Feel the dirt and enjoy the rough: there is a new sport breaching above the surface of traditional running events and it is selling out races around the globe. Welcome to the world of trail running.
The pace of human society is persistently gaining momentum. Back in the ‘good old days’ we had more time. When we were children even the task of making a phone call took longer as your finger methodically spun the dial on your old handset. Emails didn’t exist. Typewriters, pens and the postman did. When computers finally came along, children and staff fought over the one computer in the back of the schoolroom or office. Weekends were ours and didn’t involve social media sharing our breakfast and yelling, ‘what plethora of choices do you want this Saturday?’ Back then, when time passed slower, long bushwalking trips, remote camping and multi-day excursions were easier to fathom.
But now we are constantly hammered by information and activity. Our working days grow longer and tasks proliferate. Social media has excitingly expanded our horizons but with it the list of shoulds. Time and energy is of the essence. And it appears this fast paced lifestyle is beginning to take its toll on individuals and family units. Mental health issues are strongly on the increase, most notably, anxiety and depression. Mental health advocate, Beyond Blue, states that 1 in 6 Australians now suffer from Depression whilst 1 in 4 from Anxiety.
Exercise has become widely recognized as a golden way of helping to combat stress and anxiety. Walking still remains the preferred choice of activity, with 24% of the Australian population walking for health and fitness. Over half of active Australians prefer unorganized activities, with the most popular facilities used for participation being parks and reserves. Interestingly, long distance hiking trends are now on the decline. Has time and energy becomes more precious?
It appears so! According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of Australian’s jogging or running as a sport or recreation has doubled since 2005-06. Matching this curve has been the rise in running events. In 1971 the City to Surf Fun Run in NSW saw just over 2,000 competitors. By 1999 this figure had exceeded 50,000 competitors and by 2009 it had become the world’s largest fun run. It now attracts over 80,000 competitors, all of whom will complete the challenge whilst still making it back to the office by Monday morning.
But it appears that bitumen is becoming boring to many runners and there is an exodus towards the softer, damper, mud-crusted trails. Experienced Running Wild Trail Race Director, Paul Ashton has seen this movement away from the road.
“People have gone to charity events like Oxfam series and realized that enjoyment comes from running in the bush. It’s definitely a different market of fun runs and there’s a different camaraderie. You can be running with someone for hours and develop a friendship.”
From the outside looking in there appears to also be a trend towards more adventurous and naturally authentic activities. In the late 2000’s we began to see a growth of adventure tourism and fundraising adventures such as Inspired Adventures, TravellingFit, and Oxfam Trail Walker. Marathons exploring more exotic destinations began to pop up, including the Mt Kilimanjaro, Australian Outback and Antarctica marathons. Suddenly these exotic runs could be rolled into a family holiday with a difference. Dad or Mum could achieve something extraordinary whilst enjoying family time.
Outdoor storeowners are also starting to see an increase in sales of lightweight equipment for faster activities. In fact, Ultralight Backpacking is now a Wikipedia feature. And it appears every brand is trying to get their foot into the booming trail industry. Graham Hammond, owner of Find Your Feet, has noticed this change in his 16 years in the outdoor retail industry.
“The long distance, hardcore bushwalking scene is showing dwindling numbers. Individuals don’t seem to have the same time or focus. The brands we sell are shifting their focus away from the larger, tough-end of the market to a lighter, smaller and more niche focus. Trail running is huge! Many outdoors brands are now coming out with small running vest packs, lightweight trail shoes and minimalist rain wear. It is a very quickly growing area and an exciting time to work in the industry.”
In Europe and the United states the trail running scene is massive, and Australia is not far behind. Trail races such as The North Face 100km, Six Foot Track 46km, The Great Ocean Walk 100km and our local Tasmanian Endorfun Runs and Cradle 82km Ultra have extended waiting lists. It also appears that many runners new to the trails aren’t afraid of the longer distances either. Even the longest runs are now selling out in minutes and race organisers are constantly extending the participation cutoffs, with over 2,000 runners now participating in The North Face 100km in the harsh beauty of the Blue Mountains. Andrew Vize, co-founder of ultra running website Ultra168.com, has watched this growth.
“There’s no doubt that trail running in Australia and around the world is growing exponentially. Races are selling out in hours, if not minutes. Lotteries for 100-mile (160km) races with 8,000-plus people seeking 350 or fewer spots are now the norm.”
The level of competition at the top races around the country is fierce, especially as elite road runners like Marty Dent and Ben St Lawrence begin to try their hand at the sport. Dent used trail races such as the Kepler Challenge in New Zealand as his preparation for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games Marathon.
The rapid growth of trail running participants has required a growth in trail running coaches and experts. However, the role of the coach extends beyond training planners and trail running technique. Hanny Allston, co-owner of Find Your Feet, explains:
“My father always inferred that people who run are running away from things. I know I have used my elite running career in this way at times. Therefore, our role as coaches has to be to help people identify the stressors in their lives, rebalance hormones and find holistic health. If we can help our clients to achieve this, we know they can go on and realize their running potential.”
Find Your Feet has been on the forefront of this trail running boom. It started with small running groups in Hobart from The Running Edge and grew into a national business. Find Your Feet now provide tailored consulting on holistic running health and coaching services for newer runners and elites alike. They have hosted running camps and seminars around the country, from as far away as Hamilton Island and Mackay, and are the official coaching provider for The North Face 100km in May each year. More recently, Find Your Feet has seen a demand for non-competitive running tours, with trips to the East Coast of Tasmania and the Italian Dolomites selling out overnight. In November 2014, Allston and Hammond also opened their Hobart and online retail stores to service the national trail running community.
The rise of trail running is now being closely followed by a number of other European trail rivals. The sports of Skyrunning and mountain running are also on the increase. So what is it about trail running that is dragging individuals away from long distance hiking and running on roads? Allston explains:
“Trail running provides people with the ability to cover longer distances than traditional bushwalking and it also gets us away from the city environments. It gives us all enormous potential to explore, touch, smell, feel and generally get amongst it. We can also escape our office-bound environment and get outside to find a sense of challenge and achievement… but still be home for dinner with our loved ones.”
Tasmania has some exciting opportunities for trail running in 2015-16. Find Your Feet is looking to host a number of events on Mt Wellington whilst Endorfun has a trail running series throughout Tasmania’s wildest National Parks. Yes, this is the time to escape the daily grind, leave the concrete behind and find yourself a trail… you might just surprise yourself!