Vibram® Hong Kong 100 was the first event of the Ultra-Trail® World Tour (UTWT) and a lot has been said about the organization since its creation in 2013. Some critics have been bashing the idea of trying to bring some order to the ultra trail running scene. But with its flawless organization and the incredible number of countries represented (57 this year), HK100 is a brilliant example of what a UTWT event can and probably should be. We met with Marie Sammons, the director of the Ultra-Trail® World Tour, to ask her about the present and future of her organization that has only two events in the USA (Western States® Endurance Run, Javelina Jundred), which is more than any other country except for France, which has TDS®, CCC® and UTMB®, and Switzerland with its Eiger Ultra-Trail®, CCC® and UTMB®, as well.
UltraRunning Magazine: Many aren’t familiar with you or your background. Please tell us what you did before becoming the director of Ultra-Trail® World Tour.
Marie Sammons: I’ve been a member of the Ultra-Trail® World Tour setup from the beginning in 2013. I’m French and I live in Annecy in the Alps, but I’ve lived in Canada, close to Calgary, as well as in Salzburg, Austria. I started five years ago with a commercial and marketing position and was in charge of managing elite athletes, as well as bringing in new races. Before that, I was sales director for French apparel brand, Waa Ultra.
UltraRunning Magazine: What was the objective of the Ultra-Trail® World Tour when it was created, and do you feel it has met that objective five years later?
Marie Sammons: The objective was to have the best ultra trail races in the world. We wanted the most amazing races of over 100k (62 miles), the ones you really dream about.
UltraRunning Magazine: So do you feel you have the best ultra trail races in the world?
Marie Sammons: Oh yes, absolutely. The 20 races from our “competition tour” that we have across the world all have something very unique to offer. Our goal is to get people to travel and experience a great running event, as well as a memorable cultural experience.
UltraRunning Magazine: Is the selection closed for many years ahead? Or maybe just keep adding more races?
Marie Sammons: We can remove any events from our selection at any time. Take the Grand Raid de la Réunion, aka La Diagonale des Fous, for example. We selected it at the very beginning five years ago, but it disappeared in 2018. Why? Because we disagreed with them on a few important things. That doesn’t mean we’ll never work together again. On the other hand, I spend a lot of time dealing with races who want to get in this “competition tour” of 20. I’m always looking for events who can create an extraordinary experience for the runner. That’s the number one priority.
UltraRunning Magazine: Some of your races are much more known than others. For example, the popularity of UTMB® or Western States® 100-Mile Endurance Run cannot be compared with Harricana Ultra-Trail® in Canada or Mozart 100® in Austria, or even 100 Miles of Istria in Croatia. Is your job also about trying to bring some balance in your selection by promoting smaller races to elite athletes and media? Or are you letting two or three main events lead the way and bring attention to the Tour in general?
Marie Sammons: We do have a few leading events for sure. An interesting mechanism is that the smaller ones are the ones increasing their international participation. It’s important to think globally and to stop looking at things only with American eyes or European eyes. What matters to us is how much our races are seducing runners from all over the world. We may not have many new westerners here and there, but we may have more Chinese, Japanese or South American runners coming each year to such and such event. And that’s really what matters to us.
UltraRunning Magazine: And how exactly do you help promote those smaller events?
Marie Sammons: Not only do I speak up for them during press conferences of the bigger events all over the world, but I also direct elite runners where to go. I get their tentative or ideal plans for the year in advance and then advise them where to go, persuading them to travel to a destination they’ve never been for example.
UltraRunning Magazine: Now that I’ve raced in the Vibram® Hong Kong 100, which I had never done before, I certainly understand the principles that are guiding your Ultra-Trail® World Tour much better. The problem is, that I didn’t think like that before I went to race in Hong Kong. You see, somehow I believe the promotion that you’re talking about may have worked well on elite athletes and media, but it might have missed its other important target – the average ultra trail runner. Those people have not been targeted by your team. Can you understand such a critique? Would you agree?
Marie Sammons: You’re right. The first mission I was given was to manage the elite athletes. I believe we’ve done that right so far, but we still need to work on other runners, the amateur group. We have started to work on it, but we need to do more.
UltraRunning Magazine: Something else remains a mystery to me – the different categories or rankings with which you divide the races: Challenger, Pro, Series and Series bonus. The Vibram® Hong Kong 100 changed its course this year. It’s longer and harder than before and has become a Series. Again, how does that impact the average ultra trail runner?
Marie Sammons: There is indeed four different categories. The Challenger category would be the lowest and the Series bonus would be the highest. HK100 became a Series race this year, because they have answered positively to some of our concerns, which were about building a better start and finish line experience for all runners. For an elite athlete, winning a Series will get you 1,000 points, but winning a Series bonus will get you 1,300 points. Elite athletes interested in the competition of the tour understand that the races they do and potentially win, will impact their ranking differently. For the amateur runner, it’s not like that. Aside from being integrated into the same ranking system as the best elite of the tour, which matters to a lot of them, (s)he is also told that the more (s)he chooses to register to a higher category, the best his/her experience in terms of race organization will be.