[Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Adrian Stott, a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. A former international ultra-athlete, he has been involved for several years with Great Britain team management and is a member of the Ultra Running Advisory Group for the British Athletics Federation. He also blogs at Runnersaresmilers.com.]
The 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships at Innsbruck-Stubai, Austria, received a lot of coverage, reaching a much wider audience than ever before.
It was the second edition of the world championships featuring a new format combining mountain running with trail running. But while the combined World Mountain and Trail Running Championships is a new venture, mountain running and trail running have a long history of world championships.
In this article, we focus on how the Trail World Championships event has evolved from the first edition in 2007 and how, in recent years, the lines between mountain running, trail running, and ultrarunning have, at times, both been blurred and clarified.
The Birth of the Trail World Championships
Historically, with the global growth of ultrarunning, the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) aimed to coordinate championships at the classic ultra distances of 100 kilometers and 24 hours. Successful championships under the patronage of both world and regional athletics federations, at both world and European levels, were held over 100k from 1987 and for 24 hours from 1990 onward.
With the growth in ultra-trail running, in 2007, the first Trail World Championships, of approximately 80k, were staged by the IAU. At first, the Trail World Championships were scheduled for every two years.
The fledgling event was low-key and held within an open event in Huntsville, Texas, on December 8, 2007. It attracted around 30 international runners, some supported by their federations and some partly funded. Some 172 runners competed, 128 men and 44 women. The inaugural champions were Norimi Sakurai of Japan for the women and Jaroslaw Janicki of Poland for the men.
This event was not a very technical course and did not attract many dedicated technical trail runners. Sakurai and Janicki both had good road ultra backgrounds. Sakurai had the then second-best women’s 100k time of 7:00:28, clocked when she won the IAU world 100k title in 2007. Janicki was a former winner of the Comrades Marathon and had twice been on the podium at IAU 100k events with a personal best of 6:23:34. Nevertheless, it was a beginning.
Two years later, in 2009, at the Serre Chevalier ski resort in France, on a more technical European course of 68k with 3,500 meters climb, a stand-alone race saw 46 international runners take part. The French, who were to figure heavily in all future world championships, took their first medal when Thomas Lorblanchet won the men’s crown and Cecilia Mora of Italy took the women’s title. Lorblanchet was a four-time winner of the French Les Templiers race and had also won the Leadville 100 Mile. Mora was a regular and successful competitor on the European skyrunning circuit.
On the podium behind him was Dawa Dachhiri Sherpa from Nepal, also a former Les Templiers champion, and a UTMB winner. Behind Mora was Britain’s former mountain running and skyrunning world champion, Angela Mudge, and multiple-time UTMB winner and former IAU 100k world champion, Lizzy Hawker. The scene for the future was set. Technical mountain runners and trail runners were now attracted to the event.
The beautiful Connemara region, on the west coast of Ireland, was the venue for the 2011 race. France, through Erik Clavery, retained the men’s title and the country achieved the double when Maud Gobert took the women’s crown.
LLanrwst on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales staged the 2013 event. Nathalie Mauclair ensured France retained the women’s title, while Ricky Lightfoot was a popular home winner for the Great Britain team. Lightfoot had to be persuaded to stay for the prize giving. Then, as now, he held down a full-time job with the British fire and rescue service, and needed to be back home for a shift the following morning!
Numbers steadily climbed to around 100 as more federations supported the event. The world championships introduced a team element. The U.S., with other countries, sent full teams of men and women for the first time.
The Trail World Championships Take Off
Some 229 runners took part in the 2015 race at Annecy, in France, the event taking off in popularity that year. Again, an existing event at the MaxiRace at Annecy incorporated the world championships. An open race of several hundred runners set off a little later.
Nathalie Mauclair repeated her women’s win, and Sylvain Court again made it a French double when winning the men’s race. Spain’s Luis Alberto Hernando finished second.
Beginning with 2016, the IAU tested a new format, with a Trail World Championships event held annually, alternating each year between races roughly 80k and 40k in length.
To kick off this new format, the 2016 event travelled to Northern Portugal, centering on the town of Braga. Luis Alberto Hernando claimed the first of a hat trick of individual wins for Spain on a testing course. Caroline Chaverot improved on her silver medal 12 months earlier to stand on top of the women’s podium again for France.
My abiding memory of this championships is the sound system breaking down just after the French ladies’ teams received their medals and their wonderful anthem, “La Marseillaise” was about to be played. Undeterred and encouraged by their enthusiastic team management, the entire French squad and assembled supporters gave a rousing rendition without the help of a musical accompaniment. This Brit and others caught up in the magical moment added their hums.
The year 2016 also saw the IAU work closely with the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) for the first time. ITRA had evolved to try and coordinate the now ever more rapid expansion of trail running at all distances. It was a natural progression that benefited all.
The 2017 Trail World Championships was the first time the event was held over a shorter-distance course in Italy, at the Trail Sacred Forests event at Badia Prataglia. More federations were sending teams, and women’s entries surpassed the 100 mark for the first time. Over a 50k distance, Luis Alberto Hernando retained his title for Spain, and the French, this time with Adeline Roche, maintained their grasp on the women’s crown.
The year 2018 saw a return to a longer race of 85k, on the dry trails of Penyagolosa, Spain. Finishers topped 250 for the first time, Luis Alberto Hernando claimed his hat trick of wins, but Ragna Debats of The Netherlands broke the French dominance of the women’s title.
In 2019, the championships returned to Central Portugal and the charming setting of Miranda do Corvo. Britain claimed their second men’s title through Jon Albon, and Blandine L’Hirondel ensured normal service was resumed for the French, by taking the women’s title in the 44k event.
Combining the Trail World Championships and the World Mountain Running Championships into One Event
While the Trail World Championships was growing, the Mountain Running World Championships, run for the first time in 1985, was already well established as the home of top international competition in the mountain running category.
And, since around 2017, World Athletics, the overall governing body for running activities, understood the growing and disparate nature of the trail running scene and the complementary existence of the mountain running scene. They were quietly but determinedly working with the IAU, ITRA, and now the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) to establish joint, federation-led, world mountain and trail running championships.
Alessio Punzi, Head of Running and Mass Participation at World Athletics was a key driving force along with Sarah Rowell at WMRA and members of both the IAU and ITRA.
The first combined world championships, now called the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships, were originally scheduled for Chiang Mai, in Thailand, in the autumn of 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic led to their postponement until February 2022. They were then further delayed to November 2022 courtesy of other administrative challenges.
The combined championships, going forward, were to take place every two years and doing so, host four races, two each in the trail running and mountain running disciplines:
- Trail World Championships 80k
- Trail World Championships 40k
- World Mountain Running Championships Up-and-Down race
- World Mountain Running Championships Uphill race
Despite the delays, an ongoing continued reluctance of some people to travel, and COVID-19 interruptions making selection issues challenging for many federations, the 2022 event was deemed a great success.
The U.S.’s Adam Peterman, continuing his great year after his Western States 100 victory, was a runaway winner of the men’s 2022 Trail World Championships 80k while, you guessed it, France, with Blandine L’Hirondel, was a similarly emphatic winner for the women, her second-in-a-row title.
The 2022 Trail World Championships 40k competition saw a victory for Norway’s Stian Angermund. In the women’s race, Romania secured their first medal in a trail world championships event with a win for Denisa Dragomir.
The year 2023, thankfully, saw a return to normality post-COVID-19, with travel and visa restrictions now fully lifted for many. Notwithstanding environmental concerns, there was an acceptance that global travel was safe again. Because the 2022 event in Thailand was actually a rescheduling of the 2021 edition, the already-planned 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships, went on as originally scheduled.
The staging of the new format championships in the European heartlands of mountain running and trail running was eagerly anticipated. The Innsbruck-Stubai region in the Austrian Tyrol proved a stunning backdrop for the races. With 300 participants in the 2023 Trail World Championships 80k, 350 in the 2023 Trail World Championships 40k, and more federations sending teams or individuals, the overall competition was strong in both events.
In the 2023 Trail World Championships 40k, Norway’s Stian Angermund retained his title after Great Britain’s Thomas Roach had led for the first half of the race.
Clémentine Geoffray from, you guessed it, France, ensured another rendition of “La Marseillaise” at the awards ceremony.
The 2023 Trail World Championships 80k, in hot conditions, on a traditional Alpine course, again saw French domination, with victories for both Benjamin Roubiol for the men and Marion Delespierre for the women.
The Future of the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships
As has been evident in other sports as they grow and develop, there is a need to balance the reality of a growing commercial presence from some serious operators with the general, federation-led development and growth of the sport to ensure long-term success. This presents ongoing challenges that could fill a separate article!
The dilemma for many leading athletes trying to make a living is choices. Choosing whether to target a childhood dream of a national vest while being part of a team in a major championships, or challenging for a podium in another high-profile event with a good payday. It has engendered much discussion. Another challenge in the mix is that not all national federations have yet created budgets to fully support their athletes to travel to world championships.
World Athletics has introduced a small prize fund for the world championships as a starting point to address this. The newly formed Pro Trail Runners Association is another interesting development and could be a pivotal voice for the athletes going forward. It seems essential that all the different elements of off-road running continue to talk to each other for the successful global evolution of the sport.
France, more than any other nation, has embraced participation in the world championships, and this is evident from their success, individually and in the team element. They seem to have an ongoing conveyor belt of talent and a supportive federation and volunteer pool, keen to help develop it while understanding the balancing act their top athletes face. It is a model other nations could look at and follow.
Looking ahead, continental championships are planned for 2024, with the next world championships scheduled for Canfranc, in the Spanish Pyrenees, in September 2025.
Call for Comments
- What is your abiding memory of the Trail World Championships down through the years?
- How do you see the event changing as the sport evolves?