Would you rather win the UTMB World Series or the Golden Trail World Series?
Sure, there is only a handful of people per year for whom that question is anything more than a hypothetical or a daydream. The rest of us get to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show created by the series’s competition.
In this month’s Running the Numbers column, we’re looking at exactly that — competition. We ask the question: What competitive characteristics does each series have and which one is more competitive?
The answer? Read on to find out.
This analysis is primarily based on race results from the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) website.
The ITRA website did not include DNF (did not finish) information for participants in the 2022 UTMB World Series races in Chamonix, France, so we did a separate scraping of the UTMB website for DNF data for the 2022 UTMB and CCC.
In total, we had seven total events in the 2022 Golden Trail World Series and 68 in the 2022 UTMB World Series.
To measure the competitiveness of each race, we gathered race results for each event and distance for 2022 and calculated:
- The number of elite competitors per event
- The results distribution separating the top finishers
Rather than review the individual entrants of each race and subjectively decide which athletes qualify as elites, we used ITRA’s elite standards. As we explained in last month’s article on the various runner ranking systems in mountain running, ultrarunning, and trail running, ITRA maintains the ITRA Performance Index that awards points to runners based on their performances. ITRA considers male runners to be elite if their Performance Index is 825 or higher. Female runners with 700 points or more are classified as elite.
Both the Golden Trail World Series and UTMB have their own performance rating systems, as we also discussed last month, but we used the ITRA Performance Index since it applies to runners in both series and we were fortunate enough to have the data at our fingertips.
In early 2023, ITRA graciously provided us with the ITRA rankings of the top 10,000 male runners and the top 10,000 female runners. Their individual ITRA Performance Index scores may have changed slightly since then, but the dataset is plenty current for our just-for-fun analysis.
One other caveat is that we may have overlooked classifying runners as elite or as participating in multiple events if their names did not have consistent spellings. For example, if a runner included a middle name or registered under an abbreviated first name for one race, we may not have connected their result to their ITRA Performance Index. We mitigated this risk to the best of our ability by using ITRA as the primary source for our race results for this analysis.
The Competitiveness of the 2022 Golden Trail World Series
The Golden Trail World Series (GTWS) is a set of six races, culminating in a final event. Its events are generally technical, mountainous trail races around the marathon distance. As its website explains, the GTWS is intentional about including fewer events and distances that permit more frequent racing, because it strives to see top runners in direct competition multiple times per year: “A clear and simple format where each runner’s best three results from the six races count. This will generate excitement for the public who follow the entire season and to ensure that elites meet each other a maximum of times during the year guaranteeing a high level at each race.” Along with the GTWS, there are also a number of races in Golden Trail National Series in various countries.
It’s notable that the GTWS appears to be living up to its aspiration to put elite athletes in direct competition with each other multiple times per season. In 2022, there were at least 88 athletes who competed in three or more of the seven GTWS races.
The GTWS values competitiveness to the extent that it rewards the fastest series participants for entering at least three races in the series each season. The series offers complimentary race entries to top-ranked athletes and will even, within the guidelines set out on its website, offset travel and accommodation costs.
The GTWS format and funding model appears to be effective in fostering elite competition. In 2022, and in series total, it attracted proportionately more elite runners than the 2022 UTMB World Series did. If you count each race bib (since many runners in both series participated in more than one race), elite athletes accounted for 6.2% of all GTWS race bibs, compared to 1.3% of UTMB World Series race bibs. The GTWS also had a slightly higher proportion of women among its elite athletes: 38% of its elite participants were women, whereas women comprised 33% of elite athletes in UTMB races.
The table below shows the distribution of elite men and women in each series.
Among the races in the GTWS, Sierre-Zinal attracted the most elite entrants by a wide margin, seeing 129 participants who are classified as elite by ITRA standards. We should note that Sierre-Zinal, along with several other races on the GTWS, was already a high profile, stand-alone event prior to the series, and has historically attracted a top field of runners courtesy of the race organization’s enduring effort to bring competition together.
The chart below shows the numbers of elite entrants in each GTWS event.
The marathon and sub-marathon distances that make up the GTWS also lend themselves to tight competition because runners finish within minutes — even seconds — of each other. At the 2022 Marathon du Mont-Blanc, Dani Moreno secured her place on the podium by finishing a mere 18 seconds ahead of Anaïs Sabrié. At the 2022 Pikes Peak Ascent, the men’s podium was filled in just over two minutes by Rémi Bonnet, Daniel Osanz, and Joseph Gray.
For each race in the GTWS, we divided the 10th-place finisher’s time by the winner’s time to get a percentage. The graph below plots those percentages, showing that, for example, the men’s winner of the 2022 Sierre-Zinal was 7% faster than the men’s 10th-place finisher. As you’ll see, the GTWS boasts some of the closest competition in elite women’s trail racing.
The Competitiveness of the 2022 UTMB World Series
The UTMB World Series launched in 2022 and includes many events that were previously part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour. The UTMB World Series includes significantly more events, and more distance options, than the GTWS. The UTMB World Series events in Chamonix, France (the UTMB, CCC, OCC, etc.), are considered the championships, with elite runners gaining entry based on their participation in other UTMB World Series events. Starting in 2023, those UTMB World Series events in Chamonix will be called the UTMB World Series Finals.
This qualification process motivates competitive runners to race in other UTMB World Series events, but in 2022 the elite entrants continued to be largely concentrated at a small handful of races. The graph below shows the UTMB World Series events that had more than five men’s or women’s elite entrants per event.
One interesting note, the most competitive seven races of the 2022 UTMB World Series were relatively close to the competitive depth of the 2022 GTWS races. The GTWS had an average of 52 elite athletes (male and female combined) at each of its races. The seven most competitive UTMB World Series races had a comparable number, averaging 43 elite athletes for those seven races.
If you remember, the GTWS had one race, Sierre-Zinal, that had significantly more elite entrants than the others, especially compared to the most competitive UTMB World Series races. One possible reason why the UTMB World Series did not have a race with Sierre-Zinal-level competitiveness is that three of its most competitive races, the UTMB, CCC, and OCC, took place at the same time, at the UTMB World Series events in Chamonix, France. This resulted in a whole whack (to use the data-science term) of elite athletes gathering in one place at one time, but they were spread across multiple races.
The most competitive event that was not part of the 2022 UTMB World Series races taking place in Chamonix, France, was the 2022 Western States 100, which has a long, independent history of attracting elite competitors and was already a bucket-list race for many runners well before it joined the UTMB World Series.
One measure of a race’s competitiveness is the time separating the top finishers. For example, in a tight race, the 10th-place woman is finishing shortly after the first-place woman. The graph below shows that, of the longer races in the 2022 UTMB World Series, the 2022 Western States 100 was the closest event on the men’s side, while the 2022 CCC was the closest on the women’s side.
A significant factor in the competitiveness of the UTMB World Series events in Chamonix, France, is the style of racing I’ve heard described as, “show up or blow up.” Top athletes have limited room for error in these events and the pacing strategies are aggressive. It makes the results challenging to predict.
It also means an event’s competitiveness is hard to appreciate just from the finishing times, because the DNF rate among elite runners is so high. Using the 2022 UTMB, for example, more than a third of the runners iRunFar listed in its pre-race preview of the men’s race and the women’s race, respectively, went on to DNF. The chart below shows a breakdown of these.
Though we’ve ostensibly been comparing the 2022 UTMB World Series and the 2022 Golden Trail World Series (GTWS), our comparison shows that both are very competitive.
If you put together the entire 2022 UTMB World Series and the 2022 GTWS, the GTWS is more competitive. And if you compare the GTWS’s seven events with the most competitive seven events in the UTMB World Series, they are similarly competitive.
Pitting the two against each other makes for entertaining conversation on a long run, but it’s worth noting the series don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Indeed, several top athletes competed in events from both series in 2022. The table below offers a few examples:
One of the biggest takeaways here is that the 2022 Golden Trail World Series makes for exciting racing. In the year that iRunFar has been publishing this column, I’ve been guilty of having that common predisposition toward talking about 100 milers. I will still shamelessly follow coverage for this year’s Western States 100, but I also recognize what “shorter” distances contribute to the competitiveness of mountain running, ultrarunning, and trail running. By allowing for more frequent racing and allowing runners to compete against some of the same athletes multiple times per year, the GTWS provides a full season of competition worth following.
As for the UTMB World Series, 2022 was its inaugural season. The 2022 UTMB World Series events in Chamonix, France, were deeply competitive and engaging. UTMB-affiliated races are now happening around the globe. Elite athletes are still navigating the entry process for the UTMB World Series events in Chamonix, France, so the competitiveness of other races in the series is likely to evolve as newer events become more established and build their reputations. This series is worth following, too, for both its competition and its trajectory.
[Author’s Note: I would like to thank the invested and knowledgeable readers who took the time to offer feedback making this article better. I care about accuracy and honestly appreciate that readers pointed out errors in the original article.]
[Editor’s Note: This article was updated on June 11, 2023. An earlier version of this article used 2022 race results for events in the 2023 Golden Trail World Series. This updated version has been corrected to include results from the 2022 Stranda Fjord and Flagstaff Sky Peaks races, instead of the 2022 Dolomyths Sky Race. The earlier version also referred to the UTMB races in Chamonix, France, as the UTMB World Series Finals. While those events were the most competitive UTMB World Series events in 2022, they are officially the finals for the first time in 2023.]
Call for Comments
- Do you follow one series more closely than the other?
- Have you personally chosen between these two race series? If so, how did you choose?
- How do you think the relative competitiveness of these series will evolve in the years to come?