“We could make runners stash their own gatorade bottles (glass) and run with the horses, but it’s not 1974.” Craig Thornley, Western States race director.
It’s a good place to start. The world of trail, mountain, road ultra running is changing. In recent years we have seen rapid growth. Runners, elite and non elite want to test themselves on ever demanding courses and ultimately test themselves against each other and see who comes out on top.
However, ultra running is not quite like any other sport. It places extreme demands on the body. Pushed too hard and the body breaks… ask Geoff Roes what he thinks.
So, although an Ultra Trail World Tour sounds attractive caution is needed. But before we worry about those aspects, we first need to look at what this UTWT entails.
The UTWT was launched on September 1st amidst the Ultra-Tour du Mont-Blanc. The fact that the race was not over and that many runners were still trying to get to the finish line may well have been a touch of bad timing. Admittedly though, many press leave immediately after the event so this may very well have been a logistical issue.
One by one, the initial races were announced and with them a representative from each race came to the stage.
2014 confirmed races are as follows:
- January 18th Vibram Hing Kong 100
- March 1st The North Face Transgrancanaria
- March 15th Vibram Tarawera 100km
- April 4th to 14th Marathon des Sables
- April 25th Ultra Trail Mt Fuji
- June 27th The North Face Lavaredo Trail
- June 29th Western States
- August 29th The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc
So, this takes us up to August and apparently other races have been asked to participate and we can expect confirmation of these, on or before September 15th.
Of course, alarm bells initially ring at the presence of Western States. Secondary alarm bells ring at the presence on Marathon des Sables but I will come onto that later.
How does it work?
The UTWT will propose an international competitive circuit in partnership with the International Trail Running Association. The events should already be open to the widest public and will offer ‘everyone’ a unique chance, throughout each year, to participate. Question: How does that relate to Western States with limited capacity and demand far outweighing places available? Also, Marathon des Sables… UK entrants for example are on a three year waiting list.
In each race points are awarded to every runner and therefore at the end of the year, a male and female UTWT world champion will be announced. To attract elite athletes, certain events will have Ultra Trail Series status and these will offer more important weighting in the ranking. (I assume this will be for races like Western States?)
Runners will be presented with a Passport. This can be ordered online before the end of the year, it was not made clear if these passports need to be paid for? When you complete a race, you are awarded a visa, this is added to your passport and shows your completion.
The minimum race distance will be 100km, races must have had two previous editions to qualify and already have 500 minimum participants (again, Western States has less than 400). A minimum of twenty countries will be represented and be emblematic venues.
So, how do you become World Champ?
All finishers in every race will be awarded points according to his performance. These points will be added to the International ranking and updated after each race. This ranking will be available on line at the UTWT website. The circuit will be an International competitive circuit in partnership with the ITRA (International Trail Running Association).
As mentioned, a limited number of races will be called Ultra Trail Series and you may only use two best performances from these races in building up points for the world title. In total, three races score, so, you could have two UTS races and one other.
A world champion lady and male will be announced each year.
Okay, first and foremost, we don’t have the complete picture, so, you will need to be patient.
The press conference was slick, enticing and all was going well until a call for questions came. I jumped in and asked about Western States…
It’s not just ‘any’ race, it has a limited field, it’s a desirable race, what is the impact and so on a and so on.
The answer was vague and very unconvincing. In actual fact it was embarrassing. One comment that came from the stage was, “it’s early days and we haven’t worked these things out yet”. Not a good start.
One journalist asked several questions:
Will you have doping control? YES
Will you have prize money? EACH INDIVIDUAL RACE CAN HAVE PRIZE MONEY, IT’S UP TO THE RACE. We did not have clarification though if the world title had a prize, other than the ‘title’ of world champ.
What will the elites get? ELITE 1 RUNNERS WILL GET TRAVEL AND HOTELS PAID FOR. But they never clarified if that is open to all elite 1. Lets say 50 want to do Western States, will they all get hotels and travel?
The series very much seems like the Skyrunning concept, is this competition or are you offering something different?. THE RACES WILL BE 100km OR MORE AND ON VARIED TERRAIN, SKYRUNNING WORK TO A SPECIFIC FORMAT AND WITH THE ODD EXCEPTION, ALL RACES ARE UNDER 100k. I agree, the UTWT is very different to Skyrunning, it is taking some principles from the Skyrunning ethos, for example, a series of races, three qualify out of five and the winner is world Skyrunner champion but the terrain is varied. Skyrunning look at altitude and technical.
At this point, the stage participants could feel more and more questions were coming and the conference was drawn to a close quite quickly.
Overall, it started well and ended badly. It certainly appears that the UTWT team wanted to maximise the UTMB as a platform to launch but they had far too many question marks and lack of answers to leave me feeling reassured or convinced.
POINTS TO CONSIDER
I have to say, I like a championship that includes mixed terrains and distances. That will provide a true rounded athlete. However, the UTWT never specified how runners enter, so, for example, to qualify, do you have to do one 100k, one 100m and one stage race? Do you have to do one on sand, one in the mountains and one jungle for example? Without this specified, I could maybe do three 100k races on fast trail and get maximum points if that is what I was best at? We need clarification.
World destinations, iconic races are great. I can see the beauty and excitement of going to New Zealand, Hong Kong and so on, BUT these races already exist and to be honest, if I went to one it would be highly unlikely I would go to another. Far too expensive for the average pocket.
Travel and hotels for elites are all well and good but who is paying? Surely that is what sponsorship from a team is about. I am we’ll aware that places are offered and expenses paid already exists but this is very much in conjunction with a race, the RD and the athlete. Blanket travel and hotels need to be paid for and by someone and that will come down to the everyday runners and the races themselves who I am assuming are paying a yearly fee to be part of the UTWT. Transparency is needed here. Many figures have been mentioned that ravces are paying 15,000 to 30,000 euro to be part of UTWT. I believe this to be speculation.
The UTWT title needs additional incentives. Prize money! However, that has no bearing on all the other runners. I can’t help but think that only a small few (who are rich enough) will travel to several continents to experience the world tour.
What will the races get out of it? Well, recognition and exposure for one. But, I know I go back to Western States, does that race need more exposure… Does it need more entries, does it need more PR? Same applies for UTMB, you already have to get points and enter a lottery, so, if you get a ‘Passport’ does it mean you get automatic entry in a UTWT event? Confusing!
MDS is a completely different race to all the others, to have just one stage race and no others would be long term problematic. In addition, I am not even sure it should be in this series. A great race but is a unique race.
We also need to think about the runners, all the runners. The calendar is increasingly becoming larger with more and more choice. Do we really need to insist that participants run three races over 100k to be a world champion? In addition, for this to be a true championship, one of those three races would need to be a 100-miles.
Ultra is not always better when longer. I wonder if some races under 100k should be allowed?
Why not have an Ultra World Tour and include road? Comrades is an iconic race for example and surely a true ultra world champ should be able to run road too?
Are we seeing the creation of an ‘Ironman’ for trail or is this ‘just’ a series of races with quite simply a world title?
I’d like to know who is beyond this with clear transparency. I have experienced many things in the last twelve months that I have questioned and now suddenly they all add up. For example, late 2012 WAA (What an Adventure) became the official pack for MDS. At the 2013 MDS, Catherine Poletti was present at the finish in the Sahara and then WAA became the official supplier of the blue UTMB bag. Also, I believe that Catherine Poletti visited Western States to view the event… So, is the UTWT an extension of the UTMB organisation and what does it mean? Is this good or bad? I merely ask the question.
At this stage we do not have any answers. Paul Charteris from Tarawera ultra was prepared on Sunday at the press conference, although he did not attend he was online and responded to my tweets. He also had a press release ready and he has been open and transparent. Equally, Transgrancaria have been proactive and the team at Lavaredo I spoke with personally. They all want the races to be valued, increase in size and stature and be part of something bigger. I think Craig Thornley and team are having a harder time. Western States is the holy grail and change here will be difficult and in many cases not welcome. The sport must move on and grow and that means all the sport, Craig in many ways is correct when he tweeted, “We could make runners stash their own gatorade bottles (glass) and run with the horses, but it’s not 1974.”
So what do YOU think?
I don’t have the answers and I will have missed many points. Please provide some input.
*Please note, for reasons of clarity, I do work alongside the ISF Skyrunning Federation and my thoughts and comments in this posting are impartial and with the pure objective of what is the best for our sport.