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Can this independent trail race become the next UTMB?

 A man runs down a rocky mountain path in a mountainous area.
A man runs down a rocky mountain path in a mountainous area.

We’ve all heard of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). The 171km ultra running circuit around the highest mountain in the Alps is famous enough by itself, attracting hikers from around the world. And the actual event is getting bigger and flashier by the year, attracting more and more media attention. Even as a casual trail runner it’s hard to ignore the UTMB behemoth as the organization adopts or buys up popular local races across the globe.

But it’s easy to forget that UTMB the race is only just over 20 years old, and behind the glitz and commercial momentum is a story of humble origins. The race started off as a simple seven-runner relay, organized by a local running club – the emphasis being on the friendship between the three countries the route passes through (France, Italy and Switzerland). But the Mont Blanc tunnel fire in 1999 put a stop to the relays. The UTMB as we know it restarted in 2003, thanks to a small group of passionate runners in Chamonix. In that first year, there were 700 runners and only 67 made it all the way round – but it was a start. The Poletti family took the reins and from there the race has soared in popularity.

By contrast, the 13 Valleys Ultra celebrates its second birthday this September. It was set up by Paul Foster of the Great North Run Company, in partnership with the Lake District National Park Authority, and championed by race director Colin Murphy.

A group of runners make their way along a rocky, grassy mountain path.
A group of runners make their way along a rocky, grassy mountain path.

The origin story varies depending on who is telling it, but the key points remain the same. Richard Leafe, CEO of the Lake District National Park Authority, met up with Paul and Colin at the end of the Great North Swim in 2018. While participants were celebrating their race across Windermere, Richard posed the question: where is the big challenge event of the Lake District? Paul and Colin took that as their own challenge to make one. “We initially were looking at adventure races, maybe SUP or something water-based,” Colin tells me as we run alongside Grasmere in warm Lakeland drizzle, “but none of those ideas seemed to stick.”

That was when they hit on the UNESCO inscription for the Lake District. It emphasizes the uniqueness of the 13 valleys, each with their own character. “I stuck the maps together and joined up a route that connected all 13 valleys,” says Colin, “using existing paths and trails – and it just happened to be about 100 miles!” That was the moment when Colin and the team knew they were onto something. It was simple, but sometimes simple is best.

There is no long-distance trail that’s entirely within the Lake District. The Coast to Coast national trail crosses through and there are many famous rounds that take in sections of the fells. The unmarked Wainwright Round is perhaps the most well-known among trail runners, but it makes for an intense undertaking. Where is the trail that international hikers want to complete when they visit? Could the 13 Valleys Ultra be the Tour du Mont Blanc of the Lake District? Certainly the first year was a success, seeing some 700 runners cross the finish line. And the organizers have the aspiration for it to establish strong community of runners and supporters to equal the UTMB.

A woman runner runs towards the camera, holding poles in her hand. It is dark and she is wearing a headtorch.
A woman runner runs towards the camera, holding poles in her hand. It is dark and she is wearing a headtorch.

In terms of raw stats, the UTMB and 13 Valleys Ultra are alike in many ways. The flagship races are almost the same length: 171km vs 183km. They both have many thousand meters of ascent (over 9,000m and over 7,000m respectively) and both begin at 6pm local time, meaning runners start by heading out into the oncoming darkness. The time of year is similar too, although the end of August in the Alps feels very different to September in the Lake District. The routes are both flat-ish for the landscapes they take place in, focusing on traversing a beautiful setting rather than bagging peaks.

But while the UTMB’s shorter races were added as an afterthought, as a way of expanding the event, the 13 Valleys Ultra started life with a full complement of event distances: 20km (2 Valleys); 55km (5 Valleys); and 110km (7 Valleys). And while UTMB’s ethos and qualifying series seems to be about whittling down runners to the best of the best, the 13 Valleys is the exact opposite. The dream is that a novice trail runner – perhaps running the 2 Valleys as their first ever race – will get bitten by the ultra-racing bug and work their way up through the mileages to the full 183km challenge. The cut-off times are lenient to match this aim.

A large group of runners start a race along a gravel path. There is a race arch saying
A large group of runners start a race along a gravel path. There is a race arch saying

I was surprised to hear about the 13 Valleys’ intention to double the number of participants for 2024 compared to 2023. But this is not a sprint towards the scale and commercialization of the UTMB, more an honest desire to encourage more people to try their first trail run – most of the growth is anticipated in the 2 Valleys race, rather than the 13. Although, of course, they hope that a few more experienced trail runners will be tempted by the longest route than the select 68 people who began in 2023 (only 26 of those finished).

Within the local community, enthusiasm for the race is already brewing. Starting our run from Grasmere to Ambleside, we were dropped off at the 13 Valleys car park where the garden center cafe, 13 Valleys Kitchen, will be providing a feed station in this year’s event. All of the feed stations are preexisting buildings and catered by local businesses. Meanwhile, there are plans brewing to have real-time tracking screens at a number of bars and pubs in Keswick and Ambleside. Kong Running in Keswick are giving kit advice, and have a pre-packed demo bag in their store for what would pass a kit check. And with each competitor bringing an average of two-to-three supporters with them last year, the 13 Valleys Ultra is setting up to become a key event in the Lake District’s calendar.

More information about the 13 Valleys Ultra

When: 27-29 September 2024
Where: Keswick, UK
Distance: 182.58km
Total elevation: 7,000m+