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Newly-announced Ultra Trail Whistler race met with heavy local backlash

Many Sea to Sky runners are instead supporting Gary Robbins, who published a blog post detailing the cancellation of Whistler Alpine Meadows

News of the UTMB Group’s first Canadian World Series trail-running contest, Ultra Trail Whistler, has elicited widespread backlash from the Sea to Sky community. Hordes of runners and their supporters are denouncing both the event and UTMB/Ironman as a collective while standing in solidarity with Coast Mountain Trail Running (CMTR).

Back on Feb. 10, CMTR's Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) races were permanently cancelled. WAM had been a beloved local event for six years up until that point, as well as an economically productive one: the 2022 edition generated $717,000 in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Whistler and $1.2 million for Canada as a whole.

At the time, Vail Resorts senior communications manager Dane Gergovich indicated that WAM organizers refused to adhere to a number of unspecified safety concerns despite being given the chance to prepare a revised arrangement. Meanwhile, WAM leadership cited a lack of communication from the Vail side and disputed the necessity of its demands. 

The plot thickened last week when, on Oct. 26, UTMB/Ironman announced Ultra Trail Whistler, which would effectively replace WAM on the local sporting schedule. CMTR frontman and accomplished ultra-marathoner Gary Robbins fired back with a lengthy blog post on his own website, in which he details "what really went down in Whistler with the WAM races." 

In the blog, Robbins unveiled CMTR’s plans to establish a new British Columbia-based race in September 2024 that would compete directly with UTMB’s event. He said that more information can be expected by Jan. 15. 

‘Fox in the hen house’

Robbins revealed that he and his colleagues had heard nothing about Ultra Trail Whistler being in the works prior to last Wednesday—and they’re not alone in that regard. 

“We’ve since learned from contacts at Vail-WB that no one knew about this internally as it’d been kept completely under wraps the entire time,” he wrote. “Just as we had not been consulted or even notified about this until the night before it launched.” 

CMTR has had prior contact with UTMB/Ironman, which reached out in 2021 and again in 2022 about acquiring the Squamish 50 races. After much deliberation within their circles, Robbins and business partner Geoff Langford decided to tentatively explore the proposal, signing a non-disclosure agreement and meeting with UTMB personnel. 

“On the single Zoom meeting we had with this group, I came forth by saying there were many non-negotiables on my end, meaning our community support programs, our volunteer appreciation programs, et cetera,” wrote Robbins. “The response was simply that that’d be a conversation for another time. The last we’d heard from them was in late June saying they were putting a pause on this for the short term. 

“I find myself thankful that this group has gone and shown us exactly who they are. I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, but in my heart I always knew better. I am embarrassed to have to admit that I almost let a fox in the hen house. I feel like I owe every single person in our community an apology for believing for even a fraction of a second that this group could do right by our sport—could do right by our community.” 

Many appear to agree with that sentiment. Dominic Grossman has gone as far as to set up a GoFundMe in support of CMTR’s currently-unnamed new race—though the fundraiser facetiously claims its primary goal is to raise $50 million to help Robbins buy out UTMB. 

“They bided their time as Vail cratered WAM,” said Linda Barton-Robbins on her X (formerly Twitter) account. “Made it impossible for WAM to launch. Then Vail said it was [CMTR’s] fault just to be extra a-holes, then UTMB/Ironman swoops in, steals the idea. It's even the same weekend. So transparent. F- that. F- Vail, UTMB and Ironman.” 

John Kelly also spoke up on X. “Originally, I feared Ironman would use UTMB to do to ultras what they did to triathlon with Kona,” he said. “This is worse. I know how much [Robbins] put into WAM. I want to experience UTMB but I will never run a UTMB race. No, they won't care about me. But if enough don't, maybe they will.” 

On the other hand, Vail representatives claim in a statement emailed to Pique that UTMB did not bring forth the idea of a World Series event in Whistler until news of WAM’s cancellation had gone public. 

“The decision to cancel Whistler Alpine Meadows was made by race organizers in February 2023,” the statement reads. “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.” 

Trouble in paradise 

From Robbins’ perspective, the first conflict arose in 2021 when Vail gave WAM’s traditional weekend away to Everesting—an organization that offers hiking excursions—without prior notice or deliberation. CMTR was blindsided and did everything possible to save WAM through what is described as “a Hail Mary attempt”. 

An 11th-hour arrangement with RBC GranFondo Whistler panned out, but the trouble was far from over. 

Robbins stated that CMTR’s Vail contact ghosted them for more than 100 days to close out 2022, refusing to return emails or attend numerous booked Zoom meetings. During this time, Robbins and his associates heard only vague remarks about potential issues with WAM, even after other Vail employees tried to investigate on their behalf. 

Around late January to early February, CMTR finally made contact with Vail senior management and were told to conform to a new event approval process. Robbins claimed that Vail brought up a host of unprecedented demands, including a hefty new operating fee as well as technical and safety requirements extraneous to the operation of a proper trail-running contest. 

Vail begged to differ. 

“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,” said a Whistler Blackcomb representative in a statement. “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.” 

Robbins said that CMTR was, in fact, willing to adjust, but asked to open registration immediately in order to meet key operational timelines. Vail, however, prohibited them from promoting WAM in any way until it fully conformed to new event criteria. Given CMTR’s existing commitment to producing several races outside of Whistler, Robbins states that the time needed to meet Vail’s requirements made it impossible to bring WAM back for 2023. 

“My personal take in the end was that we were very obviously being forced out,” he wrote. “By going about it in this manner, no one ever had to take responsibility for saying no to our event, and to [Vail’s] credit they never did say no to us. They simply pushed us out by other means.” 

Robbins placed much of the blame on Vail’s former events manager, the one he said could not be reached for almost the entirety of October, November and December 2022. He does not name the contact, but recounts a renewed sense of optimism about WAM’s future after this individual was fired. 

Instead, CMTR felt ambushed once again late last week by a cursory notice about the emergence of Ultra Trail Whistler. 

Vail offered an apology for the communication woes. 

“To the issue of communication, we take accountability that we did not communicate as effectively as we should have, and for this, we apologize,” said a Vail spokesperson. “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.” 

For his part, Robbins is disinterested in taking on Vail or UTMB in a knock-down, drag-out PR brawl. He said in a follow-up to his original blog post that he and Langford are bringing their focus back to what they love: putting on races. They're grateful that all kinds of runners have gone to bat for them, but do not wish to dwell on what has already transpired. 

"Geoff and I want to take this time to say thank you for all the incredible outpouring of support and encouragement," Robbins wrote. "It’s been truly uplifting and overwhelming to see this coming in from trail runners around the globe. My suggestion for now would be to get out for a run and pump some good vibes into your veins, and come race season, you do you and go and vote with your hard-earned dollars."