The need for increased diversity in the sport has long been a common topic of conversation in trail running circles, and that diversity can take many forms. One demographic that we don’t so often encounter on the trails is urban youth, and one east London, England, trail running community is setting out to change that. As its website boasts, “TrailFam injects the kind of color, energy, and attitude into the sport that only a city youth can bring.”
Danny Stokes, a teacher and trail runner from the south of England, had for some time been tossing around the idea of combining his two worlds by establishing a trail running club within his school — Mulberry Academy Shoreditch — in the densely populated urban area of Shoreditch in east London. Having found a passion in the sport himself, he recognized that it could greatly enrich the lives of his city-dwelling students. In 2020, the need for such an initiative was highlighted — when restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the school, and limited travel further confined the students to their urban bubble. It was out of this growing necessity that TrailFam was born.
Stokes said, “In 2020, I was in constant contact with my students. It’s a very built-up area, and I’m fortunate enough to live slightly outside of London, in the countryside. What I noticed was that young people weren’t having access to green spaces and weren’t having access to nature during the lockdown. The cause of that was often their social, economic, and geographical status.”
This was the catalyst for him to finally turn his idea into a reality. Stokes said, “With the school being located in east London, there are certain colloquial slang terms that young people use here that we embed into our everyday language. ‘Fam’ was one of them. So, it made sense for it to be TrailFam.” While Stokes was busy putting plans in place throughout 2020, it wasn’t until restrictions were lifted in the spring of 2021 that the TrailFam community’s feet first hit the trails.
Since then, TrailFam has taken on a life of its own. “It’s become its own organization, its own entity,” said Stokes. Although still in its infancy, TrailFam is in the process of expanding outside of the school running club idea it began as — and will soon be open to serve other schools and young people in the area.
Stokes said, “We’re in the process of [expanding to take in other schools] now. The school I work at has 1,500 young people. Now, we’ve already worked with over 300 young people. We’ve given access to the sport of trail running, but also access to the trails in general and to nature and outside spaces.”
Now on a weekly basis, a mini-bus full of enthusiastic TrailFam runners — ranging in ages from 11 to 18 — accompanied by two or three school staff members, take to the trails in the nearby county of Essex. They explore a number of country parks near the town of Brentwood and also have access to Epping Forest. Epping Forest is a 2,400-hectare (more than nine square miles) area of natural woodland outside of London. There are abundant trails to explore in the forest, but also a wealth of wildlife and flora and fauna for the young runners to immerse themselves in and learn about.
The feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive. One young TrailFam runner, Jaya, said when asked her favorite thing about TrailFam, “Literally everything. The nature, the challenging hills, I love it all.” Amelia, who was already a runner before joining TrailFam, said, “I have always loved running, but running up and down the house isn’t as fun as running through the woods!” She added, “I enjoy running in the woods because not only does it clear my head from the stress of school, but also I can be at one with nature.” The immersion in nature sits equally alongside the act of running when the young people relay what TrailFam means to them and what they are getting out of their involvement. One young runner, Moad, enthusiastically recounted, “We got to see rare birds and a frozen lake!”
TrailFam is in the final processes of charity registration, which Stokes says will open up a lot of doors in terms of recruitment of staff and volunteers. “At the minute, it’s very much on an ad hoc basis,” he said. “I pretty much beg, borrow, and steal any staff members I can get to come with me!”
One of the regular helpers is teacher Jessica Pitts, who herself had her first taste of trail running through helping out with TrailFam. She said, “I started running during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was just road running.” With regard to trail running, she said, “It’s been quite eye-opening really because you think it’s going to be a lot harder than it is, but then once you get out, and with the views and everything, it’s really nice.”
Pitts also pointed out that much more than an introduction to trail running, TrailFam has been a fantastic vehicle for introducing students to the outdoors. She said, “Especially the kids in our school, they don’t get out of London very often. It’s really nice that they get to see a lot more of where they are and what’s around them.”
Regarding the overall positive impact their involvement has had on the students, she continued, “They get to mix with other year groups. It helps them learn a lot more about their health and what it means to be healthy. It ties into our PHE (physical and health education) and gives an understanding of what we can do to keep ourselves healthy — not just in school but outside of school as well.”
Where sometimes team sports can create pressurized environments for young people — especially those who are not the strongest players on the team — the inclusive, all-abilities nature of trail running shows the young people that sport and exercise are for everyone. As Pitts says, “When I go with them, I’m not the fastest of runners. And I think it’s helpful for them to see older members of staff who haven’t done this before giving it a go. And they know that it’s ok to go at their own pace.”
Further to the local weekly runs, TrailFam has taken longer trips to the Surrey Hills; the North and South Downs Ways, which are popular long-distance trails in England; and to some of the U.K.’s most iconic mountainous regions — including the Peak District, Snowdonia, and the Lake District.
The weekly runs take place as part of the school day, thus alleviating any added pressure on parents to accommodate another after-school activity. As well as the weekly social runs, which are non-competitive and mixed-ability, TrailFam is also developing a race team.
“The race team has a calendar of trail races, roughly 10 kilometers, that they’ll be participating in,” said Stokes. While the north of England is known for fell running, the south and greater London area where TrailFam is based is less mountainous and has more of a trail running tradition, which is in many ways more accessible to young newcomers — with easier terrain and fully marked courses a standard.
Last year, the race team traveled to Snowdonia in Wales to help at Ultra-Trail Snowdonia — affording them a glimpse into the world of long-distance trail running and possibly sowing seeds in some of the ultrarunners of tomorrow. Stokes said, “We went and camped near one of the aid stations and spent the week supporting the runners but also taking the opportunity to get into the mountains ourselves. The race team summited Snowdon [the highest mountain in Wales] and some other mountains.”
As part of their training and learning, the race team has also taken to the Brecon Beacons, a mountain range in the south of Wales, to get to grips with winter mountain running. Stokes said, “Trail running is just the vehicle really for what we’re trying to do with the young people. It’s about experiences and giving them opportunities to go places and do things that they might not ordinarily get to do.”
To supplement the weekly trail runs, TrailFam holds track practice on the community track at the London Stadium — home to the 2012 Summer Olympics. Stokes said of the track practice, “It’s great because a lot of the trail stuff we do is based on experience and adventure — all the reasons we love trail running. The track stuff helps the young people to work on their technique if they want to do that.”
Going forward, once the group is formally registered as a charity, Stokes said, “That will allow us to extend the invitation across east London, and hopefully beyond. But certainly, the goal by the end of 2023 is to have a portfolio of schools and to really hone in with some community-based runs as well.”
Charity status will also help the group in terms of securing sponsorship and funding to provide equipment for the young runners, as it is part of its core mission to alleviate some of the economic barriers to entry into the sport. So far, as Stokes said, “It’s very much been a whip-around [for resources]. We’ve been supported by different brands. inov-8 was kind enough at the beginning to give us some of their race-worn test shoes, so we got a huge batch of those. Salomon helped us out with some running jackets and trail shoes, and OMM helped us with some running jackets and bits. And the rest has just been kindness from the trail running community.”
While trail running has already hugely enriched the lives of these young Londoners, the benefits will work both ways — as the sport can benefit greatly from the energy and nuances they will bring to it and its wider community. The next time I take a trail running trip to the U.K., I may have to pack among with my running kit a pocketbook of east London slang.
Call for Comments
- Have you heard of TrailFam before?
- Do you know of any similar groups in your area?