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Q&A: The story behind UTMB
From our Book Club discussion.
As UTMB gets started later this week, it seemed like a good time to share the Q&A we had with author, Doug Mayer, about UTMB, the tensions at the heart of its growth, how it’s dealing with those questions, and what happens now.
A quick primer: UTMB is the 106-mile race around Mont Blanc that starts and ends in Chamonix, France in the Alps. There are also, during UTMB race week, a number of other highly competitive races of various distances and routes (all of which have different acronyms). UTMB, itself, is one of the biggest ultra races in the world—certainly, the biggest trail ultra. And with that comes a huge festival, sponsors, the best athletes, and a qualifying seres now. Ironman also bought into a minority share of UTMB almost two years ago.
For those of us who are familiar with the history of Kona and the growth of the Ironman World Championship as the sport has spread around the globe, you’ll also see a lot of very similar growing pains and challenges in UTMB’s ascension over the last 20 years.
And that’s much of what we talked about with Doug.
I’ve been wanting to do UTMB, and then after reading the book I was like, ‘OK, now I have to do it.’ But even qualify at this point, it’s so confusing.
Qualifying changes. At least the history of it is that it’s changed every few years as the race has gotten more and more popular, so it’s a bit of a moving target. Now they’ve settled into a routine that hopefully will work for awhile, with the idea of running stones. It’s very smart, from a business point of view, they’re keeping it all within the UTMB ecosystem. So if you want to get here, to Chamonix, you have to collect running stones, which are essentially chances in the lottery. And this year, they said overall, among all the races, you had about a one in three chance of getting in — it varies a bit from race to race. So, you know, better odds than Western States or Hardrock.
You’ve done it a few times, you’ve done CCC, MCC. Why is this such a big deal? There are other 100-mile races, what makes this one such a thing?
A bunch of reasons. I think part of it is, you know, marketing and development over 20 years. They’re a very smart organization in many ways. But a lot of it is also the course. At its core, UTMB and the different variants, the different acronyms, are really amazing courses that pass through different countries on the shoulder of Mont Blanc, through little villages. They’re very well-organized and they pretty much all finish in Chamonix, and Chamonix is a pretty amazing place—it’s sort of the home of outdoor adventure. I’m biased, I live here now, but it does have this energy. It sort of makes sense that one of the world’s great trail races would start and finish here.
This sounds dumb, because I’ve never done a 100-miler, but is it really that much harder than other ones?
I think that’s a little bit exaggerated, although there is a lot of vert, there’s 30,000 feet of climbing. And when you’re not in a village around Mont Blanc, you’re often going over really high alpine passes.
The first year I did UTMB, at the high point of the race that year, the Grand Col Ferret, we hit basically a blizzard. It was roaring wind, heavy snow, zero visibility. So, you know, you wouldn’t see that at a lot of ultras.
I would imagine, as it’s grown beyond people who known the Alps, you get more people who don’t know those conditions, right? Has that caused problems?
Yeah, that’s certainly happened in other races in the Alps. I can’t say that it’s happened much in UTMB, because they’ve always been pretty rigorous about qualifying standards. For a long time, you had to do a 100-miler to get into UTMB, plus some other races. So, usually, that meant that by the time you got to Chamonix, you had had a few experiences that put you in some rough weather or tough alpine environments and you’d figured it out.
Growth, obviously, is kind of the whole thing now, the whole story — and there are pros and cons. How do the locals feel about UTMB becoming so big?
I think I have one foot firmly in each camp, with UTMB, because I run and I live here. And it’s now very important to the local economy. The summer season used to wind down at the end of August and that would be it until ski season; now we have people coming earlier in August to train. My company, Run the Alps, we do trips — and some of those trips start in June. You have people coming because of UTMB. And then, you have the busiest week of the year in Chamonix at the end of August. So it’s been a huge boost to the local economy.
The flip side is that, yeah, it gets really crowded during UTMB week. I love the races, I love checking it out, I usually do MCC (sort of the locals’ race). But it gets really crowded and it gets overwhelming. There’s a lot of discussion about what’s the carrying capacity of the valley and when is enough enough. I think UTMB does a pretty good job; they work really hard to keep cars off the road, they have a whole bus system that they put into action. They set up parking lots outside, at the edge of the valley, and public transportation has increased.
The tourism office did a study, using the numbers of cell phone in the valley to track people. It’s actually kind of interesting. People congregate right downtown where the race starts and finishes, but the rest of the valley is actually not too different in terms of the number of people.
One of the premises of your book is that UTMB helped the massive growth in trail running, helped change it, but also rode on the back of that wave. Did it really change running?
Did it change running? Yeah, mainly within trail running. I’m not necessarily a fan of everything. I was just curious, mostly there’s not a lot of good information about UTMB. They were sort of pushing the edge of the envelope in a lot of different ways—expanding internationally, creating an international series (which pre-dated the Ironman agreement), creating this big marquee event in a town that lasted all week and had multiple races, broadcasting the event. UTMB Live has been going for quite awhile now, and that was pretty close to pioneering.
In a lot of ways, they’ve been bringing in things from other sports. The couple who run it [Michel and Catherine Poletti] had a history of prior international organizing, a parasailing competition here in Chamonix, so they had that experience.
When I wrote the book, I was privy to some internal research from a major shoe company and one of the things it showed was this huge bump in interest through Google and other sources in the phrase “ultra running” at the end of August. So it’s really this enormous machine. And UTMB Live is now broadcast in something like six or seven languages. And I interviewed a number of people, and tell one incredible story in the book about this one guy, who went on to work at Salomon, who one day just came across UTMB and his life was changed by trail running. He ended up an executive at Salomon, now is in charge of Killian Jornet’s company in North America. All because he just happened across a video about UTMB.
So I think it’s bringing a lot of people into trail running. The evidence is really clear; there’s actual data to support that.
Obviously, at the same point, one of the things that a lot of trail runners like is that the sport is not super big or corporate. That’s always the tension, right?
And I talk about that. Most of the races I do over here have 100 or fewer people, and those are super fun. I’m actually still co-director in northern New Hampshire of a race that we cap at a 100 people. Those races have a wonderful charm. And the start of UTMB has almost nothing in common with that — but it’s also an incredible experience. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
A lot of people make that claim, that it’s pulling away from those smaller races, and I just don’t see evidence to support that. Here, in the Alps, we’ve seen the number of races just explode in the last 10 years. There’s something for everyone.
At the same time, UTMB is incredibly dramatic. When you see the start, there are 2,500 people crammed into the old part of Chamonix and half of them have tears in their eyes. For someone who spends their life trail running, that’s a pinnacle of your trail running career. And you’re toeing the line, about ready to run around this huge mountain range that’s right in front of your face, it’s pretty dramatic. They play it up; they’re really good at that.
You mentioned there’s not a lot of good information about UTMB out there, especially with the Ironman deal. I feel like what the whole book is getting at: Who’s making money? Where is all the money? It’s owned by just these two people, the Polettis, it’s still run within their family, but it’s obviously a huge thing, a huge amount of money and brands and athletes. So, where is it going?
I think a lot of people come at it with preconceived notions, because there’s not great information. That’s kind of why I wrote the book. After years of interviewing them, I often found that the story was really different. For example, Michel’s father’s old garage — I mean, look, it’s a nice chalet in Chamonix, but his dad was a mason and after university, Michel and Catherine decided to move back to Chamonix. It was that or go to Paris, and they didn’t want to go to Paris, they wanted to be in the mountains. So, they renovated his dad’s garage and turned it into their home. And that’s where they still live. Michel often makes the point: He said, if we wanted to be rich, we would’ve sold this all a long time ago and just retired, if the point was to make money.
The fact is, for many many years there was not a whole lot of money there, even though it was this big dramatic performance during the week. I interviewed this wonderful guy, Rémi Duchemin, who came in and gave them some business consulting. And one of the things Rémi told me was it was pretty shocking actually, they had no reserve funds and they were paying themselves what he described as middle manager salaries. And when the race made money, they would put it back into the race.
And some years the race made money and some years it lost money. For many years, it was sort of an enormous production without an enormous company behind it.
The Polettis are ambitious, they want the race to grow, but as far as I can tell there’s not much evidence to support the idea that they’re interested in acquiring a lot of cash. They’ve set things up to pass it on to their two kids, David and Isabelle, who now have full-time active roles in the organization. And I think they’re very interested in keeping UTMB at the top of the world of trail running. There are races over the years that were sort of at the pinnacle and they’re not there anymore, right? They’re serious about keeping UTMB at the top; they’re proud of what they’ve created.
The Ironman deal, in your book you tried to explain it a little. They basically bought out a minority stake from somebody?
Everyone thinks they sold, but they didn’t really sell.
Yeah, I talk to Ironman all the time and they always say, ‘no no, we don’t own it.’
It’s interesting. Ironman wants to get into trail running, but they understand enough about trail running — this is just my take — to understand that their brand is not necessarily a big plus to a trail runner. This is a soul sport that we’re passionate about and a big corporation coming in is not necessarily a plus. It’s happening all over trail right now, by the way, so it’s not unique to this.
And so they bought a minority stake, shares from this French company, and the idea is an infusion of investment will help UTMB now? Well, it helped them weather COVID, but it’ll help them grow and expand and make changes.
The COVID thing is interesting, because Rémi Duchemin, he came in and said, ‘You know, you need to have reserve funds, because something might happen.’ And that was just a few years before France went into full lockdown. So it was pretty lucky timing on their part; they went through something like €1.5 million during the pandemic, so they were lucky to have those reserves.
I was joking with you before that triathletes are all getting into trail running. And I’ve listened to a lot of the different questions UTMB is grappling with, the arguments that you talk about in your book — what constitutes fair and equitable, how do we get more diversity, what is environmentally friendly. And from a triathlon standpoint, we went through a lot of this already, and it’s sort of the same debates here, in trail running, all over again. So, for me, I’m wondering: Why don’t they all talk to each other and learn?
Presumably, they’ll benefit from some of that experience with Ironman. You do have to wonder, the set-up they’ve created encourages people to go around the world collecting running stones — and is that really something we want to be encouraging these days?
From the very outset, they created a for-profit entity and a non-profit (what, in France, is called an association) — and that funds a lot of environmental initiatives. I’d love to see the doing more on that front, to be more pro-active. What is it: With great power, comes great responsibility.
It sounds like a lot of the frustration in the trail running community comes from them not really communicating well, not reaching out. They’re a little insular in who they talk to, and so they don’t really get these wider viewpoints.
There’s a couple interesting things going on. One, I think, is actually cultural. I’ve worked for a couple of French companies now in the trail running space, and it’s very different. I joke about this with UTMB: If they were an American company, they would have a marketing agency sending out a press release every week, like ‘look what we did.’ That doesn’t happen here. I’m no expert on French corporate culture, but they just sort of make their decisions and don’t stop to think that people are wondering why or that anyone would care. So there’s a vacuum.
And trail running is a soul sport, where people are super passionate about it. When you have your identity at least partially wrapped up in the sport, it’s easy to feel personally impacted by decisions. So there’s some of that at play too.
The beauty and the problem of being family-owned, it seems: If my husband and I just made decisions that impacted everyone.
It’s a great example and it’s totally accurate. Today, in Chamonix, I saw the Polettis having lunch at a cafe, and we talked for a while, but yeah, they were probably talking through some pretty big issues.
Stephanie Case, who’s a wonderful ultra runner and very smart, a human rights lawyer for the United Nations, she talks about how you can be a mirror or a window—you can either be a reflection of society or a window to the future. And, I think, by and large, UTMB has been a reflection of what’s going on, in particular, in French society.
For a long time, for example, the composition of the podium of the male and female races was, for my American progressive sensibilities, somewhat shocking. [UTMB used to award top ten in the male race and top five in the female race, because the number of female participants was so much less.] But when I interviewed Killian Jornet, he said, ‘Look, you have to look at a race in its entirety and decide are these values close enough to my values?’ And he always decided that UTMB’s values were close enough. They do have a lot of great values. Have they expressed them perfectly? No. Have they made mistakes? They would be the first to say, yes.
Agreed, from an American perspective, I was like: Wait, there’s only 9% women at UTMB? What is happening?
Right, and this is coming from the president of the company, who’s a woman, and their attitude is: Do you want to race? OK, race. Whereas, I think if you’re of a progressive orientation in the U.S. you might dig into: What are the barriers, why is this happening, what’s going on, what can we do?
My joke is always if there’s a huge discrepancy in gender or racial groups, it’s probably not because an entire race of people just doesn’t want to do something, right?
And I totally agree and I think we all need to do our part, but that’s me shoving my political and cultural views onto a totally French race. And I think that’s one of the things, right. It has this French DNA, but it’s really an international race now, so there’s a tension and a conflict.
What do you think the future is for Chamonix, UTMB, 10 years from now? Is it just going to keep getting bigger and bigger?
That’s a really good question. One of the things that Catherine said today, when I bumped into them, was you need to write a second book in five years. I laughed, absolutely not, I worked too hard on this one.
There are some things we know, like right now trail running is growing. It’s very interesting to investors, because it has three things that investors look for: critical mass, desirable demographic, and an upward trajectory. So money is flowing in.
I tend to think climbing is a good example. I’ve been climbing for years and when I first starting it was just climbing and you had your gear and you went out to a cliff and you climbed. Now, climbing is all kinds of different things, some of it is extremely corporate and there are World Cup speed competitions and it’s in the Olympics. Climbing gyms are a huge business. But you can also still go around the corner from here and go climbing and not see anyone if you don’t want to. So maybe it’s a trajectory like that.
As for what happens in Chamonix, it’s hard to imagine UTMB getting sort of unseated, but there are a lot of players coming in with a lot of money and there may be some real competition in the years ahead, so I don’t know. It’ll be fun to see. We’re at a really interesting time in trail running, a great time to be in this sport, this lifestyle.