Go Patriots! Go 49ers! Go Buccaneers! Go Broncos (yes the Broncos could use all the help they can get)! Did you find yourself silently cheering with me? Or against me? Did you put on the NFL jersey of your choice to show where your allegiances lie? Or simply put on the jersey that your family gifted you at Christmas and which you are expected to wear with stronger conviction than your own last name. You can’t be caught on game day by your family without your team colors. Especially not by grandma.
This is just American football, which pales in comparison to the zealousness of European “football.” Your identity, the characters you look up to for inspiration, the stars who know how to navigate the field and come through with the game winning play, exist on your team. Or at least you hope they do.
Perhaps you’re not a football fan (American or European). My guess is there’s still some sports figure whose story you relate to or admire. The Williams sisters drive from humble beginnings in Compton, CA, to stardom in the ritzy sport of tennis. Sir Lewis Hamilton overcoming pressures to “fit in” with Formula 1 traditions and style to find an authentic version of himself and become arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver of all-time, or Michael Oher’s rough upbringing with an abandoned father and addict mother to Pro NFL player (watch his story in The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock). You hopefully do NOT relate to Tiger Woods transition from a Tiger to a “Cheetah” (if you catch my meaning), but perhaps that is an example of how sports gossip can be entertaining, and for some, watching sports is worth it just for tabloid drama.
Taking Simple and Adventurous To Heart
Trail running fans? Yes, such a thing does exist and has for well over 100 years. Trail running’s fanbase is a small group, but it is world-wide and the people involved in the sport are a passionate bunch who typically enjoy post-race beers and aren’t afraid to get dirty in the mud. World Athletics estimates there are over 20 million trail runners worldwide. When compared to the fanbase and media deals worth billions of dollars in football, basketball, tennis or other major sports, trail running fans might go unnoticed, but that doesn’t mean this community doesn’t show its passion for the sport on the same level as any major sport.
There are a core group of trail running enthusiasts who wear perforated racing singlets to honor the iconic Jim Walmsley Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run look, or those who have created an Instagram meme page YaBoy Scott Jurek to poke fun at the sport in the name of one of its greatest legends, Scott Jurek or a lesser known but closer to my home in South-central Colorado, 7,000 Feet Running Company’s humorous spoof page, Dollar Store Anton, where shop owner Andrew Walker impersonates ultrarunning legend Anton Krupicka to bring a few laughs and excitement around the local trail running community in Salida, Colorado.
Additionally, more trail running stars are gaining mainstream media attention than ever before, such as Courtney Dauwalter, who landed herself in a conversation about overcoming personal demons and going into the “pain cave” on the world’s most streamed podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. Dauwalter’s presence on this podcast showed that the accomplishments of trail runners are not only appreciated by just those who run (or by those who know enough about the characters of the sport to create entertaining Instagram memes), but that such incredible feats such as Dauwalter’s 240 mile run across the desert and mountains of Moab, UT, to beat all of the men and women at the event by over eight hours, can inspire anyone. Not to mention Dauwalter’s bubbly personality that makes her a great ambassador for our sport.
Many elite trail runners I’ve met follow a simple “lather, rinse and repeat” with the way they carry themselves—do crazy things, speak about them humbly, and dream up new crazy adventures while downing a few beers with friends. This is the life of many of the best American trail runners. Who wouldn’t admire their simple, adventurous and fun spirits? There might not be as many people who know about the sport or the same amount of money involved, but those who know trail running, know why it’s cool.
Trail running is creating fans in different ways from most other sports because of its nature as a participatory sport. Participatory sports, as the name suggests, are those where the majority of fans participate in the sport instead of just watching it. Even on the largest stages in trail running, such as the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, UTMB (arguably the ‘Super Bowl” of trail running), participants share the same startline. Although elite runners are often positioned at the front of the pack, every runner shares the same stage and competes with each other.
This is different from the NFL Super Bowl or NBA Finals, where only a handful of select athletes have the chance to participate. Trail runners have the opportunity to race with their heroes such as Kilian Jornet or Sally McRae on the biggest and most historic stages in the sport—even if Kilian and Sally might be so far ahead that they could stop for lunch at a restaurant, play a game of pool, pull a few tabs, knock out a few rounds at the gym, and still have time to finish ahead of you.
It is also unique that many of the most important trail running competitions in our sport have become respected competitions because of their rich and unique grassroots history. Fans want to be a part of the history of their favorite races, or take part to ensure that these races continue on to the next generation. In the United States, many of the most historic races actually began as silly challenges or bar bets. Colorado’s Kendall Mountain Run was inspired by a 1908 barbet to see if it was possible to reach the Kendall Mountain Summit (13,066 feet) from the base town of Silverton (9,318 feet). California’s Dipsea race began in 1905 by a challenge amongst San Francisco’s Olympic Club members. The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run was originally a 100-mile horse-race until Gordy Ainsleigh showed up to the start-line without a horse and ran 100 miles on foot, inspiring others to do the same and leading to the first official Western States 100 footrace in 1977. Mount Marathon, held annually in Seward, AK, for the past ninety-four years, started on a bet between two “sourdoughs” to see if it was possible for anyone to summit the 3,022-foot Mount Marathon in less than an hour. The loser of the bet would furnish drinks for the crowd.
At their hearts, many of these grassroots trail races acquired fans mostly from their local communities, with a handful gaining mainstream exposure. Fans appreciate the rich history of these events and the life they give to their communities. There’s no such thing as a fair-weather Hardrock 100 fan. Those fans are hard-core and will stick it out to compete and spectate in any type of weather from sunshine and heat to snow and hail storms, knowing that they are a part of the tradition keeping this historic race and our sport alive. Most of these races also offer little prize money incentive for elite athletes and forgo large corporate deals that change the lowkey feel of the event. These races hold out from unnecessarily large SWAG bags or absurd amounts of course marking, blow-up arches and fencing that showcase the mentality: branding, branding and more branding. If you’ve ever attended a Spartan Race, you know what I mean. Races such as Mount Marathon offer no prize money to race winners, yet time and time again the event attracts exceptional athletes to make the trek up to Alaska to return home with bragging rights of conquering the world’s toughest 5K, as well as some bloodied knees.
The Future Of Trail Running Fandom
The low-key grassroots nature of the sport is changing. For better or worse, increased money and corporate involvement is bringing new types of athletes and fan involvement. Organizations such as Ironman have acquired UTMB (Did you see the extensive “light show” and 100-miles of branding Hoka One One and Ironman added into the event this year?). The Salomon Golden Trail Series has also been dramatically increasing prize money and paying for elite athlete travel and accommodation to their events to create marketable world and national series events for top trail runners to compete against each other across the globe.
The race director of Mount Marathon, Matias Saari, speaks on balancing the dynamic of holding true to grassroots history while moving forward, “Our race is ninety-four years old now and tradition is very important. It’s a small town and people from Seward and all around Alaska are intensely proud of this race. We’re “old school” and we’re going to stay “old school.” That said, the race is growing in popularity throughout the US and internationally. Big names in our sport, including Kilian Jornet and Ricky Gates played a large role in helping this race gain international attention and put the race on the map in 2015 when they came here to race. We recognize that there is growing interest in the race internationally, but we also want to balance this with tradition.”
Business machines are fully set to market trail running as a “big thing.” Elite athletes who might casually stroll for a croissant, saucisson or “du bon vin” in downtown Chamonix during UTMB weekend will need to wear dark sunglasses and big hoodies for fear of being recognized and overwhelmed with media attention and autograph signing. This already happens to a handful of athletes such as Jim Walmsely or Zach Miller at high-profile events. I can speak from experience that walking 100 yards from Point A to Point B at a trail race expo with Miller is slower than Los Angeles stop-and-go rush hour traffic. When Miller’s fans have found him, it’s going to be a long journey to get anywhere, maybe longer than the race.
Increased money in trail running has allowed for better media coverage and more spectators at racers. Just as fans watch ESPN to catch up on sports news, trail runners are looking for ways to be filled in on action from major trail running events. Much of this still happens through word of mouth, such as by talking with your trail running enthusiast friends or going to your local running shop. Runners also catch up on news through online publications such as iRunFar, Trail Runner magazine, Ultra Running magazine, popular YouTube channels such as The Ginger Runner, Seth Demoor’s daily running vlogs or VO2max Productions, and your humble ATRA Trail News feed. Freetrail is also another online platform that encourages fan involvement through Freetrail Fantasy (comparable to any other form of fantasy sports games) and fan voting for best trail runners of the year.
Podcasts are another great way to stay up on elite athlete news, training tips, and race stories. Check out our directory of trail running podcasts.
But of all the ways trail running fans are engaging in the sport, in the past two years, live-stream technology is all the hype and creating interaction amongst fans from across the world like never before. Live Streams of the Cocodona 250, received tens of thousands of views during its full 122 hour livestream. I can speak from experience being at the event (read my post-race recap here) that viewers were tuned in 24 hours each day until the 122 hour cut-off mark.
All the while, viewers entertained themselves in the live chat by commenting on the superpowers of race winner Annie Hughes’ signature bucket hat and the consensus agreed that she wore it better than Jim Walsmley at the Western States 100. Hughes, your fans have stuck that hat to your head for the rest of your running career. The more recent 2023 Bandera 100K livestream evoked similar viewership and hundreds of comments that prompted entertaining discussions from fans including:
- “Is the Santa Hat Kid here again?”
- “Canyon Woodward kind of looks like Scott Jurek after a month on Survivor”
- “I prefer nicknames over real names. Easy dog, Stringbean, etc.”
People engage with livestreams in playful ways that give color to events both on the ground and from wherever fans tune in from across the world.
Superhumans and Humans Conquer Mountains
Michael Jordan. Lindsey Vonn. Mia Hamm. Every sport has its super-athletes, and that’s one reason fans tune in to watch sports. Ask yourself, is there a sport you care about because of watching a particular superstar? For me, that’s tennis because of watching Roger Federer. His graceful footwork patterns position his body through dance-like motions into a powerful, athletic “ready position” charged with potential kinetic-energy. As the ball draws closer to him, he uncoils his body, unleashing this stored energy through his body and transferring it into his fully outstretched racquet to meet the ball in front of him. He carries his racquet with momentum through the ball and finishes the stroke with the racquet behind his back. It’s an art of timing, precision and graceful but deadly power.
Trail running super-athletes generate awe by testing the human limits in outdoor spaces in ways that few humans ever have. The human fascination with the challenges of “mountains” gives power to trail running athletes. Even those who don’t understand trail running, understand the difficulties of summiting mountains—let alone dancing effortlessly across precarious ridgelines such as in videos with Kilian Jornet (WARNING: these videos may evoke feelings of queasiness for those with a fear of heights or a dangerous “I want to do that too” attitude for adrenaline junkies).
I envision the “super-athlete trail runner pose.” Arms reaching out towards the sky, balancing the body. Both feet in the air, narrowly passing over a treacherously jagged chunk of granite protruding from the earth. The extended front foot lowers to the ground, perfectly finding the one patch of solid ground that doesn’t look like shards of broken glass or lopsided bumpy ankle-twisting rocks and roots. The pose is heroic. Anyone who hikes, runs and dances among the beautiful yet menacing mountainous and wild landscapes so effortlessly is a type of super-athlete that deserves respect. Even if you know nothing of basketball, watch Michael Jordan dunk a ball and you just know. Legend. Watch Jornet dance on ridge-lines. Legend.
Trail running has now been around long enough to where there are mythical legends, individuals who have pushed the sport to new levels, creating lore for fans to recount and retell. Matt Carpenter, Ann Trason, Anton Krupicka, Timothy Olsen, Anita Ortiz, and Ellie Greenwood are several among many American trail running legends who have established their names in the sport forever and helped define and change their respective generations in the sport. For some, their names will be etched into the history of particular races such as Carpenter at “America’s Mountain” Pikes Peak, for his eighteen combined wins at the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent races (twelve marathon and six ascent wins). In the trail running world, I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that it’s actually “Carpenter’s Mountain” not “America’s Mountain.”
Fans, particularly young fans, need trail running lore and characters to look up to inspire the next generation of trail runners. Seventeen year old trail running phenom, Sebastian Salsbury, who won the 2022 Nine Trails 35 Mile Run credits his early involvement in trail running to his role models in the sport such as 2011 World Mountain Running Champion Max King, and his access to videos about trail running that inspire him to one day run the Western States 100 and compete at the highest level of the sport. Two-time World Mountain Running Champion Joseph Gray, has also been outspoken on social media about the importance of showcasing himself as a black athlete in a white dominated sport, giving hope for other young black athletes to find their place in trail running.
In addition to inspiring super-athletes, trail runners also become fans of the sport for its humanness. Trail running is an inherently “raw” sport. Dirt. Sweat. Stinky shoes. Friends and family crewing their runners might see them in their lowest lows and highest highs. They take on tasks such as caring for exposed skin from chaffing or blisters, shoveling hot ramen in their mouth, and hoping it mostly makes it in, instead of making a mess all over their face (though a little food on the face is inevitable in trail running especially for those with beards), and perhaps even helping them put Squirrel’s Nut Butter in dark crevices of the body that no one expects will be touched in public.
But it is also helping these athletes through their lows to reach great highs that makes this sport so wonderful. Race director Craig Thornley has said that if more people spent time at The Golden Hour, the final hour before the 30-hour cutoff time at the Western States 100, the world would be a better place. I press him to explain more and he responds, “You see humanity. These are people with jobs, families and are not necessarily gifted athletically but I love seeing that struggle in the final hour. It’s this juxtaposition between human exhaustion and human achievement. If you’re not crying during the golden hour, there’s something wrong with you. It’s glorious.”
Trail running at its best transcends being a sport about winning or losing. It’s about the struggle and perseverance on a basic human level that we can all understand.
What Stories Do YOU Want To Hear?
Storytelling has the power to change sport. We as fans have the power to determine our sport’s media and the stories it tells, which in turn determines the kind of sport trail running will become. Pay attention to the most influential trail running media, such as Salomon Golden Trail Series and UTMB. The names “Maude” “Kilian” “Nienke” “Remi” or “Courtney” will be said tens of times in any of their video scripts and it’s no question that their story angle is centered around marketable race winners. Although it’s common for sports media to focus on winners, we shouldn’t forget that trail running has the potential to share so many other interesting stories. Here are a few that come to mind:
- Mira Rai, Nepalese child soldier turned professional runner who is inspiring women in Nepal to break out of traditional gender roles and become trail runners.
- Zach Friedley, professional adaptive athlete who inspired the Born To Adapt movement and is also a main character in Born To Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide
- Lucy Barthalomew and her commitment to physical and mental health, and a better world through sustainable nutrition – check out her cookbook.
- Rickey Gates, professional runner, who cares less about racing and more about embarking on creative running-related projects that help us better understand our country and cultures around the world with his poetic insights – check out his Projects Every Single Street and Transamericana.
- Stevie Kremer, professional runner who has been at the top of the sport for many years and has found balance between her elementary school teaching career and running life in the quaint mountain town of Crested Butte, CO.
- Dakota Jones and his focus on sustainability and inspiring environmental leaders in the trail running community – check out my interview with Dakota about his project, Footprints Running Camp, which leverages the trail running community to take climate action.
I don’t mean to throw the Golden Trail Series or UTMB under the bus, so to speak, but as our sport grows the mainstream trail running media will be expected to tell more traditional “winners perspectives” because that’s what’s been shown to most consistently attract viewership. But you as a fan can always demand more of your media. Seek out the most inspiring stories, whether that’s at the front or back of the pack. Encourage our media to tell trail running for the adventurous, resilient and human sport that it is and not just to tell another “win/loss” sports story. Stories such as that of Mira Rai or Ricky Gates are the ones that have “legs” and that you can hear, read or watch again and again to find inspiration for why you run trails.
Aside from being a fan on the outside, the absolute best way to become an instant fan of the sport is to be at a trail running race in person. Consider volunteering at an aid station for a local trail race. The trail running community is something special. You will experience the craziness, dedication, humor and raw sense of human perseverance from the front to the back of the pack. There’s no going back once you become a trail running fan. You’ll be dancing on ridgelines, running 100-miles and following trail running meme pages before you know it.