Snowboarders vs. skiers… Twenty20 vs. 5 day test matches… road cyclists vs. mountain bikers… ping-pong vs. table tennis: there are many, many examples of different tribes within a sport that have viewed – or still view – each other with suspicion and sometimes with unadulterated disdain.
Trail runners and road runners might just be another unhappy pairing where runners from one tribe tend to look down on the other tribe and hold their version of the sport in higher esteem. There is a great article in the current issue of Running Times magazine which describes the divide between trail and road runners as well as some of the fall-out that the influx of roadies into trail running has caused.
In my case, I try to straddle both camps, but I fear I don’t do it very successfully. I try to race a road marathon in the spring and another late in the autumn and then, since meeting my wife – who is an out-and-out trail aficionado – I run trail races during the summer. But if I have to say where my heart lies, if I had to choose one surface to run on to the exclusion of all others, I would have to pick the road… I still have unfinished business with 26.2 miles.
In many cases people manage to combine road running and trail running quite happily. In fact for many runners a year can contain road races, trail races, ultra marathons, triathlons, bicycle sportifs and any other manner of endurance sports. I classify these people as ‘fit for life’ by which I mean they use their fitness to compete at a whole range of different events.
But at the elite or sharp end of races, things start to change. In my experience athletes who challenge themselves to be the absolute best they can be and/or aim to compete at the best top of their field, specialise by necessity. For me, as someone who wants to see what I can achieve at the marathon, there is very little time, energy or emotional capacity for anything other than marathon training, which is pretty much entirely running with most of that on roads or flat grass. A 90 mile week, fitted in around work, etc, doesn’t leave time for much else.
The same is true for top runners from all tribes – track runners train on the track, trail runners train on the trails and so on. Sure, track runners do road sessions, road runners do track sessions, etc. But primarily you train on the terrain and for the distance you want to compete at.
But now the trail running community is being infiltrated by road runners and it is making for some interesting changes to the sport.
Not like the good old days
Trail running has traditionally had a different vibe to road running: times are not important. Trail race directors urge runners to stop and help fellow competitors if they find someone in difficulty. Competitors are expected to be more self-reliant, carry the things they need, including water and navigating courses that are not always obviously way-marked. Distances are often approximate. For many, many people on the start line of a trail race, the event is simply an excuse for being in beautiful countryside with inspiring sights – the same cannot be said for many (or even most) road races.
So the influx of road runners into trail races is an interesting phenomenon that not everyone welcomes.
Road runners on the trail
Stuart Mills, Lakeland 100 winner commonly known as Ultra Stu (check out his blog here) has found that there are more young athletes challenging him at the front of ultra trail races, and many of them are coming to trail races from the road.
There are a few runners that I know personally who have made the transition from the flat stuff, to the rough stuff:
Holly Rush, an accomplished road marathoner with a PB of 2:37:35 and international experience from the Commonwealth marathon in Delhi in 2010, has started racing the most ultra of ultra trail races in the last 18 months, including a multi-day stage race in the Himalayas finishing second behind the extraordinary Lizzy Hawker.
And in the Ring O’Fire race, a 131 mile three-day stage race around the island of Anglesey, Tom Payn, a former elite marathon runner with a best time of 2.17.29 from 2009, flew into the lead and smoked the field, even managing a sprint finish on the last day despite being three hours ahead of the runner in second place.
And away from my limited social circle, there are more examples:
Sage Canaday was a Brooks Hansen athlete who completed in the US Olympic Trials Marathon who made the switch to trail running. Trent Briney is another US runner, this time with a 2:12 marathon PB, who is going to race the Western States 100 race this year. Earlier this year, American Nathan Allen took part in his first ever trail race and won the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race 25K.
VHS vs. Betamax: is a choice required?
So what does all this mean? Well first of all, I doubt the influx of road runners into trail races will mean a massive change in the nature of those off-road events. Because of their locations, trail races usually have very limited field sizes – I certainly can’t imagine a London marathon-sized field of 37,000 people in a trail race – the bottle-necks would be a disaster for one thing!
The other thing is that in trail races there are less financial incentives than in road races, although with the growth in popularity of off-road running, there are some races with prize pots in excess of $10,000 in the US, so it is only a matter of time before the same happens in the UK and other European countries. But again, due to the restricted field sizes, I can’t see any trail race offering the winner a prize of $130,000 to match the first place prize in the New York marathon. This will mean that for those really hoping to make a living from their running, road races are still more lucrative and therefore desirable.
But I do think that runners with a very good road running pedigree are going to compete in trail races and start to shake things up a little. Those men with sub-2:15 PBs and women with sub-2:40 PBs have enormous cardiovascular capacity and leg strength. With a change in training to include more strength and technique for rough trails and some additional endurance runs, these ex-road athletes will have a very good chance of contesting the races at the very front.
There are sponsorship opportunities for trail- and ultra-runners so an athlete could make the switch and make a living. And runners who might have been finishing in the top-20 of big road races, whilst winning lower profile events on the road from time to time, could enter trail races with a much better chance of a podium place finish, which must be hugely satisfying.
Confession of a roadie
So where does that leave me? I am increasingly loving the trails and ultra-distance races. They are a chance for me to run with my wife, which we don’t do in road races. Trail races are most definitely less hard on the body. I also love the mountains and the countryside, so I love trail races for the opportunity to commune with nature. However, I have to say that for now at least, I think I have an appointment or two with the tarmac: if I can nail 2:35 for the marathon, I’ll consider quitting the road for the trails, I promise… well, probably!