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UTMB dreams and qualifying nightmares

The qualifying requirements for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), Europe’s marquee 102-mile ultra marathon, are unique and complex — and, some might say, brazen. They also underwent significant changes for the 2015 season. To help avoid disappointment or mid-season race shuffling (as I just went through), I thought I would provide an overview, and some insight and context.

Qualifying standards

To register for the 2017 UTMB, you must earn 9 points (or 15 new points) by completing three official UTMB qualifiers during the preceding two years. Points are based on race length and vertical change. Typically, earning 9 points will require one of these combinations:

  • 100M, 100M, 50K
  • 100M, 100K, 50M
  • 100K, 100K, 100K

For other races in the UTMB series — e.g., the CCC — fewer points are needed.

Since the race is oversubscribed, acceptance into UTMB is not guaranteed even with 9 points. For the 2016 race, there were 5519 registrations for 2300 slots, so only about 40 percent of registrations were successful. Rejected applicants have better odds in future lotteries than first-time applicants.

Qualifying races

Only official UTMB qualifiers earn you points. A searchable database of official races is available on the UTMB website.

To determine if you have earned points from previous races, search your name in the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) runner database. Point races will be marked; no marks, no points:

itra-ranking-points

The process by which a race becomes an official qualifier is the subject of some controversy. It is managed by ITRA, not UTMB. However, the UTMB race organizers — Catherine and Michael Polleti — reportedly have strong influence over ITRA, raising the question of ITRA’s true purpose: advancing the interests of the for-profit UTMB race series, or the sport in general.

To become a UTMB qualifier, a race must be “evaluated” by ITRA, using a GPX file of the course. Then, the race must pay a fee to ITRA of 100 Euros (currently $110 USD). The fee applies per course; for example, in the case of Run Rabbit Run, fees would amount to 200 Euros, for the 50- and 100-mile courses. Qualifier status does not auto-renew; races must reapply each year, and pay the fee(s), too.

The qualifying process is not reciprocal. For example, Hardrock considers UTMB a qualifier; but since Hardrock has not requested evaluation or paid the ITRA fee, it’s not a UTMB qualifier. If it seems odd that one of the hardest and most coveted ultras in the US is not a UTMB qualifier, it should.

Hardrock is not the only high-profile race that is not a UTMB qualifier. Other biggies not on the list include Bandera, Barkley, Big Horn, HURT, IMTUF, Leadville, Run Rabbit, San Juan Solstice, Sean O’Brien, Vermont, Wasatch, among others.

At least a few of these races have intentionally decided to NOT become a UTMB qualifier. To paraphrase: “UTMB created its qualifying system and it should bear the cost for it, not us. Plus, we don’t need to be a qualifier to fill our race — we already have a lottery and a waitlist as it is.” Some race directors might add a few 4-letter words, too, as the evaluation process seems inconsistent with the inclusive and supportive vibe of the US ultra running community.

With a few exceptions, one commonality among UTMB qualifiers in the US is that few runners have heard of them. On a run this morning I told a long-time friend — who is an elite female ultra runner and who has been directing a race in the Seattle area for years — that I’m racing Silverheels 100 next month. Her response: “I haven’t heard of that one before. Where is it?” Essentially, directors of lesser known races are paying ITRA for an extra marketing story that will help to fill their entry rosters.

Elite entry

UTMB guarantees entry for any runner who has:

  • Met the 9-point standard, and
  • Has an ITRA ranking of 750+ (650+ for women)

Currently, I meet the ITRA ranking, but need to earn an additional 6 points this year to qualify for the 2017 UTMB. So long as I finish Silverheels and then Indian Creek 50M in October, which are both part of Human Potential Running Series, I’m in.

Originally, I had planned on defending my podium finish at Run Rabbit Run in September, but decided that a different race and UTMB entry was a better plan. Ironically, in doing so I traded a very elite field for one that currently lacks a single big name. That seems unsustainably counterproductive.

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9 Responses to UTMB dreams and qualifying nightmares

  1. Daniel July 14, 2016 at 8:06 am #

    Hi Andrew

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the UTMB entry process. I have a few thoughts on the process.

    The first is that in Europe it’s pretty easy to race a qualifying race every weekend. In fact I often race and find out that I’ve earned some points without going to a specific race with the intention of earning points. Whatever the ITRA’s purpose, the races in Europe have bought into the concept and it’s working for the majority of athletes who are trying to enter UTMB (athletes from Europe).

    The second point is that you can enter UTMB next year without having to go through a lottery as long as you have the qualifying points. For those who do not have as good a ranking as you, the odds in the lottery are a lot better because of the number of qualifying points required. While the process may be difficult for someone in the US there is some certainty in gaining entry. This is a stark contrast to many other well-known races that require a lottery to enter. While you call it a “nightmare” to qualify for UTMB you can almost certainly achieve a start in 2017 (or a person with less ITRA points could achieve the same with a little luck in 2017 and almost certainty in 2018), I would contrast that to Western States and Hardrock where I don’t believe you could achieve entry into either of those races with any certainty in any number of years.

    I don’t believe that the UTMB entry process is perfect and I can see that it’s more difficult for athletes from the US. However, for the majority of the athletes hoping to run UTMB finding entry races is easy and there is a clear process to follow that will result in entry in one to two years. It seems to me that it’s qualifying process that’s working and well-defined rather than being a nightmare.

    Most important however, is that UTMB is a beautiful race in incredible terrain and definitely worth the effort of trying to enter. Good luck with your qualifying races and hopefully I’ll see you in Chamonix next year!

    • Andrew Skurka July 14, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

      Hi Daniel –

      Thanks for chiming in and offering a European perspective. It sounds like it’s definitely working better on that side of the pond. It’s more of a struggle here, since many of the races we most want to enter are currently not qualifiers. We’ll see if it changes; if not, US runners will have to continue jumping through hoops to make it happen. I feel like I’m doing exactly that, because everyone says UTMB is a “must” experience.

      I know a few dozen US runners are racing UTMB this year, and I would be interested in seeing how they earned their points. I suspect many of them were from 2014, when more races were counted as qualifiers. (For example, Run Rabbit 100 was a 2014 qualifier, but not in 2015.) I further wonder if there will be a drop in US runners in 2017 and/or 2018 while US runners adjust to the new qualifying system.

      Andrew

  2. Tom October 10, 2016 at 8:36 am #

    Hi Andrew, I run in Switzerland and personally like races which register their courses with ITRA. The ITRA points are a cool way to compare my performance accross different races, distances and years (and of course with my running buddies).

    • Andrew Skurka October 10, 2016 at 8:40 am #

      I have been impressed with the accuracy of the ITRA rankings, too. Very consistent. And very helpful for comparing times across races.

  3. M Connors October 20, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

    No Hardrock and no Wasatch? Killing me. I guess no UTMB for me in 2017.

    • Andrew Skurka October 20, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

      I’ve applied for Hardrock, and in the very unlikely scenario that I “won” the lottery, I’d try to run both. They are 6-7 weeks apart, and I think I could handle that.

      Wasatch and Run Rabbit are too close to UTMB, assuming you want to run your best at each of them.

      • M Connors December 20, 2016 at 1:02 pm #

        Andrew, I meant that Hardrock and Wasatch not being qualifiers for UTMB is a joke. Both boards need to go through the process and get registered as qualifying races. Both committees punish their runners because they think a qualifying organization goes against some trail code.

  4. Erik Wilde December 19, 2016 at 2:52 pm #

    Without knowing who the mysterious “Daniel” is, who obviously is a big fan of UTMB, I think it’s important to understand that UTMB/ITRA are simply mirroring here what’s has been going on in the Ironman/WTC space for quite a while: the relentless commercialization controlled by one profit-oriented entity. The results are not always bad and not for everybody: as long as you play along or simply like the centralized management (as the ITRA rankings), this may actually be good to you.
    It gets a bit more interesting when you look at stories such as http://www.trailfieber.de/keine-utmb-punkte-fuer-ultra-trails/ (sadly in german only), which simply highlights the way how UTMB/ITRA use the system that they have set up to control the landscape.
    It is up to everybody to decide how they look at this. But make no mistake when looking at UTMB/ITRA: It’s not about ultra-running as a shared value among all of us; it is about managing and harvesting a market that has become a substantial revenue machine.

  5. Declan Cox January 16, 2017 at 9:08 am #

    Interesting discussion. The link provided by Erik Wilde is interesting (if you read German) and I commend Zugspitz Ultratrail on their decision. UTMB entry seems oppressive and off-putting, it’s a real pity but there are other beautiful and challenging trail runs in Europe thankfully.

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