Don’t let stories of meandering trails through meadows of wildflowers and along babbling brooks deceive you. Despite the bucolic settings of many of their runs, trail runners are a competitive bunch. From beating the clock against the trail and the fickleness of Mother Nature — think trudging through shin deep snow in June or rerouting a run due to an imperialistic skunk — trail runners like to test their mettle against themselves and other runners. As the number of trail runners continues to grow — according to the 2012 State of the Sport report from USA Running, trail running experienced a 7.8 percent growth, although the record rate or sold-out races suggest it’s much higher — so to does the number of trail races.
Road races are usually able to accommodate hearty growth, but trail races, by the very nature of single-track terrain, runner permit caps and other logistics ranging from parking to porta-potties, often reach maximum capacity at a few hundred runners.
“In the environment where we’re racing, too many people would be detrimental to the experience,” says Dakota Jones, race director for the new Telluride Mountain Run, a 38-mile mountain running race debuting in Colorado’s San Juan mountains in August. “We are capped at 75 racers for the first year. Would I have liked more people? Definitely. But we want to focus on running the race with the right number of people to maximize the experience.”
Jones says the TMR sold out within a week. While that’s great for race directors, it frustrates runners who recall the early, grassroots, roll-out-of-bed-and-run days of trail racing. Many races have turned to lottery entry systems, but, for events with open sign up, racers feel the need to sign up immediately just to hold a spot. That leaves runners like Chris Keleher of Aspen, Colo., wondering which came first, races being capped because of demand or the cache of the cap creating the demand.
Jim Harman of EX2 Adventures in Virginia says his races have been selling out for the past five to six years. “As much as I enjoy putting on new, fun events, the demand needs to be there for a new race,” he says.
Harman is launching the Fountainhead Off-Road Half Marathon/10K in June because his racers asked for it, and he had the opportunity to put together a course that has never been used before.
“People are looking for something new and challenging, but doable,” Harman says. “We are delivering a great course, with the our laid-back vibe – no cash purse, no cut-off times and we never run out of food.”
At the opposite end of the racing spectrum, Ian Golden, who puts on the Virgil Crest Ultras, wanted to create a high-profile event with a tantalizing $12,000 cash purse to match. The result is the Cayuga Trails 50, a grueling 50-miler on “some of the most beautiful terrain I’ve run,” Golden says. He worked with the county tourism board to secure a grant, which enabled him to create an event he could promote on a national scale. He also helped it become a regional championship race in 2013 and the USATF 50-mile trail championship for 2014.
For those concerned with the changing face of trail running, like substantial cash prizes, Golden acknowledges that some change is unavoidable, but it isn’t necessarily bad. “It forces discussion, in a changing and dynamic scene,” he says.
As for the growth of trail races? “Trails are limited in the number of people they can handle,” Golden says. “The natural momentum is for there to be more races.”
Just as in road racing, many trail races have a charitable bent. New for 2013, the June 2 Hardscrabble Mountain Trail Run 5k/10k, in Westcliffe, Colo., was created as a fundraiser for the San Isabel Land Trust, Palmer Land Trust and Norawas de Raramuri (aka Tarahumara Indians from Copper Canyon in Mexico), while preserving the grassroots feel appreciated by racers like Keleher.
“Our online registration is closed, but we absolutely welcome race-day registration,” says race organizer, Kristie Nackord. “We want people to bring their families, run alongside the Tarahumara and experience a wonderful day in this beautiful place.”
While trail racing is evolving, race directors are naturally preserving the genuine, often quirky nature of the sport. Whether you want to race a classic or try something new, run a 5K or an ultra or raise some money and enjoy the views, there is a trail race for you.
Check out our race calendar to find your next event.