World Athletics “Run Wild” Webinar Discusses The Future of Trail Running

Earlier this month, World Athletics broadcast “Run Wild— Mountain and Trail Running: Capturing New Frontiers,” a live webinar that included impactful discussions amongst leaders in the Mountain, Ultra and Trail (MUT) running communities. The webinar was hosted by Mass Participation World and moderated by Chris Robb.

Speakers included Jonathan Wyatt, 6-time world champion and President of the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), David Callahan, partner at UltraSignup, Catherine Poletti, President of The UTMB Group, Janet Ng, President of the International Trail Running Association (ITRA), and Richard Bolt, USATF Mountain and Trail Running Team Leader among a dozen other prominent names in our sport.

The webinar lasted just over three hours and covered topics including the economic and social impact of large trail races, the postponement of the first combined World Mountain and Trail Running Championship, an introduction to the WMRA World Cup, and the “Trail To Net Zero” sustainability project.

Don’t have time to watch the full webinar? In the following article, I highlight key moments from this discussion that will impact the future of our sport.

Run Wild

Run Wild moderator Chris Robb.

What’s The Scoop With The World Mountain and Trail Running Championships?
Originally scheduled for this November 2021, the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships fate became uncertain during the coronavirus pandemic. This championship will mark the first combined mountain and trail running championship sponsored by World Athletics. In the Run Wild Webinar, Thapanee Kiatphaibool, Tourism Authority of Thailand, spoke with Alessio Punzi, Road Running Manager at World Athletics, about the postponement of the championships until November 2022.

Punzi said about the decision, “Many countries would not have been able to enter Thailand this November. That was the main reason we made this decision. We could have hosted a World Championship of some sort, but we decided that it wasn’t appropriate with a limited number of countries. We were also not able to make the necessary set visits to Thailand prior to the event and the decision has been made to postpone the event until November 2022.”

Thailand Trail and Mountain Running

The World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) World Cup: The Most Prestigious Race Series in Mountain Running?
The WMRA World Cup, which was founded in 1999, aims to bring more competition and attention to mountain running as a global sport. Jonathan Wyatt, President of the WMRA explained how the World Cup has grown in the past two years, “There are more top runners wanting to be a part of the World Cup. It’s having more prestige and in our very commercial world, we’re finding that elite athletes are having World Cup races included in their contract bonus structures. More races want to be a part of the World Cup.”

Wyatt also discussed how World Cup races are different from other competitive trail races, “The credibility of our organization and being a part of World Athletics is appealing for races. This World Cup is about inspiring the next generation of athletes. Seeing runners compete against each other and battling it out week in and week out is a positive image for our next young runners.”


Photo: Marco Gulberti.

Should Trail Running Be An Olympic Sport?
In the webinar, a panel discussion was dedicated to exploring global growth trajectories in off-road running. Speakers included trail running leaders across the world including, Clark Gardner, President of The African Otter Trail Run (South Africa), Diego Zarba, Managing Partner of Patagonia Eventos (Argentina), Janet Ng, ITRA President and Hong Kong 100 organizer, and Richard Bolt, Mountain and Trail Running Team Leader for USA Track & Field.

The speakers were presented with many questions, including the “hot topic” everyone is curious to know the answer to: should trail running be an Olympic sport? Clark Gardner spoke on this question from his perspective in Africa, “The Olympics would go a long way to incentivize the attraction of trail running, and would perhaps draw athletes away from road running. Part of the reason we don’t see many African runners dominate trail running like they do the road marathon is that the money involved in the two sports is extremely different. Appearance fees are nonexistent in trail running and prize money is much more in large road races. The Olympics would go a long way to attract more trail runners and grow the sport. If this happens, I hope that we can still retain the authenticity of our sport. Overall, I am all for trail running in the Olympics.”

Run Wild

Trail running newcomer Peyton Thomas at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

The History of Trail Running in The United States. Where are We Headed Next?
Also included in the discussion panel about global growth trajectories in off-road running was Richard Bolt’s analysis of the history of trail running in the United States and where we’re headed next.

Bolt said on this subject, “The story of trail running in the United States dates back to races in the early 1900’s, with major growth happening in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. This growth occurred in many different geographies across the country and was largely disconnected. Places such as Colorado, California and New England saw major development of the sport. Much of this growth was fueled by runners that were interested in escaping the large crowds, corporate influence, and the many rules that were common in road marathons and track and field. There was also a growing interest in environmentalism and connecting with nature. Also, unlike some track and field, cross country or road running events, trail running featured more opportunities for women to race the same distances as men.”

Bolt shared his thoughts on the recent growth of trail running and how he predicts this growth will continue, “Even though small community events are typical in the United States, there are so many that if all of them were able to increase in size by 50%, that’s a lot of new participants. Incremental growth will come and there’s a lot of room for that, even if there aren’t as many large events with thousands of participants like we see in Europe.”


Women’s start at the 1921 Dipsea hike in California. The event was called a “hike” to escape an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) ban on women competing in long-distance races.

Bolt also spoke on growth not just in terms of increased numbers of participants, but also in minority inclusion; a key discussion topic at this year’s US Trail Running Conference, “There’s room for growth with underrepresented demographic groups. There’s a lot of interest in the US to bring younger athletes, women, and minorities to the sport. There’s also been a recent shift to making trail running more attractive to different body types, it doesn’t have to be a sport just for skinny people.”

Bolt also saw the United States as leading in terms of the innovation of our sport, “We are inventing new ways to race in the US. We see growth in quirky events such as the Barkley Marathons, and 200 mile events that are now becoming the thing to do. We also see relay events like Ragnar Trail and multi-day events such as what TransRockies has done. There’s also Backyard ultras, Last Person Standing competitions, and the list goes on. All of these innovations are coming from small events on the local level and then being adopted in other parts of the country. Overall, the United States is seeing growth in people racing, in previously under-represented groups and in new event formats.”

Colorado based Kriste Peoples (front, center), founder of Black Women’s Alliance and ATRA advisory board member.

How Athletes and Race Organizers Can Use The ITRA Race and Athlete Ranking Systems
ITRA offers two major tools, a “Race Evaluation” and “ITRA Ranking” for runners and race organizers across the globe to use to improve their trail running experience. ITRA has over two million runners in its “Runners Ranking” database, as well as over 4,000 race organizer accounts, and 165 countries represented.

Janet Ng, President of the International Trail Running Association, explained the purpose behind these two tools in the webinar. Ng first spoke about the Race Evaluation,“We came up with a way to organize a race’s difficulty based on distance and elevation gain. This way runners can best find their race that suits their preferences and ability. Organizers will also have a way to calculate the difficulty of their event and advise participants accordingly. Organizers might also also use this ranking to determine what level of necessary experience should be required to compete in their event.”

Ng then went on to explain the ranking system and its many uses, “Our ranking system is very user friendly and can be filtered on different criteria, for example different distances, age groups, country, and continent. This ranking system is not only recognized by the global trail running community but is also recognized by World Athletics as the official ranking for trail running. Many national federations use our ranking system to select runners for their national teams. Sponsors use it to choose their sponsored athletes. Race organizers use it to see which elite athletes to invite to their events.”

How Trail Runners Can Become Climate Activists
Sustainability initiatives are increasing in the global trail running community. As a result, the US Trail Running Conference and UltraSignup are pioneering ways for trail runners to become more involved protecting the trails they enjoy running and racing on.

Terry Chiplin, Event Director for the US Trail Running Conference, gave a presentation on a recent survey conducted by the Council For Responsible Sport, on the main factors of climate change produced by trail events and how we can mitigate this damage. “Participant travel is the elephant in the room. This is the largest source by far of climate changing emissions for events. Everything else in terms of putting on events amounts to less than two percent of the overall emissions. Apart from limiting event travel, carbon offsets are the next best solution to reducing emissions from participant travel.”

Chiplin went on to explain how carbon offsets can be easily incorporated in the trail running community, “According to our survey with Council For Responsible Sport, the cost per capita of offsetting race travel emissions for trail race participants here in the United States is $3.80 per participant. With such low additional cost, race organizers have a great opportunity to pass responsibility on to their runners to choose for themselves if they want to be responsible for their emissions.”

David Callahan supported Chiplin’s initiative and shared how he is using the UltraSignup platform to encourage carbon offsetting, “UltraSignup is in a unique situation as we are the largest trail running registration marketplace in the world and because of that we have access to trail runners in the early stages of their journey when deciding which races to pick and register for. We have a chance in the registration flow to present them with opportunities to actively engage in their carbon footprint. The goals are to provide education to the community to better understand carbon offset options and the impacts of those options.”

2021 US Trail Running Conference attendees. Photo: Peter Maksimow.

Are you interested in watching the entire Run Wild webinar? You can watch a replay on the Mass Participation World Facebook page or view it below:

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