Defining dirty: what is trail running?

TrailRunMag 20.09.2012

[Editorial taken from Ed#6 Trail Run Mag OUT NOW]

Define trail running.

Box it in.

Put labels on it.

Do you need a mountain? How much single track? Does there have to be a trail? What about deserts? Is multi day included? Or eliminated because you ran through a village in Nepal

TRM#6 out now! Download your FREE pdf copy now by right-click saving the download linked to this image or go to for instructions on how to download.

Then, once you have squished your notion of trail running through a mincer of coloured ideology, package it, label it, hell, write the ingredients on the outside. Ah, now you have a product, all nice and controlled. Defined. Rigid. Now you can create rules around that. Guidelines, do’s and do nots.

Better yet, you can vote for people to ensure that their idea of trail running doesn’t step outside those bounds. To tell you: ‘Hey, easy, that’s not quite trail running what you’re doing there. Oh, and have you paid your membership yet? No? Not sure you are really a trail runner then.”

“And you sir, your event…have you got our approval of it? Does it abide by our regulations? That’ll be a grand for us to assess by the way. No? Well, then I’m not sure you can legally use that word ‘trail’ in conjunction with the word ‘run’ to openly discuss your ‘event’.

“We own that word pairing don’t you know? You need our permission to use it. We’re working on technology right now to police even your thoughts. So don’t even think about thinking you know what trail running is. Only we do.”

Yes, the angry trail runner (remember him from edition #1?) rears his head, prompted by news of the pompous-sounding International Conference of Trail Running. If I could afford that flight to Italy I may well have gone. But then I would have seen the stale stuffy lecture theatre they were discussing all matters trail in – readying the mincer if you will – and I likely would have gone trail running instead. Courmayeur must have some cracker trails, surely? (Wouldn’t that be a regulation requirement for any city hosting a trail run conference?)

Of course, I go off the deep end: the conference is all about the specific sport of trail running and how it should be managed as it moves from amateur and fringe to professional and, let’s swallow it, mainstream. Nearly.

One proposed definition as reported was: “A pedestrian sport with a ranking point open to all taking place mainly in the countryside without the use of technical equipment such as Alpine gear over a distance at least 20kms with a maximum of no more than 30 % tarred road.”

Now the pragmatist in me recognises that there needs to be some structure if the trail running community wants to advance the ‘sport’. But that definition is bollocks.

As Ultra 168’s Marcus Werner, who was at the conference, questioned at the time: “No vertical kms or short mountain sprints included in trail running?”

And there are many more omissions.

We run trail for varied reasons. Competitive types to win. And compare themselves against things: others, times, their past glories. And the key to scientific comparison is control. Standards to measure against. And when you bound out of those – hello Kilian’s Skyrun in the States, watch shortcutting those switchbacks, mate, tut tut – you get tripped up by the powers that be.

And I recognise the fact: even the hippiest of trailites wants to know who’s the best. And why. And there must be lines in the sand/dirt for that to be judged in any fair measure.

So I guess I’m not railing against the idea of a conference or putting some shape to the sport we love, I’m just saying, don’t put fences around the ideology of it. Don’t splinter the trail running community the way the paddling community is divided: you ever seen a bar room discussion between a sea kayaker and a white water kayaker? It degenerates into ‘you’re not a real f’ing paddler’ pretty quickly.

I’m sorry, they both have paddles in their hands and they both float on water in pumped up bathtubs. Ergo: paddlers.

And so, you step off a road, into the wilderness, singletrack, double track…whatever, you are a trail runner. If there is some form of raw earth underneath, you are a trail runner.

The rest is personal. It can be competitive. It can be spiritual. It can be for body or for mind. Whatever it is, trail running is yours. And mine. It’s not for administrators in lounge jackets pontificating on committees to determine.

As Matt Ward posted on Ultra168’s live online debate: “No one owns trail running, it is what it is and no body or council is able to define its path, this is 2012, not 1990. Of course there may be a Council which will be good in a way for guidance for race organisers and the like, but that will not stop hundreds and thousands of people just going out there and, basically, trail running.”

And from a man I like to call ‘Grasshopper’ posted recently on FB:

“When I hit the trail in the mountains, my body is in tune, humbled and content…When all else would assume exhaustion, pain and hardship – I find my body singing…like a lullaby to my baby…”

There’s a definition of trail running if ever there was one right there.

I say: Matt Cooper for President of the Committee for Trail Running World Domination.


The Anti-Establishment Trail Runner.
Chris Ord, AU Editor, Trail Run Mag

REMEMBER: EDITION #6 of Trail Run Mag is OUT! Available to download FREE HERE. 114 pages of dirty goodness.