Recently, UTMB confirmed its first Canadian event, which will be part of the 2024 UTMB World Series, Ultra Trail Whistler by UTMB. However, this announcement has not received many positive reactions from the ultra-running community.
This is the same ski resort that hosted the Whistler Alpine Meadows ultra marathon (WAM) since 2019, which has now been permanently canceled.
Whistler Blackcomb Blames Lack Of Safety Plans
According to a February statement by Dane Gergovich, the senior communications manager at Whistler Blackcomb, the resort “identified a number of safety issues that were compounded by the lack of a medical plan that would adequately meet the needs of a race of this size and scope—things we will not sacrifice or compromise on,”
In the same February statement, Whistler Blackcomb was not prepared to approve the 2023 race at that point in time but said, “There are reasonable compromises that can be made in order to host a condensed version of this year’s race, with a focus on returning to all distances in 2024.”
The resort felt that the safety plans in place were inadequate nor aligned with their guidelines.
However, Maude Cyr, a Pemberton trail runner who has attended multiple editions of the event, said there is always some level of responsibility that runners must assume when participating in these types of races, but described to Pique feeling “so safe” on WAM’s courses.
“It’s a big business now, Whistler Blackcomb, and again, it’s just something that they’ve taken off from the community. [WAM] was really important to us, the running community, but it doesn’t seem to be as important for them,” said Cyr to Pique.
The announcement by UTMB to host a World Series event at the same location led to criticisms and accusations of over-commercialization from the ultra-running community.
There were countless negative comments on the UTMB Instagram announcement, with a prevailing theme that runners will “boycott” the event.
Three-time Western States winner Jim Walmsley titled his Strava run yesterday, “So what do we race next year then?” Although he doesn’t specifically mention the new UTMB race in Whistler, the 350 comments he’s received clearly state his implied meaning.
It also raises the question as to whether this situation will result in more professionals not attending the event.
Spicy titles on #Strava today after #UTMB, partnered w/Ironman, pretty much did what a lot of ppl were nervous about them doing. However, looks like the trail community is fairly united against UTMB trying to BECOME the community, rather than A PART of it#running #trailrunning pic.twitter.com/Z3YUP4mz9Z— MattRuns⛰️Skis🏔️Rides🚵♂️ 🇺🇸🤝🇺🇦 (@MKhaoS_86) October 27, 2023
Radio Silence From Venue Management
It wasn’t long until race organizer Gary Robbins took to his blog to shed some light on his side of the situation.
He describes how issues dealing with Whistler Blackcomb began two years ago when the resort gave away WAM’s historic race weekend in late September to an Everesting organization.
“I got a message from one of our team members essentially saying, ‘I thought we were on this weekend,’ and I replied that we were, only to find out that we most certainly were not,” Robbins’ blog reads.
“Not a single person from Vail – WB even gave us a heads up that they’d given away our race weekend to another organization back in 2021.”
Following a hugely successful event in 2022, Robbins believed that the resort would easily approve their event for 2023 so they could release the dates and begin promoting.
However, at this point, their contact from Whistler Blackcomb began ghosting them.
“All of a sudden our contact at Vail started completely ghosting us. They no-showed on numerous booked zoom calls, refused to reply to emails,” the blog says, “This went on for over 100 days, for all of October, November and December!”
Robbins and his team finally reached senior management at the resort in an attempt to figure out what was happening. The company then returned to WAM organizers with a new approval process that would take several months to complete.
“The new permits included things like a steep new operating fee, technical and safety requirements completely unrelated to a trail running event, and a host of other items that’d never been there before.”
Being already late January to early February, there was a lot to do, but Robbins and his team still felt compelled to work through it.
They asked the resort if they could trust in how they had successfully and safely delivered previous editions. They committed to eventually completing all the requirements but wanted to open registrations for their event since it was already pushing so late.
Whistler Blackcomb said they would not be allowed to do so, meaning it wouldn’t be until late April or early May that registrations could even open.
It was at that point Robbins and his team saw what was really happening.
“My personal take in the end was that we were very obviously being forced out. By going about it in this manner no one ever had to take responsibility for saying no to our event, and to their credit they never did say no to us, they simply pushed us out by other means.”
After canceling their 2023 event, Robbins got word that Whistler Blackcomb was interviewing for a new events manager. They thought this meant a new dialogue to bring WAM back in 2024.
That was until the UTMB announcement surprised the ultra-running community and Robbins.
“Then yesterday afternoon, October 25th, we received a ‘courtesy message’ about what was going live this morning from UTMB – Ironman. This was the first we’d ever heard of this.”
According to Robbins’ contacts at Whistler Blackcomb, no one on the inside knew about this, and it was kept quiet the whole time.
After donating over $70,000 and countless volunteer hours to the trail community, Robbins, the organizers, and the entire community felt let down and as though the event had been stolen from them.
Profiting Off The Growth Of Ultra Running
This all comes down to over-commercialization, and this isn’t the first time UTMB has let down the running world through commercialization.
In 2021, UTMB came under scrutiny after partnering with Ironman, the world’s biggest name in triathlon.
Accomplished trail runner John Kelly summarized to Triathlon Magazine the effects of this partnership perfectly when he said,
“Monopolization of events through exclusive qualifiers to the ‘premier’ race, leading to sky-high entry fees & closure of independent races, complete disregard for host sites, athlete experience & safety, or anything in the way of money, different cultures/goals…”
The overarching theme is that the spirit of ultra-running is being lost to commercialization.
As the sport grows, the desire to monetize its popularity is becoming unavoidable, but when it begins to impact the ability of local races, it takes away from the values that best represent ultra and trail running.
In the U.S., many federal, state, and local restrictions prevent American ultra races from having as many runners on courses as UTMB can.
As a result, these races will never generate the amount of revenue that a UTMB race could. Regardless of whether or not there were restrictions in place, many events would choose not to have tens of thousands of runners as it is contrary to the spirit of ultra running.
Despite the cancellation of the Whistler race, Coast Mountain Trail Running, the umbrella organization for WAM, will still be hosting a number of other spectacular events in 2024 that are sure to be well-supported by the community.
These races include Run Ridge Run (February 24), Diez Vista (April 13), Survival of the Fittest (May 11), Conquer the Vedder (May 25-26), Buckin’ Hell (July 27), and Squamish 50 (August 17-18).
In a recent Instagram post, Robbins stated Coast Mountain Trail Running’s intentions to run a trail event in September as a direct competition to Ultra Trail Whistler by UTMB.
If you wish to support the organization and get more information on their events, click the link here to their website.