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August 31, 2022

UTMB: The Future and Past of the Sport

If you weren’t alive 118 years ago for the 1904 Olympic Marathon, allow me to summarize (but you really should read the Wikipedia entry for it), it was total chaos: The initial champ was found to have hitchhiked to the finish. About half the field wound up poisoned, one way or another. And the first man off the podium might have secured bronze had he just not taken that nap mid-race. The course, which was comprised primarily of dirt roads in and around St. Louis, wasn’t actually 26.2 miles, and featured just one water station.

Hearing about it, isn’t there at least a small part of you wishing you could watch a race like that, where people get lost, pace themselves horrendously, or drop out because they see a really tasty-looking breakfast someone is eating on the roadside?

Enter UTMB, the crown jewel of the global ultra running calendar, which took place this past weekend in the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. It’s a 170km (~105 miles) foot race where something like 40% of all starters drop out. The course is optimized to ruin athletes’ chances at completing it.

Readers of this newsletter likely don’t follow the ultra scene too closely. You might be familiar with the bigger American races, but ultimately ultra and trail stuff doesn’t seem to resonate with track fans — though there are some aspects that should be of interest.

UTMB is our sister sport’s Super Bowl (a domestic race like Western States is more like a Power 5 school’s season opener in comparison.) It has one of the best-packaged broadcast of any running event on earth. And if the Tour de France is the de facto case study for how to make any endurance sport popular and spectator-friendly, UTMB is the closest thing runners have. Screaming fans line the sections of the course where there’s room for them with as much vigor as they do for the Tour.

The race itself has only been around since 2003, and the course may vary annually based on trail conditions. Because of the difficulty of the undulation, there are major blow-ups from contenders every year. And because of this, every year there are dozens of fantastic storylines for fans to sink their teeth into, this year was no exception.

On the men’s side, the one ultra guy most of you will definitely know, Jim Walmsley, entered looking for redemption. Though he’s basically the GOAT as far as American ultra exploits go, he’s never gotten the W at UTMB when presented with European topography. To hopefully close the gap, Walmsley left his long-term home in Flagstaff for the French Alps, to better prepare specifically for UTMB.

And with reigning champ François D’Haene not in this year’s field, the prevailing narrative centered around a showdown between Walmsley, his dominant American circuit pedigree and 2:15 marathon credentials, and Kilian Jornet of Catalan, who does things like this, and who apparently tested positive for COVID just days before the race.

Walmsley got out hot and assumed the lead from 50 to 130km. But no lead is safe in a race like this. He hit a serious wall and relinquished three spots shortly thereafter. Jornet ultimately prevailed — his fourth win at UTMB — in a new course record. For a battle that took place over the course of 19 hours, there was no shortage of drama.

In the women’s race, without Courtney Dauwalter, last year’s champ and one of maybe two people with a viable claim to “world’s best ultrarunner” status, things were wide open. And into that void emerged a new champion: American Katie Schide, a Maine native who lives and trains in France (Sensing a trend? Knowing the terrain really matters here). While no American man has ever won UTMB, Schine became the fifth American woman to do so.

We are in the midst of a sort of ultra Renaissance. There’s been a complete changing of the guard, both in terms of the elites in the sport, as well as its general participants and fans. What was once solely the purview of serenity-seeking mountain weirdos is rapidly becoming mainstream, is attracting athletes with elite road racing backgrounds, and is actively being infused with vast amounts of money from Big Shoe. Hell, based on a cursory glance of my Instagram this past weekend, every person I know who works for a shoe company was in Chamonix for a “brand activation” of some sort!

The romance and ruggedness of the sport is destined to change. If you want to experience a wild, chaotic, and unpredictable race akin to the 1904 marathon, your chances are dwindling. But on the plus side, that means that incredible broadcasts like what we got at UTMB will become the norm for big events like this. If there’s one reason to pay attention to ultras it’s to feel slightly more justified in complaining about the coverage of less treacherous events.

The Lap Count is a weekly newsletter delivered on Wednesday mornings that recap all the fun action from the world of track & field. It’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the sport. There is a lot happening and this newsletter is a great way to stay up to date with all the fun. Subscribe today.

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