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Sole Man: Columbia, Montrail, Mountain Hardwear Secure UTMB Sponsorship

The world's most prestigious trail running event aligns with new American sponsors.

Runners traverse a ridgeline in Courmayeur, Italy, on Aug. 30 in the CCC 100K race during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc week of trail races. Photo: Pascale Tournaire
Runners traverse a ridgeline in Courmayeur, Italy, on Aug. 30 in the CCC 100K race during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc week of trail races. Photo: Pascale Tournaire

The world’s most prestigious trail running event aligns with new American sponsors.

Although it might make just a small blip on the radar of running news, the announcement today that three brands of Portland, Ore.-based Columbia Sportswear Company (Columbia, Mountain Hardwear and Montrail) are the new footwear and apparel sponsors of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) trail running races in and around Chamonix, France, is potentially a huge deal in the trail running world.

For the first 12 years of its existence, the UTMB was sponsored by The North Face and both brands gained enormous traction as the event has grown into one of the largest and one the most prominent trail running races in the world. The UTMB now includes five late-August races with a total of 7,500 runners, including the iconic 104-mile namesake race that loops the Mont Blanc massif from Chamonix to Courmayeur, Italy, to Champex, Switzerland and back to Chamonix.

During the past 12 years, The North Face embraced the UTMB as a key product testing ground and athlete showcase as it became more immersed in trail running. Several TNF-sponsored runners from the U.S. gained more visibility from their experience at the UTMB, most notably 2013-2014 UTMB women’s winner Rory Bosio and Tim Olson, who was fourth in the 2013 UTMB race. No doubt, Columbia, Montrail and Mountain Hardwear—which have standout trail runners Dakota Jones, Max King, Ellie Greenwood, Megan Lund-Lizotte and Geoff Roes on their athlete teams this year—will do the same.

Even though a few other American brands were interested in sponsoring the UTMB, for those who know the sport the involvement of Columbia, Mountain Hardwear and Montrail should come as no surprise. Topher Gaylord, president of of Columbia’s Mountain Hardwear brand, has been entwined with the UTMB since its inception and is close to UTMB event directors Michel and Catherine Poletti. Gaylord was second in the inaugural running of the race in 2003 and has run one of the races almost every single year since, plus he helped the Polettis get the event off the ground when he worked at The North Face before joining Mountain Hardwear in 2010.

“We’re psyched to be a part of it.” Gaylord says. “We really feel like it was a golden window of opportunity and those windows just don’t come open very often. The race is so much more than just an event for trail runners. Chamonix is the hub of outdoor, mountain and trail running cultures all combining together, and for that reason it’s even better for us than a straight up, more traditional running event.”

A few other interesting thoughts that come to mind, include:

– While most American runners—even many U.S. trail runners—have never heard of the UTMB, the mountain endurance culture that surrounds the UTMB is starting to be felt in the U.S.

– Montrail was once the biggest brand in the American trail running scene, but many other brands have created more buzz in the past few years. This should certainly help create more traction for Montrail, which was acquired by Columbia in 2006.

– The deal is especially interesting for the Columbia group of brands, which have less of a presence in Europe than The North Face.

– The UTMB is also pushing its brand on an international scale with the Ultra-Trail World Tour of races, which was launched in late 2013. The North Face also continues to expand its trail series, The North Face Endurance Challenge, on a worldwide basis. – The UTMB is still searching for a new title sponsor, but that will likely be a non-endemic brand. RELATED: American Rory Bosio Repeats As UTMB Champion