5 Issues Facing Trail Running

By: Brian Metzler

If you have any involvement in trail running, you know that the sport is at a crossroads.

It’s grown considerably since the early 2000s and has exploded since last spring’s Covid-19 shutdown sent people scrambling into the outdoors in search of new forms of exercise. On one hand, the growth has been great for shoe companies and race directors, boosting sales of trail running shoes and apparel as well as participation in races. On the other hand, the sport faces challenges and growing pains as it adjusts to the growth.

Here are five important issues facing trail running in the U.S. from an industry point of view.

1. It needs more brand support

One of the ways that trail running can continue to grow is to garner more large, high-profile brands to invest time, money, attention and development in the sport. Brands like Salomon, Altra, HOKA, Inov-8, La Sportiva, Ultimate Direction, Nathan, and Raid Light, for example, have been all-in for many years with good products, sponsored athletes and involvement in big races. Adidas-Terrex, Brooks, Craft, Nike, Scarpa, Rabbit, On and The North Face are among the brands that have been putting more of a focus on trail running in recent years.

While the sport certainly could use more running brands dedicating more marketing and sponsorship dollars to the sport and its athletes, trail running also needs to have organizational structure and greater exposure to attract non-endemic brands like Advil, Subaru, Whole Foods, United Airlines and Beyond Meat, for example, to continue to raise the profile and legitimize the sport.

“It’s nice to see more big brands coming into the sport and investing in the sport,” says Greg Vollet, manager of Salomon’s elite international trail running teams. “I hope it will continue to help grow the sport and attract a larger audience. If you look back 10 years ago, very few brands were investing in the sport and it was much smaller. So the more brands invest in the sport, the more the sport will grow and everyone will benefit from it.”

2. It needs competitive races with prize money

When American runner Hayden Hawks, a HOKA-sponsored athlete from Utah, placed fifth in the extremely competitive 54K OCC race in Chamonix two weeks ago, he won a duffel bag and a small trophy made by a local artist. That race doesn’t award any prize money, nor do any of the seven races in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) festival of races that attracts 10,000 runners. Fortunately for Hawks, he ran even better last week at the European Festival 100K in Poland and took home a $26,000 winner’s paycheck. But that size purse is an extreme rarity in the sport. Ironically, that’s about the same as the entire allotment of prize money in USA Track & Field’s Mountain Ultra Trail seven championship races in 2021.

The 50-mile championship of The North Face Endurance Challenge offered a total prize purse of $30,000 for 12 years, but that race went away after 2019. As of this year, the largest purse is the $75,000 being offered at the Sept. 17-18 Run Rabbit Run 50- and 100-mile races in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Why is prize money important? It draws competitive fields, helps legitimize the races and brings more attention to athletes, who can then make a living at the sport and help promote it as professionals. However, sme opponents say adding prize money would necessitate having to introduce drug testing, which is probably true.

“We need to promote the sport in the U.S. with races that have competitive fields,” says Fred Abramowitz, one of the co-founders of Run Rabbit Run. “Competitive fields attract interest and competitive fields allow people to start relating to the athletes, and when they start following those athletes, the athletes wind up getting better sponsorship deals and there is more interest in the sport.”

3. It needs more high-profile races

Right now, the two highest profile races in the U.S. are the Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100. They’re very small, however, and hard to get into, with Western States having a permit for 369 runners and Hardrock maxing out at about 145. Western States is typically very competitive at the front of the race with 20 strong runners in the men’s and women’s fields, but at Hardrock it usually comes down to about five runners on each side. That’s partially based on how the lotteries work at each of those races.

There are hundreds of other great races, but only a handful have more than 500 entrants — a factor tied to land-use permits that limit many races, and as a result, the sport in general. No doubt it’s more expensive and more challenging than ever to put on trail races, but from a 30,000-foot view, the sport is challenged by having no real structure or hierarchy to trail running in the U.S. outside of the smallish championship race series that the USA Track & Field Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) Sport Council sanctions every year. Longtime USATF MUT chairperson Nancy Hobbs does a great job organizing and promoting the sport, but without a hierarchy of top-tier competitive races — for both ultra and sub-ultra distances— the most popular races in the U.S. will always be regional events or part of a quasi-national circuit like those in the Spartan or Xterra series.

How do you develop more high-profile races? The same way the Marathon Majors and track and field’s Diamond League series do: with prize money and guaranteed entries for athletes in the elite fields, not to mention more livestream coverage like UTMB and possibly TV coverage for the biggest events. (If you’ve been around the sport for a while, you’ll recall that the 1994 Leadville 100 was broadcast as part of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.) Those aren’t small tasks, but if professional bowling, competitive cornhole and poker championships can attract TV audiences, so, too, can trail running.

4. It needs the UTMB + Ironman integration to be a success

On the face of it, UTMB and Ironman are somewhat strange bedfellows. But that’s the partnership that will be growing and advancing trail running on an international level for years to come. Beginning in early October, the impact of that partnership between the UTMB Group and the Ironman Group will become apparent as they jointly announce the locations of the UTMB World Series races for the 2022 season.

Instead of the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) points qualifying system and the Ultra-Trail World Tour that has existed for the past several years, next year will require runners to participate in events owned by UTMB/Ironman in order to qualify to run in the world championship events in Chamonix. The new series will also include 30 races worldwide, including three continental championships — known as UTMB World Series Majors and held in North America, Europe and Oceania — that will funnel into the 2022 UTMB World Series Finals in Chamonix, France.

Although the news of the partnership was met with mixed reactions last spring — perhaps because some runners are afraid of the change and the unknown of how the new events could impact the racing season — it could be just what the sport needs. Ironman has experience with event organization, sponsorship and TV-quality content production — all things that trail running needs at the top of the sport.

“I think it’s a great next step,” says Dylan Bowman, an American trail runner sponsored by The North Face and Red Bull. “The UTMB is already the Super Bowl of ultra trail running. It will be good for increasing the standardization and professionalization of our sport. I think the UTMB Group is a fantastic organization and has the best interests of our sport in mind and I look forward to seeing what they do as they put it all together. It’s not to say it won’t be without challenges. I’m certainly looking forward to more announcements of where the races will be, how the organization will be structured, and how I can set up my race season based on that structure. There’s still a lot to learn, but I’m excited about the future.”

5. It needs to become more diverse and inclusive

With an estimated 20 new million participants since 2010, trail running has been one of the world’s fastest growing sports, according to ITRA. Prior to the pandemic, the sport had been seeing an average growth rate of 12 percent per year for the past several years, according to the International Trail Running Association.

With more events selling out quickly — especially given the limited number of events that have come back after being canceled in 2021 — there is a sense of excitement that’s not unlike what happened with marathoning from the late 1990s to the mid-2010s. But like the early days of the original running boom, the sport is still mostly made up of white men. It could desperately benefit from more focus on diversity, equity and inclusion to attract different genders, races and ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, cultures and sexual orientations — both for local and international credibility and as also a catalyst to growth in yet-untapped segments of the population.

Fortunately, there are plenty of grassroots efforts helping that growth happen — including Project Inspire Diversity (Joe Gray), Native Women Running (Verna Volker), Adventurous Natives (Angela Tadytin), Latinas Run (Maria Solis), Mount10Ultra (Bryce Denton) and Trail Sisters (Gina Lucrezi) — and the American Trail Running Association (ATRA) and the U.S. Trail Running Conference have started to put more focus on it.

“I know and see the impact that Trail Sisters has made in building confidence and education for women in this space, and am so excited to create a more formal partnership intended to enable Trail Sisters to continue their growth,” says Michelle Duffy, associate marketing director for Life Time’s Off Road Events, which includes the Leadville Race Series. “Together we look forward to bringing more women into the sport of trail running.”