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Road running | Tar running | Participation increasesRunners participating in the Voet van Afrika Marathon, an event consisting of road and trail running in the same route. Picture courtesy of Jan Greyling from Agri Mega.
March 2015

Can track catch up with tar?

Trail and road running numbers are on the rise and suppliers and event organisers are experiencing a boom both in footwear sales and participation numbers. What is driving this popularity and will trail running be able to catch up with road? NELLE DU TOIT CLAASSEN spoke to industry members to find out

The attraction of the trail is continuing to gain popularity, with many South African runners following the tracks of trail pathfinders Bruce Arnett, Ryan Sandes, Ian John Don-Wauchope and Andre Gie, to name a few.

Trail running event organisers and footwear suppliers alike agree that over the past 3-5 years demand for trail running events and equipment has been on the rise.

But can the demand for trail overrun the road?

And, although they stem from similar roots, can the two disciplines be compared with each other? People in the industry don’t think so. “Although the athlete is running, that is where the similarities end,” says Nikki Andrew, marketing manager of the Impi Challenge. “The terrain is different, the demands on the body and concentration are different and the feeling is different. I would say a true trail runner will prefer the trail and choose it over road, wherever possible, while a roadie would still run trail.” Andrew continues.

One of the main differences between the two running disciplines is that they appeal to very different consumers — who would also be more likely to shop in different kinds of stores. The road runner will look for gear in sport or specialist running stores, while the trail runner will also visit outdoor stores for purchases.

“Trail and road running are two totally different markets,” says Rowyn James, race director of Comrades Marathon. “Trail running appeals to a higher Living Standards Measure (LSM) market through much higher entry fee prices and remote locations and so becomes inaccessible to the masses and lower LSM bracket found in road running events.”

“Your lower income bracket runner simply can’t afford to enter more premium trail events, or even have transport to these exciting, yet in some cases reclusive, venues,” Paul Copson of Brand-Identity, local Mizuno supplier, explains. “Then there are also the equipment costs — there are a lot of trail running specific equipment the experienced trail runner knows he has to have to keep himself safe on the trails.”

“Trail running also has a lot more land ownership and safety issues to deal with, hence the high cost and safety gear needed,” says adventure racer Graham Bird from the Mountain Runner events company.

For some it may be two completely different running styles and different markets. For others, however, trail and road running do, at times, overlap.

“We experience a cross-over of participation in both disciplines,” says Jan Greyling from Agri Mega, organizers of the Voet van Afrika marathon. “We believe that there is a definite overlap of interest within the two disciplines, which does make road running a winner in terms of mass participation. It seems that runners increasingly call for single trail and road combinations to get an occasional break from tarred and broad gravel surfaces.”

Road gets the numbers

When asked whether trail running could ever outperform road running in terms of participation and interest, the industry responded with a resounding no.

“Trail running has become more popular over the past few years, but road running will continue to be the front runner so to speak, as it is more convenient than trail running,” says James Mullen from PUMA SA. “Roads offer a convenient location for your outdoor runs as you have the option of running on roads near your home, work, or school, by simply stepping out the door.” He believes the remote location of many trails makes getting there a challenge.

“Road running has a longer history as the original form of exercise and due to more people living in big cities around the world, road running is far more accessible,” adds Gugu Ntuli from adidas SA. Trail event participation is furthermore limited because conservation areas will never issue permits for the large number of entrants in road events — for example, 15 000 in the Two Oceans Marathon and 40 000 in the Berlin Marathon, she says.

“Access to our beautiful trails is capped in terms of event participation numbers, therefore we won’t see thousands of trail runner participants in a single event,” Copson says.

This is done because too many runners can spoil the trail event for everybody. “The inclusion of technical trail sections and obstacles in events that have a high participant flow (number of participants passing a certain point in a certain time) very quickly results in bottlenecking and queues and downgrades the experience for the participant,” says Mark Collins of Magnetic South.

Trail organisers saw series stage events and competitions as a solution to the limited runners admitted, but again the majority of the runners are the same people running these series, Copson explains.

“Many athletes may aspire to getting out of the city and into the mountains, but road appeals to a broader segment of the population when you consider financial outlay, convenience and accessibility,” adds Jackie Moore of Salomon SA.

Safety issues

Safety is, however, one of the biggest concerns for trail runners and organisers hosting the races. “Trails present a number of technical difficulties, hence there are big safety issues to consider in staging trail events,” Copson says.

“Events that traverse remote wilderness areas simply cannot be managed in a similar way to a road running event, particularly when it comes to defining the course, managing the course and event safety,” Collins points out. “For example, people from emergency services that may be exceptionally efficient and effective when accessing patients with an emergency vehicle on a road, may be completely ineffective in accessing patients in the wilderness, to the point of being a liability to the event team, unless they are experienced and conditioned enough to be highly mobile on foot.”

“A well organised trail run event can be great fun and some organisers are working really hard at opening or finding new venues,” says Lehan Bornman of Traverse Outdoor Gear, a recent entrant into the trail running market with their Boreal trail shoes. “But, there are often lots of restrictions and access issues, which make sourcing these venues difficult and very costly.”

Safety is, however, not only a concern during trail events. “If you run in the mountain you need to run in numbers for safety,” says Farrer. “While running on the road, one is more visible on the road by motorists. I would therefore say better policing of trail paths will help the sport grow.”

Bad publicity of trail runners being mugged, for example, on Table Mountain, does the sport no favours, Miles O’Brien, Olympic brand manager at Jordan & Co. points out.

Trail is growing

On the bright side, there are lots of new trail events popping up and runners are migrating to trail as a new challenge, says Dawid Visser, Promotions & Training Specialist for Asics SA.

Trail running participation is growing, agrees Mike Farrer of Hi-Tec SA, and it is fuelled by the desire to escape the city and be part of nature. “It is also technically more challenging than road running and some trail runners believe you are less likely to get injured than in road running.”

“The fast pace of city living has resulted in people aspiring to get out of the cities on weekends and back into nature to enjoy the simple pleasures of life,” Moore explains. “Trail also provides a more exciting running option, with the freedom to explore endless new routes on varied terrain in a beautiful environment.”

Trail appeals to the youth, as we’ve seen many younger people running and wanting to have more excitement while running, Andrew explains. “Trail offers adventure and a constantly changing environment.”

Although many believe trail running will not outrun road running, some event organisers are so positive that they believe there is a chance that it may one day become as big as road running.

“I believe trail running will become as big as road running, as many young runners who have been road running want to try new things — and then get hooked,” says Andrew. “We see the growth more in Cape Town than in Gauteng.”

“In 2010 I introduced two trail races to the basket of Two Oceans events (21km and 56km events and fun runs) after I noticed the incredible popularity of trail running in the greater Cape Town area,” says James, who was the race director for the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon prior to becoming the Comrades race director.

The Otter Trail Run, referred to as “The Grail of the Trail”, sold out in 3 minutes for the 2015 race as opposed to 9 minutes for the 2014 event and 12 minutes for the 2013 event. “We have noted similar trends across all our trail events,” remarks Collins.

A few years ago Hout Bay’s Hedgie (Ryan Sandes) started breaking international records at the 4 Desert Race in 2008 and then went on to break a few more records whilst simultaneously changing South Africa’s perception of what breaking point in off-road running really means. This, combined with edgy sponsorships and branding deals, contributed to make trail running a very attractive discipline, especially for younger athletes in the Cape area.

Today, runners such as AJ Calitz, Stuart Marais, Landie Greyling and Kane Reilley dominate the tracks and are becoming as well-known as road champions.

Both growing

The growing running appeal, however, is not solely seen on the trail. Road running has been enjoying a renewed interest, and some compare it to the global running boom experienced in the late 70’s to early 80’s.

“Literally every weekend there is a road race around the country, showing year on year growth of entrants,” says James. This year’s Comrades Marathon attracted an entry field of 22 453 runners — a 10.6% increase from the previous year’s 20 301 entrants. “2015 will have the second biggest entry field in the Comrades’ illustrious 90-year history.”

While the growth in trail running can be linked to the lure of nature, O’Brien believes the greater interest in road running is due to a desire to keep fit and stay healthier. “It’s obviously easier to just go for a run, than plan which trail routes to follow,” he says.

“There is growth in both markets,” says Ntuli. “Road due to the increased popularity — especially amongst women and the younger population — which is seen in more people running in races. The trail scene has steadily increased each year, with more race options from single events to multi day/stage races. People enjoy being outdoors and running in scenic areas. Often these routes are exclusive and not open to the general public.”

Globally, road running still dominates, “due to the bucket list marathons and the ability for roads to cope with the sheer number of participants,” says Farrer. But, trail running has seen excellent growth, even though the very nature of running on protected tracks, which can only handle a limited number of foot traffic, will reduce the participant numbers.

He believes that the growth in “social fun races and events, such as the colour run and Impi Challenge, which attracts the more urban audience, corporate groups and average runner/entry level run walkers who don’t feel intimidated”, contributed to the popularity of running overall. These races are not aimed at the competitive athlete, but they have gained a huge following, he says.

“Road running has shown a growth over the past few seasons, especially amongst ladies participating, as well as an increase in participation over the shorter distances, like the 5km, 10km and 21km races,” says Mullen. In terms of trail running, he believes “the state of the sport is on the right track at the moment and fairly healthy.”

Selling shoes

This running boom has been good news for road and trail running gear suppliers and retailers. The majority of footwear suppliers, however, say that their sales figures indicate that road running still far outsells trail running shoes.

“Commercially there is a vast difference in volume of road shoes sold vs trail,” says Ntuli. Apart from the much higher race participation numbers, she also believes people buy more road running shoes for other activities, for example, going to the gym.

But, Hi-Tec says their customers purchase trail, as well as road running footwear, for casual wear as well as running.

“There is definitely an increase in overall trail shoe sales and we even had to introduce newer models into the market,” says Visser.

They have experienced consistent growth in road as well as trail running shoe sales over the past three years, says O’Brien. He ascribes this to the desire to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

Although South Africa has long attracted international trail runners to our tracks with events like the Otter and PUFfer, to name a few, when it comes to a recognised national sport with a governing body, trail running is still an embrio.

In February 2013, Athletics South Africa (ASA) gave the nod for the first ever national trail running championship, but suppliers believe this has had no impact on trail shoe sales.

The national sport status also did not affect participation numbers as the events only affects the top 10% of participants, explains Owen Middleton of the Wildrunner event organiser. “It has, however, increased the attention from the media and sponsors.”

With national sport status the next step will be to introduce a regulatory body. “Trail running does need some form of regulation, but without the politics sadly prevalent in road running,” says James. “Trail running events will also need to conform to the Events Act promulgated in 2010.”

The sport will have to be careful that it is not seen as a quick money making scheme, he cautions.

“I would like to see local council and the National Parks boards help continue to create more safer marked trail routes with improved security,” Copson adds.

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