Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and Ironman (UTMB’s partner in the UTMB World Series) launched a race in Whistler, Canada in late-October 2023, a number of months after the cancellation of another event, Whistler Alpine Meadows, which had historically been held on similar trails, and coincidentally on the same weekend, as the newly announced UTMB World Series race.

At this announcement, a number of people pricked up their ears and shortly afterwards, the race director of Whistler Alpine Meadows wrote a blog piece essentially claiming that UTMB had worked with the owner of the resort the trails were part of, Vail Resorts, to essentially block out the WAM team from being able to get the appropriate permits, only to launch their own event once WAM had been cancelled.

I won’t go into the he said/she said nature of the whole ordeal, but there is a great article on that covers everything in solid detail.

What I will cover is my thoughts on it, and how the landscape of trail running is changing that removes a lot of the lusture, for myself anyway, from UTMB as an event, and the UTMB World Series as a series.

Firstly, it’s important that I note that I have been a fan of Gary Robbins for a long time. I follow him on Strava and Instagram, I’ve watched his Barkley Marathons YouTube videos, produced by the excellent Ginger Runner, countless times. And by and large I think his voice is an important one in the trail community.

In saying that, I don’t think the full truth of what went down and when is exactly how Gary portrays it to be, any more than I think the same of Ironman/UTMB’s statement, or that of Vail Resorts. The truth probably lies somewhere in the mess of all the information that’s come out to date. Truth be told, I don’t think the full detail will ever be 100% known.

That being the case, however, it still doesn’t sit right with me – something definitely happened in Ironman/UTMB’s favour that means that someone (or someones), somewhere, was working with them to the detriment of the WAM application. Reaching this conclusion meant that I had a decision to make about how I felt about this, and how I was going to respond, in my own small way.

UTMB has been a grail of mine for a long time. All of my training over the last few years have been built around finishing a UTMB World Series race (and it’s predecessors), getting my ‘running stones’ and qualifying to the lottery to (initially) the OCC race, or (more recently) CCC. In light of what’s happened above, I don’t feel I can be true to myself and the person I want to be and continue to support an organisation that I’m not sure is working in the best interests of the sport anymore. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, UTMB and it’s associated World Series events are not part of my future.

Coming to this realisation was hard. I was saying goodbye to a goal and a dream that had been a staple of the last four years, with nothing seemingly to replace it. Or so I thought.

Initially I thought I’d just do a bunch of races, picking an “A” race around the middle of the year, but with no seeming goal outside of just running races. But as I started to look around at what was happening in the trail running world, something became apparent – UTMB is no longer the pinnacle of trail running that it once was, and there is a whole range of new experiences and series that is really throwing the gauntlet to UTMB. I got excited.

First to cross my path was the ITRA National Series. Anyone whose read earlier entries will know that this is now my focus for this year, but when I first started looking into things, I thought 2025 would be a good year to tackle the National Series. After digging around a little, I found myself with three races in the first half of this year which, if I completed, would be enough to give me a National Series ranking.

What I like about the National Series is that, given it’s only three races required to get a ranking, there is the ability to keep things relatively local, a genuinely hard thing to do in a land as big as Australia at times. Whilst there is no ‘final’, a la UTMB, the ranking table does give me something to aim for. For 2024, my goals are super conservative – I’m still coming off an achilles injury that flares up from time to time, so a goal of an ITRA performance score of above 400, and just finishing all three races I’ve entered is enough for now. I’ll review these goals when I start to plan for 2025.

The other nationally based series that peaked my interest is the Australian series of the global Golden Trail Series. The GT has two focus points – the elite World Series, and the local National Series. In Australia, the National Series comprises of three series races: the Warburton Trail Festival 22k, the kunanyi Mountain Run 25k, and the Coastal Ascent 25k; with a national final to be held at the Brisbane Trail Ultra 20k. It then feeds into a ‘World Final’ for the top runners (of which I will never be one!)

The GTNS is super interesting, but the small number of feeder races and where they are located (only one race would be considered somewhat local to me) makes the series much less enticing to compete in. But the GTWS has been around for a while now and with advent of the GTNS gives the possibility of a true, global series for elite racers.

The other thing which might be missed if you just glanced at it – all races in the GTNS (and GTWS) are ‘short course’ races – i.e: below ultra distance. As someone who loves short course racing, this is super cool. It also shows that the elite level of trail running can be more than just the 100 mile or 100 kilometre distance.

The newest kid on the global trail series block was announced just at the start of the year – the World Trail Majors. A bit of a play on the name of the World Marathon Majors, the WTM consists of 10 races, all run independently, that ostensibly form a ‘series’ based on performance points (based on ITRA performance for positions over 20). Interestingly, one only needs to run in one race to get a ranking in the final tally.

Whilst interested in the idea behind it, there are no races in Australia currently on the calendar, but again there is the potential here for the series to be a true global series if enough elites and sponsors get on board.

So 2024 sees one dream end, but another goal firmly take its place. I don’t know what will happen with UTMB but I am a little heartened by the talks held recently with themselves and Zach Miller & Killian Journet, if still feel there’s a ton of work to do to repair the lost trust. My immediate future and focus is firmly local, which to be honest isn’t a bad thing. I love living and running in Australia so to have an ultimate bucket list race being in Europe never truly sat well with me. There’s too much of this place still left to explore, after all.

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