2021 Marks The Year Trail Running Gets Its World Championships

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On  November 11, 2021, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, four international running organizations will come together to present the first-ever World Mountain and Trail Running Championships. It’s an historic moment for trail running. Organizers hope it will become a biennial event.

The week-long gathering will feature four high-profile races, ranging from a short course of 12 kilometers, a mid-distance event of 40 kilometers, and a long course of 80 kilometers, and a very short, steep vertical race. All distances are still approximate, as race organizers determine the final layout for the courses. Each competition will include significant prize money for at least the top five male and female finishers in each race. In addition, there will be a junior race for young adults, and several races organized by age groups.

Organizers hope that 100 or more countries will be represented. Each country’s team will be chosen by that country’s national governing body. In the United States, for example, a 34-member team will be selected by a Mountain, Ultra and Trail council that is part of USA Track and Field, USATF. (USATF also selects athletes for Olympic running events.)

Nancy Hobbs, the Executive Director of the American Trail Running Association, is chairperson of the USATF council. “It is a great opportunity to bring these events together at one venue,” says Hobbs, “I’m very enthusiastic about this inaugural World Trail and Mountain Running Championships, and we plan to have a strong presence with team USA.”

Nancy Hobbs, Executive Director of the American Trail Running Association, and Joe Gray, another automatic member for the 2021 U.S. team.

The council plans to announce the team on October 1st. Because they are defending world champions, three U.S. runners are already on the 2021 team: Joe Gray, Grayson Murphy, and Jim Walmsley.

For his part, Gray has always been excited about representing the United States, something he has done since 2008. “Every year there is a level of excitement as you don’t know what type of talent you may see jump to the front of the pack. The start lines are filled with versatility,” he says. “This year’s venue in Thailand will be special as it is a country I’ve never been to. My father has shared stories of his experiences there with the food, culture and even the terrain so I’m curious to get over there and explore myself and continue to represent Team USA to the fullest.”

Four organizations came together to make the November World Championships a reality. They include World Athletics (WA), World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), International Trail Running Association (ITRA) and International Association of Ultrarunning (IAU). The latter three organizations have in the past held championships of their own.

We’ve been talking about this kind of event for decades,” says Dale Garland, race director of Silverton, Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. “Finally, our community has come together to host a celebration of our sport, culture and competition.

In the past, the latter three organizations have hosted international championships. By coming together, organizers hope that they will achieve a critical mass of athletes, brands, media and fans to create a new marquee event for the trail-running world.

Notably, World Athletics is the international governing body of running. That organization sets the guidelines for each country to select its teams for sports that are in the Olympics, and for biennial World Championships for sports like trail running, which are not part of the Olympic Games.

“We’ve been talking about this kind of event for decades,” says Dale Garland, race director of Silverton, Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. “Finally, our community has come together to host a celebration of our sport, culture and competition.”

So, what changed? The notion of a single world championship has been percolating within World Athletics for some time. The organization had noticed trail running’s consistent growth and saw an opportunity.

Behind the scenes, the organizations worked together to create a unified event. For the past six months, Bob Crowley met with a World Athletics official every three weeks. “As the President of ITRA, what I care about is growing trail running and keeping its values intact,” says the 64-year old entrepreneur and investor from Fair Oaks, California. Crowley became ITRA President last April. Trail running continues to grow. The sport has seen 12% annual growth, according to the ITRA, which anticipates even greater growth as a result of the global pandemic. The values Crowley cites are integrity, humility, fair play, respect and solidarity.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe called the event a “significant milestone in the growth and recognition of this exciting running discipline.” Coe won four medals over the course of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games, including a gold medal in the 1500-meter event.

Organizers are referring to the week-long event as a “festival,” and plan to include exhibitions, seminars, film premieres, coaching instruction, gear demos and a chance to meet top athletes.

“It will be a global celebration of both trail running and our community,” says Crowley.

Recreational runners are encouraged to register and take part in the races.  In April, the World Championships will launch a website so runners from around the world can select tour packages and register for races.

Chiang Mai is situated about 700 kilometers north of Bangkok, on the banks of the Ping River. Organizers hope the mountainous surroundings, the region’s growing reputation for outdoors sporting events and its ample capacity will provide a strong setting for the world championships.

Will Thailand be in effect the first-ever Olympics of Trail Running? “Right now, it’s as close as we can get,” says Crowley.

Will 2021 be the inaugural year for a new, unified trail-running world championships series?  Crowley certain hopes so. “The world’s best athletes and tens of thousands of fellow runners coming together is going to be very meaningful,” he says. As the globe slowly emerges from a global pandemic, the ITRA President sees the November event playing an additional role, too. “It will be a comeback celebration!”

There are still questions, however. Will top brands and athletes shift their focus to include the Thailand championships? Crowley is both hopeful and bullish: “Because it’s the only World Championships of trail running, expect that countries will want their best trail runners to be there, brands will want their athletes to take part, and athletes will want to be there as well.”

With World Athletics behind the event, and all the key organizations that have previously held their own world championship coming together, will Thailand be in effect the first-ever Olympics of Trail Running?

“Right now, it’s as close as we can get,” says Crowley.

Doug Mayer is a contributing editor for Trail Runner, and lives in Chamonix, France, where he operates Run the Alps.

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