Saturday, October 30, the 2021 US Trail Running Conference came to an end in Fayetteville, Arkansas. After three days of activities for event directors, the conference’s annual “Trail Runner Day” included presentations and panel discussions to help trail runners learn more about the sport they love.
The day’s first activity was a group trail run on the Centennial Trail System located near the conference venue at the Fayetteville Town Center. The run was hosted by the Fayetteville Parks and Recreation and Ozark Trail Running Club.
The day’s first discussion panel was “What does the Future of Trail Running Shoes Look Like,” moderated by Adam Chase, President of the American Trail Running Association (ATRA). Speakers were Mike Ambrose, Salomon Product Line Manager, Dave Dombrow, hyper performance trail brand creator Speedland, and Dan Feeney, Manager of Biomechanics Research at BOA.
The discussion began with the hot topic of “supershoes” that have raised the issue of “mechanical-doping” in recent years, or shoes that allow athletes to perform much better and run faster than they otherwise would without the shoes. “I think every company will soon have a super shoe for the trail if they don’t already have them.” said Dombrow, “What does a trail supershoe look like? I don’t think it will act like a road supershoe. Trail running will influence specific designs and create a much different conversation about things like carbon plates, foam, etc. than what’s going on in road running.”
Feeney added to this discussion on supershoes, “A lot of road supershoes are like a Swiss army knife that can be used for many race distances such as a mile, 10-kilometer race, or marathon. A trail running supershoe might cater much more to the specific task and there will be different shoes for short distance uphill or Vertical Kilometer races versus ultra marathons. Trail running is not linear and there will be innovations to improve not just speed but things like agility and more evolutions of materials that work well on technical terrain.”
Ambrose contributed to this conversation as well, “It can be harder to know what innovations are needed on trail versus on road,” said Ambrose, “trail supershoes may focus on things such as enhanced grips or stability features. The key will be figuring out what problem we are trying to solve, whether it be to run faster or farther and meeting the specific needs of the runner.”
The conversation also covered the question of what trail running trends will look like in the future and where the “pendulum” of innovation will swing next. “Marketing messages tell us there is a pendulum that steers innovation, but I’d encourage us to think differently,” said Feeney. “Over the past thirty years runners have found that they need a quiver of shoes based on whether they need to run faster, longer, on more technical terrain, etc. In the coming years, there will be evolutions in all shoe trends (natural, minimal and maximal) and I encourage runners to get off the marketing pendulum and wear what works best for them.”
The next panel was “Empowering Climate Action Champions.” Speakers were Keaton Smith, board member of the Urban Land Institute Northwest Arkansas, Eric Fuselier, environmental scientist at Olsson, and Chis Zair, Director of Trees Not Tees. The discussion addressed how climate change is affecting us as trail runners and the beautiful places we run.
“How many of us are parents? How many of us care about increasing insurance rates? How many of us think New Orleans, New York City, or San Francisco are nice places to live or visit? We’ve all got a stake in this,” said Smith, “it doesn’t take some sort of special person to be a climate activist, just someone living on planet earth.”
Fuselier added to the discussion of what it takes to be a climate activist, “Trail runners are already environmentally minded and all you need to be a climate activist is passion. Promoting more living landscapes, perseveration of lands you run on, support organizations in your community that address climate change. The desire to make sure the world is better off for our children’s children is the real key.”
Zair shared his thoughts on this topic of climate activism and his hopes for the future, “Climate activism shouldn’t even be seen as activism but just the right thing to do. Carbon offsets should just be something that is the ‘done thing’ just like tipping at a restaurant. There needs to be a social movement where everyone is doing the right things and don’t have to specifically think of themselves as activists.”
Next up was the discussion panel, “Maintaining a Healthy Body For Trail Runners” sponsored by InsideTracker. Speakers were Tim Steen, registered dietitian, Derek Lee, Physical Therapist and Co-Founder at Rise Physical Therapy, and Jeff Kidahl, writer, author, publisher, researcher, and epigenetics performance testing visionary of Performance Medicine. The panel gave different perspectives on ways to maintain a healthy body during trail running.
“Athletes come to me extremely fit but not healthy,” said Kidahl. “The number one problem we see is not enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is the key to everything else in the body and not getting enough sleep can throw off your balance of cortisol and melatonin.”
The panel discussed the idea of balance in a healthy lifestyle. Lee shared his thoughts on this topic, “There has to be a balance between stress and rest. Your strength gains will come from the rest portion. Anything we can do to improve the rest period will bring us balance. You need good physical and massage therapists who know your body and how it responds to your training. This way they can prescribe you the right stretches and mobility routines that will make you a more efficient athlete.”
Steen gave his thoughts on balance, “I think of a balanced, healthy body in terms of inputs and outputs. Your race performances and ability to carry out your daily task as the outputs. Inputs include things like nutrition, supplements, environmental exposure (pollution as well as tobacco smoke). The average trail runner or athlete often lacks some of these inputs. I see many clients who need to clean up their diet. They often don’t know the effects of potentially dangerous compounds, such as sugar or alcohol, and how much of these compounds they are taking in.”
The panel also addressed the growing fields of nutrition testing such as Inside Tracker and epigenetics testing and how these affect health and trail running performance. Steen spoke the importance of epigenetic testing, “There are many options available to consumers now for epigenetic testing and the research is getting better and better. We use IntellexDNA, which can help you better understand genotypes and genetic tendencies that may affect your health. The most important thing is to find a qualified professional to interpret the results of the testing. Genetics is at the root of health and performance.”
The day’s fourth panel was “The Importance of Trail Running For Mental and Spiritual Health.” Speakers were Misty Gigliotti, nutrition coach and HIIT Instructor, and Sarah Strong of Fireweed Counseling, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and ambassador with Bigger Than The Trail.
The panel addressed the healing power of nature, “The simplicity is healing,” said Gigliotti, “having an appreciation for the beauty of nature, noticing the smells, sounds, and textures can put you at ease. Think of it as a chance to take in and appreciate something beautiful and process whatever it is that day you need to get through that day.”
Strong added to this discussion on nature, “The ability to see patterns in nature can teach us many things. I think of how seasons such as fall and winter show that nature rests. It reminds us that we are a part of nature and should have rest in our lives too. There is also no perfection in nature and we find beauty in these imperfections, yet often expect ourselves to be perfect. Nature often reflects back the messages we need to hear.”
Strong also introduced her organization Bigger Than The Trail, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that is using trail running as a platform to advocate for mental health. The ambassador program is growing and includes 125 members across 34 US states and four Canadian provinces.
Following a short lunch break was the “Women’s panel.” Speakers were Meghan Hicks, iRunFar’s Managing Editor, Paulette Odenthal, race director and Road Runner’s Club of America (RRCA) and Joanna Carr, The Ultra House founding member and Research and Policy Director with the Arizona Housing Coalition.
The panel discussed why more women should get involved in trail running, “Women are really good at this sport and that’s a reason women should participate,” said Carr. “Women have shown incredible mental strength and grit in this sport. Trail running gives women a platform to break down some of the social platforms that have defined women for centuries. There are social expectations that a woman should be polite, submissive, and quiet but through trail running women can show they are strong and incredibly capable. That’s powerful. We can take that power to run farther, complete ultras and do other amazing things in our lives.”
The discussion shifted to barriers for women into the sport. Hicks shared a study iRunFar completed with Runner’s World magazine on this topic, “In this study, we found five key obstacles: time, finances, perceived safety issues, actual safety issues and lack of community. The lack of the community may be the largest obstacle. Women feel that they lack access to community in trail running. Women love to do leisure activities with friends much more than men. When they don’t have access to the community aspect they are less likely to participate in the sport.”
Odenthal added to this discussion of barriers, “You can help take down barriers by being supportive of the women in your life. Be positive, present, real, transparent and be there for the women in your life. Some women may have feelings of inadequacy as a runner and it’s important to have women come together with a goal and have groups.”
The next panel was “Increasing Diversity On The Trails— Runners of Color.” Speakers included Kriste Peoples, founder of Black Women’s Alliance and ATRA advisory board member, Maria Solis, founder of Latinos Run and Jay Tinsley, member of Black Men Run Phoenix.
Peoples shared how trail running can empower the Black community, “Trail running isn’t for everybody but I want everybody to see us out there. We need to break down the barriers that say this sport is a “white people thing” and seeing more and more black runners out there breaks that down. Trail running can help create belonging, visibility and connection for the Black community and is better for the sport. It lifts up the community.”
Solis engaged with how health issues have kept Latino runners from running trails, “Our community has the highest rate of health issues in the United States. Lack of information and the language barrier for Latinos are some of the biggest things impacting our health. Trail running and being physically active outside is one of the best things we can do for our health.”
Tinsley shifted the discussion to the topic of how to get more Black athletes involved in trail running and the obstacles they might face, “Historically, our community has focused on shorter distances and sprints. Part of the reason we created Black Men Run in Phoenix is to shift the mentality that we can run on trails and complete ultra distance races. Getting more Black runners on the trail will make them feel more comfortable on the trails and doing things they never thought they could.”
The day’s final panel was “Increasing Diversity On The Trails— LGBTQ+ and Adaptive Athletes.” Speakers were Zachary Friedley, adaptive athlete, and Patti Flynn, queer trans woman and Senior Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consultant with Equality Institute.
Friedley shared his upcoming projects to increase participation of adaptive athletes in trail running. “I will be working with the Born to Run group and Chris McDougall to host the first ever Born to Adapt for adaptive athletes and athletes with disabilities. This will be a major opportunity for adaptive athletes to reach a broader audience and compete amongst each other. This is an exciting time to be in the trail running community.”
The panelists discussed the issue of visibility for minorities such as the LGBTQ+ and adaptive communities, “Adaptive athletes don’t have visibility at trail races,” said Friedley. “Adaptive athletes are often forgotten about and their stories from races not told, even if what they accomplish at these races is incredible. Races need to give opportunities for adaptive athletes to podium and be seen. It will also take a lot from race directors to be more proactive on social media at featuring adaptive athletes and more diverse imagery.”
Flynn also spoke on this point, “When race directors are putting on events, they need to make sure they are involving folks from the communities they are looking to include. Race directors won’t have the perspectives or understand the needs of these communities unless they are willing to sit down and listen to those in these marginalized communities. Above all for the LGBTQ+ community, I think it’s essential that you respect the gender that your runners say they are.”
Friedley shared his thoughts on what the trail running community can do to support building diversity in the sport, “We’re just looking for a seat at the table in conversations. That’s all we’re trying to do. We just want to have the same opportunities as others and to contribute our needs to the discussion. As a group, we can make our sport at its best.”
The conference concluded with closing statements and farewells from event director Terry Chiplin who left us with the fine words of Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jay Korff, “We share an ethos of gratitude to a planet that gives us majestic paths to contemplate and cross. Whether dancing over dirt, rocky and roots, in solitude or with friends old and new, we finish more alive than when we began. We are trail runners.”
See even more “Trail Runner Day” photos by Peter Maksimow on Google Photos.
The 2022 conference will be hosted next fall in Snohomish, Wahsington. Stay tuned for registration information and we look forward to seeing you there!
In case you missed them, check out our videos below from the first three days of the 2021 US Trail Running Conference and hear what attendees were looking forward to learning.