Ten years ago, when we last examined the future of trail running – circa 2010 – we saw nothing but blue skies and snow-covered mountains. Our future looked bright. And that’s pretty much what happened – until it didn’t. We begin this next decade with a century worth of strife, doubt and disruption thanks to the pandemic. How could we have known?
As we cast our eyes upon the horizon, we will never forget this monumental year. The family and friends we’ve lost, the hard-earned careers and businesses collapsed, and our community ravaged by a worldwide pall of sickness and fear.
But on we must go, like the trail runners we are, one foot in front of the other.
When UltraRunning asked me to pen an article about the future of trail running for their 40th anniversary issue, I was honored and intimidated. I’m neither an oracle nor a scribe. I’ll do my best and hope at the very least that ten years from now, I got one prediction right: things got better.
The story of trail running can be conveyed by examining its head, heart and soul; the statistics, community and our “why,” respectively. Let’s predict how each tenant may evolve as we look forward with renewed hope, pent up energy and a burgeoning community of neophytes and veterans around the world.
Trail running has been growing approximately 12% year-over-year globally for over a decade. There are no signs of that trend abating. In fact, the pandemic has only accelerated interest in the great outdoors and trail running stands as one of several segments to benefit.
There will continue to be a disproportionate amount of growth in women participants for the next decade, as the sport attracts more runners from the road and walkers and hikers from the dirt. Women love trail running and their innate determination, pain tolerance and embracing of community provide a promising foundation for the future. It’s about time.
The average age of trail and ultrarunners is dropping. Once regarded of as a sport for those who had lost their speed’s edge, our sport is attracting some of the most gifted runners on earth. Granted, the ability to make a full-time career as a trail athlete remains elusive due to the niche size of the sport compared to its big brother and sister cohorts on the road and track. But, despite the shortage of funding, the allure of the competition and majestic trails will continue to bring increasing talent into the fold and records will fall.
Trail running has always thought of itself as welcoming and diverse. But there’s more to be done to assure inclusiveness of all, and our community is starting to step up. A decade from now, it’s predicted the diversity of the trail running community will look much different – and better. Efforts must continue to make the trails safer, our impact upon them and the environment less, and opening our arms and hearts to all comers.
For the veterans of trail running, we see encouraging signs of longevity. An increasing proportion of trail runners are able to run several decades. The proliferation of information across the internet, books, podcasts, videos and through coaches, trainers, PTs and masseuses, has taught the elder generation a thing or two about how to run long into their lives. This has spawned interest in new types of events including traveling overseas and combining races with vacations (“ultracations”?), over 100-mile distances, multi-stage events, team adventure racing, FKTs and self-designed adventures. As a member of this category, I can attest that my interest and enthusiasm is on the rise despite creaky joints, slower times and more frequent bio-breaks. The times they are a-changin’ and it’s great!
There will be a continued interest in local trail running clubs and associations. With an influx of neophytes each year, accessible and local information regarding anything and everything about trail running will be in high demand. Who better to serve this segment of community than the local trail running club?
Our community is shrinking even as it expands to new continents like Asia, Eastern Europe, South America and Africa. More than ever, trail runners are seeking new challenges – both in their own backyards – and abroad. Global friendships are forming, opening the door for learning new techniques, seeing expansive scenery, and having a friendly place to stay with a knowledgeable local in which to share the trail.
COVID-19 has disrupted many event organizers globally. This will cause many to fold up their tent in frustration or economic trauma. It will also attract others who will fill the temporary vacuum of demand outpacing supply. Larger established sports event operators will surely gaze upon our double-digit growth and seek to capitalize. The event organizer segment will become slightly more consolidated over the next decade, leading the way to high quality races, several trail series and safe and intriguing courses. This will attract the larger brands who, in turn, will help increase the ability for elites to make and extend their career as a professional athlete.
Our “why” as trail runners is as diverse as the terrain. We each have a personal quest – whatever the motivator – which remains at the center of our persistent participation and joy we extract from our community. Although our own reasons for trail running may evolve, what the community offers us remains constant, diligent and deeply meaningful. Thank goodness. And all we’ve got to do is assure the values upon which our community is built remain true.
My last prediction is the easiest, yet most complex: our motivation.
A central motivation of humans is to establish what’s real; to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and reality and fantasy. This motivation for the truth can be as important to humans as life itself.
Another central human motivation is to manage what happens; the motivation to control our lives. When we have the knowledge of what is good and what is evil, we can weigh different options that can vary in our moral attributes and then, control our lives.
The prediction? Trail running will continue to be a theater for life, motivating us to find our truths and control our lives. On that we can be certain.