Inside the War: Dispatches From a Ukrainian Race Director

Here’s how Ukraine’s trail running community is responding to the Russian invasion.

Photo: Courtesy Owl and Bull

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

This article contains descriptions of violence that may not be appropriate for all readers. Take care of yourself, and reach out if you need support. Organizations like Bigger Than The Trail provide free mental healthcare to anyone in need. 

On February 24, after Russian forces invaded Ukraine and ignited one of the largest conflicts Europe has seen since 1945, Trail Runner reached out to the country’s running community in support, to learn more about what’s happening on the ground, and provide a platform in solidarity. We quickly connected with Yaroslav Turenko in Lviv, western Ukraine, who is the race director for one of the country’s largest trail races, the Lviv Ultra-Trail series. Turenko is a passionate trail runner, volunteer, and photographer. Here’s what he had to say: 

Nicholas Triolo for Trail Runner: Can you tell us what it’s like on the ground where you are? What is the general sentiment of the Ukrainian people right now?

As you’ve likely heard, the worst-case scenario in Ukraine is unfolding. We are facing horrible acts of Russian aggression. They have invaded our country and have started to kill innocent people, bombing our cities, military, and civilian infrastructure. Their military is using the most inhumane methods: local populations used as human shields, women and children dropped off when attacking armored vehicles. The occupiers have killed children, shooting them at point blank.

These are war crimes. Crimes against humanity using tactical weapons of mass destruction, prohibited weapons, and ammunition. Many people in the world think this war is far from Central Europe, but a Russian missile was just dropped on a Ukrainian military base, located 24 miles (40 km) from the European Union border. 

We’ve lost unique Ukrainian works of art in fires, along with the largest plane in the world – Ukraine’s Antonov-225 cargo plane – destroyed by Russian strikes outside Kyiv. 

But Ukraine is united like never before; all of our internal political disagreements are in the past. All the Ukrainians inside the country and abroad are doing everything possible to stand up and give a proper fight to Russian forces. We ask the international community to stand with Ukraine. But we need international support. We need shelter for our families. We need to close off air traffic from Russia. We need equipment for our defenders and sanctions for Russia. 

Andrii Tkachuk, the world record holder in the 48-hour treadmill race and the national record holder in 24- and 48-hour ultramarathons, is currently defending the country in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

ukraine trail running
(Photo Courtesy of Owl and Bull)

TR: The city of Lviv, where you are, is located in the western part of Ukraine, far from the Russian border. Are you in any immediate threat? Are you in touch with people in Kyiv and other places currently under fire?

We are supporting each other, yes. Everyone in Ukraine can find shelter here in Lviv (pronounced “Luh-VEEV”). However, there is no guarantee that Lviv is a safe place, but right now we see a significant difference between Lviv and other cities in central and eastern Ukraine. 

Lviv is a hidden gem of Europe. It’s a charming, bohemian city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the city of cafés and pubs, and some surprisingly awesome trail running. There will be no more Lviv Ultra-Trail® until the enemy is defeated. Lviv is amazing, remarkably inexpensive by European and international standards, and I sure hope that the Lviv Ultra-Trail® will take place again.

ukraine trail running
(Photo Courtesy of Owl and Bull)

TR: Are you turning to your local trail running community for support right now? What can trail and mountain running do to help promote peace and understanding in the world?

We sent all the money from the Lviv Trail Running Club bank account to raise funds for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Other organizers and trail communities have done the same. All volunteers involved in initiatives related to this development are working with refugees, blood donation, first aid, and cooking food for large groups of people.

Andrii Tkachuk, the world record holder in the 48-hour treadmill race and the national record holder in 24- and 48-hour ultramarathons, is currently defending the country in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

We are kindly asking the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) and International Trail Running Association (ITRA) to ban all Russian race evaluation and certification. As far as we know, the Lviv Ultra-Trail® banned Russian runners after the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas and Luhansk regions. We are calling for the ban of all Russians from international events like the UTMB World Series, the Golden Trail series, and others sponsored by ISF and ITRA.

(UPDATE: Since publication, the ISF announced solidarity with Ukraine and prohibits Russian and Belarus athlete participation. Read the official statement here.)

ukraine trail running
Runners take off from the start like at the Lviv Ultra Trail event in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo: Courtesy Lviv Ultra Trail)

TR: Pivoting away from the invasion for a moment: How would you describe trail running in Ukraine to someone who doesn’t know much about your country? 

Trail running in Ukraine has been developing extremely fast. Every year, the number of events and participants has grown. Among the most popular trail running events are the Tvoya Prygoda Series, Fun Carpaty, Lviv Ultra-Trail, and Ukrainian Trail League series. 

Ukraine is a beautiful country with extraordinary nature and breathtaking landscapes, which makes it possible to run trails in nearly every part of our land, year round. The best place for trails, in my opinion, are the Carpathian Mountains, with some peaks above 6,500 feet (2000m) above sea level, with high humidity in every season. (Mount Hoverla is Ukraine’s highest peak at 6,762 feet). 

Serhii Popov is considered one of the fastest trail runners in Ukraine. He has won national trail and long distance mountain running championships almost every year since 2015, and took part in nine world championships. He is also an ultrarunner with the best national performance time in the Men’s 40+ age group for 50K and 100-mile road races. 

On February 24, Popov planned to fly to Spain, to take part in a six-hour ultrarunning event in Barcelona, with the goal to set another national record. But in the morning, he woke to bombing sounds from the Boryspil airport, where he was planning to depart a few hours later. 

“The first night we spent in the basement of our friends in Irpin, near Kyiv,” said Serhii. “It is right next to the Hostomel airport where fighting with the Russians just started. Explosions were so loud that the walls shook. This continued in the morning and we decided to reach the city of Zhytomyr, where my wife’s parents were, and our car. As soon as we got to the city, we realized the return trip was not possible, so we decided to stay there and do what we could. 

“I could not join the local defense forces. They are only taking people with appropriate combat experience, which I don’t have. So we went to shops and carried food and water to block posts,” Serhii said. 

“The city of Zhytomyr is preparing to meet the enemy. Everybody in the city is trying to help – building fortifications, collecting all the army needs. We often will hear sirens and sometimes the sounds of explosions. But mostly people are calm and ready to stand up for their land.”


UPDATE (3/1/22): The ISF announced solidarity with Ukraine and prohibits Russian and Belarus athlete participation. Read the official statement here.

There are many ways to support the people of Ukraine. Here are five recommended organizations to consider: 

  1. UNICEF Ukraine
  2. United Help Ukraine
  3. United Nations Ukraine Fund
  4. International Rescue Committee
  5. Nova Ukraine

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada