From the Growth of Trail Running to Environmentalism

By Susan Farago – August 1, 2013
Photo by Susan Farago

The first annual Estes Trail Ascent—Trail Running Conference was held on June 20 through 22 at the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. The event offered a full two days of seminars, a vendor tradeshow, networking opportunities, and prize drawings that raised money for the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to represent and promote trail and mountain running. The conference concluded with a 5.9-mile trail race showcasing the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

Event Director Terry Chiplin created the conference as a way to bring the trail running community together. Said Chiplin, "Trail running has seen exponential growth in recent years and is poised to become one of the most popular outdoor active pursuits in the United States; this event is the first of its kind to be dedicated to our growing and dynamic sport. This conference will seek to set out a strategy for the continued growth in trail running in the USA and beyond."

Over 100 attendees represented all areas of the trail running community, including: recreational and professional trail runners, race directors, land managers, sports medicine professionals, trail gear vendors, media, running clubs, and non-profit organizations such as ATRA. Ten moderated, panel-style sessions took place over the two days, and topics ranged from nutrition, injury prevention, and altitude training to trail accessibility, trends in gear, and trail blogging/social media. However, the biggest discussions revolved around the growth of the sport, trail conservation and land management, and “greening” trail race events.

Since its formation in 1996 as a member of the USA Track and Field organization, ATRA has seen the trail running community explode as more races and runners take to the trails. Nancy Hobbs, ATRA executive director, has been tracking this growth and provided these statistics:

  • The number of trail races rose from 450 (2000) to 2,667 (2012)
  • The number of race participants increased from 90,105 (2000) to 326,098 (2012)
  • The number of brand new races grew from 25 (2000) to 233 (2012)

In 2013, the number of trail race participants continues to grow to an expected 350,000, with an average of 345 participants per race. Overall, the trail race community comprises 844,560 active participants. Trail running, long associated with “ultra” distance races (31 miles or longer), is also seeing a shift in its identity. In 2013, there are 341 trail races classified as ultra, whereas 1,859 trail races are available in shorter distances ranging from 3.1 to 25 miles. Adam Chase, editor for Running Times Magazine, believes trail running has become so popular because it brings people from all sports backgrounds. Said Chase, “It is a simple, accepting, warm sport where everyone feels welcome.” Although trail running is an individual sport, it is that sense of community that many runners feel creates such a strong draw to the sport.

No doubt the growth in trail running has had a positive impact on the health and fitness of many people. But what does this growth mean for the trails? Trail conservation and land stewardship was another big topic of discussion at the conference; there is a shift occurring from that of environmental conservation to preservation. Katie Blackett, CEO of the Colorado Mountain Club—one of the largest recreation/conservation organizations in the United States—said, “We are loving our trails to death.” Trails are being closed for a variety of reasons, including issues with erosion, wildlife corridor encroachment, and funding for maintenance of these spaces. Her solution for working toward managing future use of these trails is five-fold:

  1. Get involved with local land management organizations, such as offering to set up a study group for land usage.
  2. Create “smart trail systems” that can anticipate potentially heavy usage yet still have minimal impact on erosion, wildlife, and human maintenance (time and dollars).
  3. Learn land respect, which includes staying on established trails, striving to leave no trace of garbage or usage, and honoring wildlife and habitats.
  4. Give back and volunteer time to earn a place at the local or national level for land stewardship decision making and policy setting.
  5. Partner with multi-use groups (such as equestrian, mountain bikers, and hikers) to organize multi-use plans for trails.

The call to action for trail advocacy is awareness: “We all need to band together for access to the trails,” said Blackett. How this will shake out remains to be seen as groups continue to vie for more access to already limited resources.

Dovetailing with land stewardship is how to make trail running races “green.” The definition of “going green” has evolved from simply recycling trash to supporting climate and energy initiatives, community involvement, inclusion, procurement, and sourcing. ATRA provides an event standards document on their website that includes a section on Environment Awareness—tips to make any event more environmentally friendly ( Austin’s own Women on the Trails Race Series, presented by Trailhead Running, earned the Council for Responsible Sport certification in June, 2013 and announced their certification at the conference.

Being the first race series in the nation to earn this certification, they shared with conference attendees what they did to make their women-only trail series more responsible: no cups on the race course, but water provided; no packet pickup bags; optional giveaways and handouts available at packet pickup for runners to take only if they wanted; a carpooling e-mail so participants could rideshare; detailed bike maps and bicycle parking for each of the race venues; partnering with the YMCA camp in Buda, Texas to bring greater awareness to the facility; and providing a mapped 5K trail for YMCA programs to use on an ongoing basis. To date, 55 different events have achieved certification from the Council for Responsible Sport, serving over 755,000 athletes in the process.

The second annual Estes Trail Ascent—Trail Running Conference is tentatively scheduled for October, 2014 and is a must-attend for anyone interested in or affiliated with trail running (


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