We Should Be More Excited. Right?
Forget Nuggets versus Heat. The World Mountain and Trail Running Championships—yes, the world championships of our sport—starts on Tuesday. In jaw-dropping Innsbruck, Austria, no less.
And Innsbruck, we have a problem.
The World Mountain and Trail Running Championships (WMTRC) is the singularly most important mountain, trail, and ultra running event in the world (in theory). It only takes place once every two years (in theory). And it’s what Team USA member and prodigiously decorated ultrarunner Clare Gallagher calls “the Olympics of our sport.”
Yet we don’t seem to care.
Running media have barely whispered its name, if at all. And for the love of god, don’t bother opening the Sports section of The New York Times.
What is going on? I mean come on, it’s the world championships! One thousand athletes are competing for eternal bragging rights. Forty-seven nations are vying for global hegemony. Yet we are treating this historic event like an intramural middle school ultimate frisbee game.
We’re making a grave mistake. Right?
For all the simplicity of lacing up a pair of running shoes and heading out the door, competitive running is, unfortunately, not a simple sport. You’ve got track and field, with events ranging from the 100-meter hurdles to the 10,000-meter slog. You’ve got road running, spearheaded by the illustrious marathon. And you’ve got this strange amalgam of running up and hucking down ski slopes, traipsing across trails, and eating gluttonously on the go. We call these mountain, ultra, and trail races, otherwise known as MUT—an acronym almost too apropos.
To add to the confusion, this iteration of the world champs is basically brand new. Once upon a time, in fact up until six months ago, MUT boasted two separate world championships organized by two separate organizations: the Mountain Running World Championships and the Trail World Championships.
In 2021, the big cheese World Athletics put an end to the madness. The international governing body for running combined the mountain and trail world championships, debuting one championship showcasing all three mountain, sub-ultra trail, and ultra-trail disciplines.
This unified world champs is, in theory, more legit than its rogue predecessors. But the roll-out was messy. Our good friend COVID-19 pushed back the debut WMTRC from the summer of 2020 to the fall of 2021. (Yes, if you remember hearing about a world champs in Chiang Mai, Thailand six months ago, you were not hallucinating.)
No one really knew what was going on. How did one apply or qualify to make that 2021 team? I have no clue. What are WMTRC ambassadors? No idea. But the biannual schedule marches on and now we’re here, at the second world champs in six months.
World Mountain and Trail Running Champs. UTMB World Series Finals. Golden Trail Championship. Skyrunner World Series. The words “world,” “championship,” and “finals” get thrown around as frequently in this sport as “vert,” “gel,” and “chafe.”
If you’re wondering how this world champs fits into the already complex equation of the MUT race season calendar, well, it doesn’t.
Let’s start with the basics. The world champs is about the competition. This sport, historically, is about the course. From California’s Dipsea in 1905, to Western States in 1974, and UTMB in 2003, this sport is built upon the lore and prestige of iconic trails and challenging courses.
By definition, trail running is inextricably tied to the landscape. A world championship, divorced from a certain course or location, is diametrically opposed to the backbone of the sport.
Take road cycling, a sport similarly predicated on the history and prestige of landscape-dependent events like the Tour de France and the slew of spring classics like Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. That sport has managed to find a way to care deeply about its full race calendar, plus the official UCI World Championships. The world champion earns the right to wear the rainbow jersey for the entire next season. They do so with pride. And former winners wear a rainbow armband on their jerseys for the rest of their careers!
Of course, cycling—a non-impact sport—allows athletes to compete at a much greater frequency than ultrarunning. Spring classics, grand tours, world championships, riders can do it all. But there are two key takeaways we glean from that sport on two wheels: a unified race calendar, and putting the world champs at the end of the season.
Let’s start with the latter. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer—basically every sport that matters on a global scale holds its championship event at the end of the season. The race denotes the pinnacle of the year, the grand finale, the fireworks that send us off into the night to celebrate our victories or nurse our woes until the next season rolls around. WMRTC feels a whole lot less like a culminating event when it’s held before the ultra season really even kicks into gear.
And then there’s the disorganized chaos of the MUT race calendar. Over the past several years, corporately-funded UTMB and Golden Trail have systematically acquired top trail and ultra races around the globe to create their own self-contained race ecosystems with a championship at the end of the season. It’s a genius move, really. By forcing you to race early-season events for a chance to get into the big dance, these series monopolize your race calendar while also legitimizing the “championship” status of their star event. Layer on top of that the Skyrunner World Series and stand-alone defacto “championship” events like Hardrock 100, Western States (although that’s now part of UTMB), and Comrades and good grief, my head hurts.
Compare the complexity of the MUT race scene with the simplicity of the NFL and its one championship and no wonder our sport—which, by the way, by participation numbers is the biggest sport in the world—still sits squarely on the very outskirts of fringe.
If the competition doesn’t show up, does the race matter? Less than half of the top American road marathoners say they will accept a spot on the marathon world champs roster, according to a recent poll in Runner’s World. Instead the majority will elect to race a World Marathon Major, with its hefty appearance fee and prize purse, or they’ll simply train through the fall in preparation for the 2024 Olympic Trials in February.
If the best in the world sit the race out, the credibility of the event is irreparably compromised. No wonder running isn’t available on primetime TV.
MUT is—I’m sorry—a mixed bag. When it comes to mountain running, the world champs brings the best in the world. The vertical kilometer and mountain classic start lists contain the most robust number of teams, including African hard-hitters like Kenya.
“If you race short stuff, the world champs is where you want to compete,” Team USA member in the VK and Classic Mountain races Dan Curts says. Dan, who came in second to Joe Gray in the national championship VK and won the Classic race, also competed in Thailand.
Mountain running doesn’t really have any other de facto championships of these distances, and guess what, Team USA is elite! Your American team boasts three former world champions this year: Allie McLaughlin, Grayson Murphy, and Joe Gray.
The short trail and long trail race fields are, frankly, not as stout. That’s not to say both races don’t attract top talent—including Clare.
“I applied to the worlds team because I wanted the US to send a strong team to worlds,” Clare says. “It’s an honor to wear our colors and race for our country.”
Team USA won the men’s long trail event in Thailand, with Adam Peterman, fresh off his win at Western States, leading the team to victory with the individual win.
Not to be outdone, American superstar Jim Walmsley was set to headline Team USA in the VK and the long trail race this time around—a huge boon to boosting the credibility of the event—until he scratched last week due to injury. (You’ve got to wonder if the early season 100 miler he ran off of skimo training to qualify for UTMB has something to do with it.)
Great Britain’s Jonathan Albon, Blandine L’Hirondel Audrey Tanguy of France, Swede Petter Engdahl, many of the best trail and ultra runners from around the world will be racing in Innsbruck. But definitely not all of them, including the glaring exceptions of our two Catalan friends—Kílian Jornet and Pau Capell—who will probably never compete for their country.
And when it comes to elevating the status of the event and the prestige of the team in America, it doesn’t help that the qualification process for Team USA is pretty opaque and somewhat nonsensical. Lake Sonoma, a 50-mile race over California carpet with 10,000 feet of climbing, served as the qualifier for this year’s long trail race at world’s—a 52-miler through the alps with a punishing 18,000 feet of vert.
Let’s face it: MUT running is not a lucrative path, and hardly qualifies as a professional sport. And for athletes chasing those limited funds, sadly the world champs is probably not going to help them much. Or at least not directly. An anonymous source told me their shoe sponsor pays a $1,000 bonus for winning a world championship race. Winning the US national championships earns even less. By contrast, breaking the tape at Western States, Comrades, or UTMB rakes in a $15,000 bonus that rolls over onto their base salary for the next year. Given the going rate for trail runner sponsorship deals, winning Western States could double your base salary.
Speaking of States, we’d be remiss not to consider the effect holding the world champs three weeks before that little race from Olympic Valley to Auburn has on both the competition and the attention the world champs is receiving in the US. The obsession with States could (and should) be an article in itself. Suffice it to say States pulls top American and increasingly international talent every year. While the States effect only sucks talent away from the long trail world champs race, it saps nearly the full attention of our small, resource-constrained trail running media. And without media, the race doesn’t matter.
Just kidding, kind of. Look at Eric LiPuma, who came in seventh in the Long Trail race in Thailand. His clutch performance proved pivotal in securing our team’s victory. It’s more complicated than this, but his race got far less attention than someone earning a Golden Ticket, and Eric remains unsponsored. (He will be racing for Team USA again this week. Someone sponsor the man, already!) The largely American fixation on States also probably helps explain why European media outlets seem more interested in the races in Innsbruck this week. (Along with the proximity factor, of course.)
The most “prestigious” events are the ones in which the media-sponsorship-race model aligns. And an international, inter-nation event like the world champs butts heads with many shoe brands’ marketing agendas. Brands seem to be increasingly obsessed with transforming their athlete rosters into unified “teams” that compete collectively at the same events. These sponsorships are coming out of the budgets from shoe brands’ marketing departments, after all. Send everyone to the same events, do a photo shoot, and pray at least a few of your runners perform well. It makes sense. For the brand. (It certainly makes more marketing sense than paying your athlete to race in a USA Track and Field team-issued Nike kit at the world champs.) But who should this sport be for?
This sport is at a crossroads: does it want to double-down on this garbled hodgepodge of a race calendar, or does it want to make room for a more traditional style of governing-body sanctioned racing?
The evolution of other sports like cycling tell us that these two paths don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In sport, there are fewer better feelings than competing for something bigger than yourself. For fear of sounding like that washed-up high school football star stuck in the glory days, my fondest running memories harken back to high school and college cross country, where we won and we lost as a team. In lieu of MUT entering the Olympics (don’t worry, we are not going there today!), the world championships—where you are competing for the highest honor and we the fans can unite around a common goal—is the logical apex in our sport.
We’re not there yet. But if we start paying attention (and if World Athletics moves worlds to the end of the season, away from other key events and to denote a proper end of year championship) maybe we will get there.
So friends, on Tuesday let’s pull out the stars and the stripes and obsess over the iRunFar Twitter feed. I realize patriotism can be a divisive concept. But for the love of our trails, pushing ourselves and our country to its highest ideals, and rallying together as a community, go Team USA!
What: The World Mountain and Trail Championships
Where: Innsbruck, Austria
When: Wednesday through Saturday