A situation simmering for the past year boiled over last week after the UTMB World Series and the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort jointly announced a new race, the Ultra Trail Whistler by UTMB, debuting in September 2024, in Whistler, British Columbia.
This announcement came eight and a half months following the controversial cancellation of another event, Whistler Alpine Meadows. That event, which took place in the same location and in the same month, was run by a local Canadian race organization, Coast Mountain Trail Running.
Gary Robbins and Geoff Langford, longtime trail runners, co-owners of Coast Mountain Trail Running, and co-race directors of the now defunct Whistler Alpine Meadows, are publicly questioning the processes and ethics of the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort and the UTMB World Series.
Both organizations stand behind their actions. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of trail runners, from western Canada to around the world, are siding with Robbins and Langford.
Here’s a story that reads like a trail running version of the David and Goliath parable.
The Whistler Alpine Meadows Is Permanently Canceled in February 2023
In September 2022, the Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) event took place in the high mountains of Whistler, British Columbia. Athletes competed largely within the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort, which is owned and operated by Vail Resorts.
Put on by Coast Mountain Trail Running, the sixth edition of the event had five race distances up to 100 miles in length and drew about 950 athletes from almost a dozen countries. After the completion of the three-day running event, the race organization looked forward to planning for 2023.
But in February 2023, Coast Mountain Trail Running announced in a statement that WAM would no longer take place.
“We will not be pursuing any further events within the [Whistler] township going forward … There is simply no path forward for us to produce races of this magnitude, along the alpine terrain within the confines of Whistler,” the organization announced.
The Ultra Trail Whistler by UTMB Is Announced in October 2023
In October 2023, some eight and a half months following the announcement of the permanent cancellation of WAM, the UTMB World Series — co-operated by the UTMB Group and The Ironman Group — announced the Ultra Trail Whistler by UTMB (UT Whistler) race, scheduled to take place annually in September.
“The UTMB World Series is heading to Canada for the first-time next year, with the confirmation that the breathtaking alpine playground of Whistler and the surrounding Sea-to-Sky corridor in British Columbia will host a brand-new event … on September 28-29, 2024,” read the press release. “Three race distances of 100 [kilometers], 50km and 25km will take runners on a journey that highlights the best of Whistler and its surrounding trails.”
The press release quoted Whistler Blackcomb chief operating officer Belinda Trembath, who confirmed the resort as host: “We are thrilled to serve as co-host of the Canadian stop on the UTMB World Series circuit.”
The Processes and Ethics of Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort Are Called Into Question
Hours after the UT Whistler announcement, Robbins published a candid blog post, alleging Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort of intentionally pushing WAM out in late 2022 and early 2023.
In interviews with iRunFar, Robbins said that WAM and Whistler Blackcomb had a historically good working relationship. But he also noted that this relationship deteriorated in the fall of 2022 when WAM’s new contact at Whistler Blackcomb simply stopped communicating.
“The previous person in charge of events [before 2022] was a dream to work with, but he no longer works for Vail Resorts,” said Robbins. “His replacement was the complete opposite. I think the hardest thing about it for us was that he very much made us feel like we were being supported, but it wasn’t followed through by him at any point thereafter. And it was disingenuous the entire time.”
Following the September 2022, WAM, Robbins said their Whistler Blackcomb contact alluded to issues they would have to work through for future events. But that initial feedback to the WAM organization by their Whistler Blackcomb contact was followed by months of near radio silence, said Robbins.
“He stood us up on multiple booked meetings and it bled over day after day, week after week. Before we knew it, we had lost three months of just trying to get basic answers from this person,” said Robbins.
“[Whistler Blackcomb] knew that we had a drop-dead date of January 1, 2023, [for getting permitted, so that we could sustainably organize the September race], and we pushed that to February 1. When we finally got someone to put some stuff in front of us [in late January and early February], they presented an entirely different permitting application process than we’d seen before. It was prohibitive, but also still something that we were going to work our way through. They wouldn’t allow us to even talk about [promote] the race until that process was complete. And at that point we would be so far into the year, it would be impossible to move forward with so many uncertainties still in place.”
Handshake-style agreements between permitting entities and event directors are not uncommon in longer-term working relationships. This is where a permitting entity allows an event director to progress with planning and promoting an event before a permit is secured, usually because bureaucratic processes can move slowly. While Robbins said he and other permitting entities for his business’s other events work through handshake-style agreements, it seems Whistler Blackcomb would not.
Robbins also explained that as part of those late January and early February 2023, conversations, Whistler Blackcomb said it would only permit two of WAM’s previous five race distances, the ascent and 25k races. According to Robbins, Whistler Blackcomb also said the 25k course would need to be redesigned.
Decreasing the scope of the event by so much, said Robbins, “was not a sustainable model for these events in this town.”
Whistler Blackcomb declined an interview with iRunFar, but released the following written statement in response to this conflict:
“What this comes down to is we simply were not satisfied or comfortable with how Whistler Alpine Meadows planned to address safety issues from the race the year prior. We will not compromise on safety as it is our number one priority, and we should note that our safety protocols and policies have not changed significantly year over year. We were not willing to move forward with the 2023 race without an adequate safety and medical plan, and WAM was unwilling to work with us on this.
“To the issue of communication, we take accountability that we did not communicate as effectively as we should have, and for this, we apologize. We are committed to improved communication with all partners. We are proud of our long history of hosting a wide variety of events and groups of all kinds that enhance our community and our culture, and that support what makes Whistler special. We are committed to continuing this tradition and look forward to hosting future events and races at Whistler Blackcomb.
“The decision to cancel Whistler Alpine Meadows was made by race organizers in February 2023. Whistler Blackcomb was open to working with them on a revised plan that would adequately meet the logistical and safety needs of a race of its size and scope in order to bring it back. They declined and moved on. Over the summer, we received a new inquiry from UTMB about bringing its World Series circuit to Whistler. Trail running enthusiasts, local businesses and the community at large stand to benefit from this world-class event.”
Robbins refuted Whistler Blackcomb’s response, and said more was at play than just poor communication and changing procedures.
Langford said in an interview, “We were not aware of anything significant, safety- or medical-wise [taking place during the 2022 WAM]. Our post-race medical reports showed only the usual minor issues from an ultra, and we were never given the opportunity to debrief with the Whistler Blackcomb patrol team who were on the mountain as part of the event all weekend.”
Robbins concluded, “My business partner [Langford] has been in the industry for a quarter century, and organized the adventure racing world championships two decades ago. We have worked with Red Bull and Spartan on contracts over the years. While we are a small entity, this is not our first rodeo, and my partner has more experience in permits specifically than anybody I know. It’s disheartening that [Whistler Blackcomb] keeps coming back to this unfounded point that we did not follow through on our end, and we were the reason that we chose to leave the community of Whistler for these races.”
The Processes and Ethics of the UTMB World Series Are Also Questioned
Robbins also wrote in his blog post about how Coast Mountain Trail Running had a discussion with the UTMB World Series about the series acquiring one of its other races at the same time that WAM was dissolving:
“In 2021 … we were contacted via the IM-UTMB group about potentially acquiring our Squamish 50 races. [These races are based in Squamish, British Columbia, located about an hour’s drive south of Whistler.] I said we were not interested and we moved on. One year later, in 2022 they reached out a second time … We decided … that we might as well hear them out. We signed an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] and had a single Zoom meeting with them.”
Robbins elaborated on this in an interview, and said his business was then in continued, open dialogue with The Ironman Group regarding the potential acquisition from late 2022 through late May 2023.
He explained, “As part of that conversation, we provided them all our internal details for the Squamish 50. In doing this, we were also [unknowingly] giving them a complete market analysis at the same time that they were in communications with Vail Resorts to bring a race to life [in Whistler,] essentially that on the exact terrain that we were just pushed off of.”
In the comments section of this article, after it was published, Robbins added a few more details of this time period: “…IM did NOT close down communications with us in Jan[uary], in fact they had not even received the necessary, requested information from our organization at that point, because we were so embroiled in these ongoing issues with Vail at that time. IM did not receive our internal documents until mid March….” [Added November 3, 10 p.m. MDT]
Robbins said it was in late May 2023, when The Ironman Group put a hold on talks about that purchase.
In an interview with iRunFar, representatives of the UTMB World Series explained their version of the timeline in this conflict, which doesn’t fully align with that of Robbins.
Paul Huddle, the senior director of global trail running operations for The Ironman Group, said, “I started talking with Gary and Geoff in the middle of November last year. We were interested in their event, particularly the Squamish 50, and they seemed interested in potentially working with us.”
Continued Huddle, ”In January of this year, we as a company, for a variety of reasons, put a hold on all acquisitions, so I notified Gary and Geoff and everybody else that we were talking to that that was the case at that time.”
The UTMB World Series maintains that the Squamish 50 acquisition conversation — and its ending — had nothing to do with its exploration of a Whistler-based event.
“I think it’s really important to point out that this has nothing to do with that scenario. That was a situation that any company goes through,” Huddle said. “I think in February, February 11, everyone saw the news out of Whistler that they were no longer continuing with that event [WAM] and it was pretty emphatically stated by Gary that they were out and never coming back. Keats [McGonigal, the vice president of North American operations for The Ironman Group] … is the guy that holds the relationships [with the municipality] … in Whistler. So it was like, ‘Oh wow, Keats, you should contact your folks and see if they’re interested in bringing a UTMB event to Whistler. There’s no race there now.’”
McGonigal explained the next part of the timeline as the UTMB World Series sees it:
“Through the spring and summer, we had a number of calls [with the three different leadership entities in Whistler, including the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort], with us sharing what we’re trying to do in terms of expanding the [UTMB] World Series and getting into Canada … It was in August we went for in-person meetings for a handful of days and talked about courses, maps, layouts, designs, and access to venues. All of those normal race operational conversations happened in August, which ultimately continued along to our announcement.”
When asked if the UTMB World Series considered reaching out to Robbins, Langford, and the WAM organization team as they began ideating UT Whistler, Huddle responded:
“What we love about Gary and Geoff and their events is that they have a great following. They have great events. That’s why we were in the conversation [about an acquisition of the Squamish 50] to begin with. But again, for a variety of reasons, we were no longer in that conversation with any of the events as of January. When this opportunity came up, we thought, ‘Wow, this is obviously a good opportunity to use the connections we already have through Keats and Ironman Canada.’”
Huddle continued, “Following their announcement in February, it seemed pretty clear that they were exiting and not hosting any events [in Whistler]. After that announcement, we saw a void and had local relationships to check in with. I get it. I mean, it’s a community and this ultra is based on community … I guess it’s a good point, and maybe that is an oversight. But at the same time, we were not involved in their conversations with Whistler and wouldn’t have expected to be.”
The Trail Running Community Responds
What followed the UT Whistler race announcement and Robbins’s blog post was a massive and emotionally charged response online by trail runners regionally and globally, almost universally in support of Robbins and against UT Whistler.
Runners’ posts now number in the tens of thousands across every major social media platform, including Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere. Comments have ranged from calling for a boycott of UT Whistler to questioning the presence of large corporations in the sport of trail running.
For example, commenting on the UT Whistler’s Instagram page, Ems (@emmmmics) wrote, “As a Whistler local, this will be a huge NO. I will NOT be racing, and I will NOT be volunteering for this … I foresee a boycott coming from runners in Whistler, the entirety of the sea to sky region, Vancouver, and the lower mainland as well….”
Ellie Greenwood, Vancouver, British Columbia, resident, prior Western States 100 course record holder, and the 2012 CCC champion, wrote on her social media:
”Trail and ultra runners. Our sport is at a crossroads and it’s time to decide what you want our sport and community to be like.
“You sign up for races, you get to choose in what direction you want our sport to go. Let’s not be bullied by UTMB – they are not guiding our ship, we the runners are. Money talks and I will not be spending a dime or any of my time with UTMB. I encourage you to think about where your money and your time will go….”
Jim Walmsley, the 2022 UTMB champion, titled one of his Strava activities in the last several days, “So what do we race next year then?” He confirmed with iRunFar after the fact that this title was indeed in reference to this Whistler race conflict.
Local Leadership Responds to Requests for Comments
iRunFar requested comments from Whistler’s two other main leadership entities when it comes to hosting events, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, a government entity, and Tourism Whistler, a tourism agency.
iRunFar’s questions were focused on characterizing the entities’ interactions with the organizations behind WAM and UT Whistler.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler [RMOW] provided this written statement:
“The RMOW worked on Municipal permits for the Whistler Alpine Meadows events as part of their races, which took place on municipal property. The RMOW permitting process which occurred is standard procedure and followed for all applicants.
“Shortly after the Whistler Alpine Meadows race organizers made their announcement that they would no longer be running the event in Whistler, UTMB reached out to the RMOW asking if there was an opportunity to bring their race to Whistler. As the alpine areas in question fall into Whistler Blackcomb/Vail’s jurisdiction, an introduction was made.”
Tourism Whistler submitted a written statement as well:
“Tourism Whistler’s relationship with the Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) trail race included providing marketing support and assisting organizers with an Economic Impact Assessment study following the 2022 event. This is a service Tourism Whistler provides to many events that take place in the resort. We therefore acknowledge the positive economic impact of the previous WAM races, and we were sorry to hear of their decision not to move ahead with any Whistler events in the future.
“Tourism Whistler became aware of UTMB/The Ironman Group’s interest in bringing a trail running event to Whistler after it had already been announced publicly that WAM was not returning to the resort. It is also our understanding that Whistler Blackcomb and UTMB/The Ironman Group did not engage in any conversations about the Ultra Trail Whistler event until after it had been confirmed that WAM was not returning. Whistler has a long-standing and positive working relationship with The Ironman Group after hosting the Whistler Ironman triathlon from 2010 to 2019 and we look forward to welcoming them back to the resort with a new trail running event.”
What Does the Trail Running Community Do Now?
Robbins closed that blog post with a direct challenge to the UT Whistler organization, “…Coast Mountain Trail Running are officially announcing our intentions of launching a BC [British Columbia] race in direct competition with this event, in September 2024.”
In an interview, Robbins summarized why he’s chosen to be vocal about this story, “I want people to be educated, and to allow people to make informed decisions from there. I want our North American ultrarunning scene to have a collective voice.”
In an interview with iRunFar, McGonigal, of the UTMB World Series, said, “We would love to have the opportunity to mend the fences.”
When asked if he thought the situation could be resolved, Robbins said, “With Ironman, that is beyond repair. With Vail Resorts, we would be open to working with them on an event again in Whistler if The Ironman Group were no longer a part of things.”
It’s probable that we’ll never know the full story behind this unfortunate conflict. And, so many questions remain.
What will — or should — happen next in this trail running story of David and Goliath?
Will Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort and the UTMB World Series go ahead with the 2024 Ultra Trail Whistler by UTMB despite the enormous pushback they have received since their race announcement? If they do, will they garner enough entries to successfully host the race?
What event will Gary Robbins, Geoff Langford, and Coast Mountain Trail Running introduce in September 2024, to fulfill their intent to compete with the UTMB World Series event? Will runners turn out in the droves they have promised online?
And perhaps most importantly, what responsibilities do the Goliaths of this story — and of this sport — have in working with and supporting the Davids in the communities in which they wish to operate?
As the sport of trail running has grown, the community’s general sentiment has been that there is room for every kind of person and every kind of race. But this conflict has many asking if this is still true.
“I am leaning toward, no, it is not possible to coexist,” said Robbins. “When you have publicly traded companies with billion-dollar budgets that have the answer to shareholders, everything comes down to the bottom line of how to monopolize things the most. That’s just reality.”
Robbins concluded, “There are fantastic people within the Vail Resorts organization, and I’m sure there are really good people at Ironman as well. But they’re faceless organizations for the most part, and they have to make decisions that appease their shareholders. When that’s the case, you can’t possibly make decisions in the best interest of the communities in which you’re operating.”
Until this conflict, though, the sport has largely demonstrated at least tolerance of large-scale commercial operations within it. The growth of the UTMB World Series from zero to 40 events since its inception in 2021 shows en masse participation.
And the UTMB festival of events in Chamonix, France, a separate organization also owned and operated by the UTMB Group and The Ironman Group, has become easily the most competitive group of trail ultramarathons in the world. It was the origin point of all the UTMB-based operations 20 years ago and serves as the central races of the UTMB World Series. The competitiveness of these races shows elite runners’ acceptance of the multiple large organizations behind it.
But the trail running community’s swift, sharp, and almost universal defense of Robbins and Langford as well as its rejection of the UT Whistler announcement read as a signal shift. To co-opt the description Greenwood used in her social media post, it seems the trail community has arrived at a crossroads and is looking down multiple potential paths.
Only time will tell down which path trail runners will go.
[Editor’s Note: We’ll update this article as new information becomes available. On November 3 at 10 p.m. MDT, editors added a portion of a comment Robbins left to this article to its main body, which adds additional details on the January to May 2023 time period.]
Call for Comments
We empathize with the sensitive nature of this topic, and wish to help host a productive community conversation about it. Thus, we respectfully request you to follow iRunFar’s comment policy. Disagreement and debate are always welcome, so long as you share your thoughts constructively.
- What do you think the trail running community should do now?
- Will you as an individual take action as a result of this conflict?
- Do you think the large or new companies moving into trail running and ultrarunning have any responsibility to care for the places and communities into which they enter?