Down & Dirty: Growth Is Good, But Growing Pains Hurt Trail Running

The influx of trail and other off-road races seems to be causing a backlash.

Sold-out events, lottery entries, waiting lists and qualification standards are nothing new in road races. But trail races, once a bastion of roll-out-of-bed-register-and-race tactics, are selling out faster than ever, with many premier ultra-distance races, such as the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100, using lotteries and developing qualifying standards. That’s in stark contrast to the everyman attitude and crowded course of the Leadville 100 — in such stark contrast that Hardrock won’t consider Leadville as a qualifying race after 2014.

Trail events, by their very nature, have smaller racing fields. Runner safety, logistics, land agency permits and environmental impacts all come in to play, often putting racing directors at odds with governmental permitting offices, leaving frustrated racers in the lurch. For example, the U.S. Forest Service allowed just 75 runners to participate in the inaugural Telluride Mountain Run held this past August in Colorado. A different route would have required feasibility studies, which don’t come cheap and are hard to justify given the limited returns.

Yet the numbers of runners and races continue to grow, especially as the definition of “trail running” becomes less concrete. Mud runs, hill races, ride and ties, mixed-surface events, mountain running, cross country and snowshoe races are all included in the numbers compiled by the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), which show over 90,000 runners participated in 450 events around the world in 2000. Compare that to more than 400,000 people competing in 2,702 events in 2012 and it seems like races should be less crowded.

RELATED: Take Your Workouts To The Trails

For many races that holds true, giving new off-road runners and age-groupers the opportunity to shine at getting down and dirty. But for elite runners, caché is king when it comes to selecting races. Challenging courses, cornerstone events, competitive racing fields and even cash purses drive those angling for podium finishes.

So just how hard is it to score an entry? Hardrock has just 140 starters, but more than 800 names are entered in the lottery. As for Western States, there are more slots, about 270 (the race is capped at 369 runners, but the additional spots are held for Montrail Cup Winners, international racers, sponsors, race administration and others) but more applicants. In 2013, a record 2,295 people applied for those 270 slots, compared to 583 lottery entrants in 2000.

Those major trail races had no choice but to implement qualifying standards this fall. That’s the state of the sport for trail running, but think for a moment if other marquee road marathons like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles followed the lead of the Boston Marathon and required qualifying times to get in.

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