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UTMB: The Race That Changed Running

Doug Mayer embarked on the challenging attempt of telling UTMB history for what it is: the most successful entrepreneurship story in the world of trail running.
UTMB Mont Blanc runner
Image UTMB

We are approaching that moment of the year: UTMB Mont Blanc Week, what can be considered the Olympics or the Super Bowl of trail running - you choose. Even though the races are condensed in a week, UTMB is a recurrent discussion topic in the trail running community all year around. Podcasts, forums, newsletters, coffee talks. UTMB is ubiquitous. This is why we felt we had to read Doug Mayer’s The Race That Changed Running after we listened to Michel and Catherine Poletti, the UTMB founders, interview on Finn Melanson’s Single Track Podcast. A delayed flight on a Sunday afternoon gave us the time we needed.

The Race That Changed Running tells UTMB's history from the origins up to 2022 through the voices of who ran the race and who worked on the corporate side - Mayer claimed to have more than 1,000 pages of interview scripts and we believe him. The result is a collective history of the event from two different perspectives: the competition and the business.

The first edition of UTMB was organized in 2003 under the impulse of the Chamonix running community: can anybody run the Tour of Mont Blanc in a single push? Before that date, previous races were mainly relays or only on a section of the tour and they were generally faster with more paved roads involved. Michel Poletti, an ultra runner himself, took over the organization and designed a new course with more alpine sections. Helped by his wife on the business front Catherine, they had a strong start from the first edition with more than 700 participants. The book offers a detailed compendium of the first edition of UTMB that explain the Pollettis’ love for the sport. This is a key point that is not often well conveyed to the public by the Polettis: they love the sport above anything else.

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. Catherine Poletti, UTMB Founder

From that first edition, the competition went on to become the pinnacle of the trail running calendar and a dream race for elite and amateur athletes. Through athletes' words, Mayer describes what is all about UTMB: being there and experiencing the feeling of racing in one of the most magical places in the world. Killian Jornet, who wrote the preface, Tim Tollefson, and Katie Schide, Kristin Moehl shared their experiences and honest opinion on the race and the company offering amazing insights on what UTMB is about. An interesting point raised by Jornet and Toleffson is that performing and winning UTMB is not the final point of a career, but just another milestone in the broader relationship that athletes have with the sport.

The business story is the most successful we have seen so far in trail running. UTMB is the result of being at the right place, Chamonix and the Mont Blanc era, at the right time, the early 2000s when trail running was about to explode. This brought us back to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers which explains how success is dictated by many external factors out of our control. After having read the full story of UTMB, you will think that everything fell in the right place at the right time and with the right people.

the race that changed running book cover

From that first edition, everything escalated quickly with participants doubling in the span of a few years and sponsors rolling through to support that growth - The North Face's initial support played a key role in UTMB's early success. UTMB became the biggest race organizer worldwide and UTMB Mont Blanc are the most sought-after event in the sport, the one that made a lot of runners switch from the roads to the trails. From an outside observer, UTMB growth seemed unstoppable and highly profitable, but this is far from the truth. The company itself had several moments when the finances were not sustainable and some wrong steps in their growth path - the first UTMB World Series, the conflict with ITRA, the gender gap controversy, and the lack of clarity about prize money. The company is still working through these topics, even though from the outside it seems they are not. Mayer points out that PR and corporate communication is probably the biggest weakness of UTMB. The Poletti themselves sometimes are perceived as not willing to open to debate or too stalled on their ideas.

Can we do business and keep trali running’s values? I imagine a virtual world with a ridge. On the left you have the values, on the right you have the ‘bad’ things. It’s about making profit to invest and develop the company. It’s a very narrow ridge. Michel Poletti, UTMB Founder
Michel Catherine Poletti
Michel and Catherine Poletti. Image L'Equipe

Love it or hate it, UTMB is part of the sport. It is one of the many evolutions of trail running experiences. It is not written in any book that the sport should go in UTMB direction since it is not a zero-sum game. Mayer made this point clear in the book and in his Single Track interview which finds us agreeing with. There will always be space for local races and other international big events, but UTMB will not monopolize the sport. Mayer defines trail running as a soul sport - a sport of which its practitioners embody that philosophy in their daily lives, like surfing and skating - which is evolving into a mainstream sport through an evolutionary stride. UTMB is one of the possible frontrunners of this stride.

When people ask me to explain UTMB, I deflect, I refuse to answer. There’s nothing I can say that will capture it. Instead, I just say “You should totally go to Chamonix sometime”. You don’t even need to race, just go experience the place and culture David Laney, Pro Runner

Mayer did an excellent work of telling UTMB from both sides keeping a critical approach to the Poletti’s and outsiders. The book gives you everything you need to know about the race, from the course to the mandatory equipment, and has some cool graphics which help to visualize the race if you are not familiar with it. The strength of Mayer’s work relies on him being an insider of trail running culture as well as of UTMB - he is a close friend of the Poletti and ran multiple times in Chamonix with UTMB- and at the same time remaining impartial in its narration. In the end, every voice present in the book agrees on one thing: You should go to Chamonix to understand.


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