Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Trail Running Past and Present - An Interview with Nancy Hobbs

For those of us fairly new to the trail running scene, we take for granted all of the organization that is in place - national championships, best practices for race directors, clubs and teams, etc. - but it wasn’t that long ago that trail running was just a hobby. But thanks to passionate people like Nancy Hobbs, trail running has the structure that allows it to grow gracefully and become inviting to a wider audience. Nancy began trail running in the early 80’s, and was soon consumed in the sport as Race Organizer for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon (1985-1995), team manager, co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, Senior Editor of Trail Runner Magazine, founder of the All American Trail Running Association (AATRA), and instrumental change agent in getting Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) started and organized within the USATF, the largest running association in the world.

(Nancy Hobbs cranking down the Barr Trail)

Nancy is still active in the trail running scene, and was kind enough to share her thoughts on trail running and help me sort through the acronym soup of organizations.

1) USATF, AATRA, RRCA, AARC, AUA, MUT - it seems like trail running has more acronyms than the Dept of Defense. Could you give me a brief description of what these organizations do and how they are linked, if at all?

NH: USATF is our national governing body for track and field, racewalking, running and a member of the USOC and IAAF (two more acronyms for you). Within USATF there is a long distance running division chaired by Fred Finke and three disciplines under LDR - women's (chaired by Elizabeth Phillips), men's (chaired by Jim Estes) and masters (chaired by Norm Green). The MUT (mountain ultra trail) council falls under the purview of LDR (as does cross country council). USATF stages championships at association and national level which includes trail and mountain as well as ultra distance events (on trail, track, and road). AATRA is the All American Trail Running Association whose mission is to represent and promote trail and mountain running. AATRA is a member of USATF and also of the RRCA (and of Running USA - RUSA). The RRCA experienced some growing pains over the past few years and the AARC (Association of American Running Clubs) was formed. The two groups merged this past January. Member clubs of the RRCA enjoy insurance benefits and a 501 (c) 3 group exemption (provided they are not-for-profit groups). The AUA is the American Ultrarunning Association and also a member of USATF (and also RUSA). The AUA is represented as a voice for ultrarunning in the US. The AUA is also a member of the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning). USATF has a delegate to the IAU. USATF also has a delegate to the WMRA (World Mountain Running Association). Another group that represents "Skyrunning" is the FSA (Federation of Sport at Altitude) based in Italy with affiliates in the US, Mexico, Spain, France to name a few. Now there's a mouthful!

2) Why are these organizations important to a trail racing individual?

NH: Events have insurance that are sanctioned by USATF or RRCA. The event director must pay for the insurance as well as medical, safety measures, etc. When an individual participates in races, part of the fee will cover some of these amenities (in addition to T-shirts, etc.) Events not insured through USATF or the RRCA probably insure through a third party carrier - often very costly. I guess the bottom line is that athletes should support organizations that support them. All of the above support the sport and the athletes they represent.

3) Trail running has a kicked-back culture to it - do you think too much organization could dilute this?

NH: These organizations have been around for ages (some longer than others). It is up to an individual to join, or support an organization. A majority of trail and mountain runners as you know do the sport for the personal benefit. They are not joiners. They like the solitude and lack of politics or rules on their trail runs! It's more about the challenge and adventure and someone doesn't need to race to experience these things.

4) You’ve seen a lot of growth in trail running over the years. What has surprised you the most?

NH: The fact that some people are surprised that trail and mountain running events have gotten so popular. I think lots of folks are still stuck in the mindset "I'll get hurt if I run on a trail." Or "I'll get hurt if I run fast downhill." That is probably one thing. The other is probably the increased participation by women (actually not that surprising to me being a female). The industry (retailers, shoe companies, magazines) has responded to the growth -- a surprise? No. There is another group to market to.

5) What have been the most crucial developments in the growth of the sport?

NH: The response of the industry leaders (footwear, apparel, energy products, magazines, advertising). Race directors promoting their events. Race directors adding events and starting new events. More opportunities to participate in races.

6) Do you think trail running will ever be as popular as say, Ironman Triathlon? What would need to happen for it to get there?

NH: I think if there was ONE event that stood out, the popularity would follow. An event like Pikes Peak was headed in that direction and still might get there. An event like Dipsea has a great allure. I think you need a few things - TV, TV, TV! Lots of PR, a good participant field, drama...

7) Is there enough prize money in the sport to sustain a pool of professionals today? Do you think it will happen?

NH: No. I wish more event offered prize money. This would also help create "heroes" in our sport and encourage athletes from cross country backgrounds and track and road running to cross over. We're getting these folks little by little.

8) According to the kids in my neighborhood, cross country running is “cool” again and there are huge numbers of kids signing up. Perhaps this is part of a bigger trend?

NH: I hope so! We have a junior mountain running team that is slow to get off the ground, but the kids that have participated love it.

9) As a former Race Director, what advice would you give to somebody organizing their first race?

NH: Wow. Read my book! Go to races, ask questions. Don't think you know everything even if you've directed a road race.

10) Are you planning any racing for yourself this year?

NH: Not sure. I'm fairly entrenched in administration. I had some great races last year, but it's hard to stay at a high level of fitness when other life pursuits are ever-present. I'm pretty competitive --- not only with others, but with myself. I do enjoy hopping in a race to pace someone who wants to set a PR (I did this in a road 5K in November). I like setting goals in my running, and last year I had a goal to finish the Pikes Peak Marathon (after an 11 year hiatus). My training was going in a great direction for a top five finish and then I got really sick with a virus. That knocked me out for 3 weeks before the race. I was still congested the week of the race and just gutted it out because I had set a goal to run and finish (I still ran about the same time as I had 11 years prior). It was unsettling in some ways because I was really fit before I got sick. At least I ran injury free last year and this year is starting out the same.

11) Your book, The Ultimate Guide To Trail Running, is still very popular. Is there a sequel/update?

NH: Perhaps. Adam and I have talked about writing a trail running book for women. We may do an updated version in the future.


  1. Who are the stars of trail running today? Are they TV reayd? I would be curious to her opinion, both male and female.

    - EricB

  2. So which races are the true "Nationals"? It looks like each of these orgs have a national US championship race of some sort. Scott, I see you're signed up for the RRCA Nationals. Do you consider that the toughest?

    Nancy, if he won would he be the national champion, or would he need to hold all titles like Boxing?

  3. Charlie -

    Thanks for your question. Just about every trail running organization has their own "nationals" or "world championship". Based on the finishing times, I think the USATF and RRCA sponsored races seem to be the toughest nationals, with the USATF being the toughest. I assure you, winning one means exactly nothing to the other. ;oP

    Personally, I chose the RRCA 50k Nationals more for the incredible course (brutal tour of the Tahoe Rim Trail) and knowing that the Tahoe Mountain Milers will organize a great race and attract some top-notch racers. You should sign up!

    - SD

  4. there are championships in trail racing from both the RRCA and USATF. Typically USATF trail championships offer prize money such as the White River 50 Miler, the Headlands 50km, the Gore-Tex USA 10Km Trail Championships, the US Mountain Running Championships. Other incentives that the MUT council looks for in USATF championship-caliber races are: lodging support to top competitors, comp entries.

  5. Trail Running stars of today would include our Teva US Mountain Running Team members, USATF National Trail Champions (50M, 50Km, 10Km), USATF mountain and ultra runners of the year, winners of the "top" races such as Western States 100, Pikes Peak Marathon, Mount Washington, etc. My preliminary list would include women sub ultra: Anita Ortiz, Erica Larson, Laura Haefeli, Lisa Isom, Kelli Lusk. Men: Simon Gutierrez, Paul Low, up-and-comer Eric Blake, masters Tom Borschel, Bernie Boettcher, Andy Ames. Ultra Scott Jurek, Chad Ricklefs, Tim Tweitmeyer, Paul DeWitt, Dave Mackey, Matt Carpenter, Ian Torrence...Nikki Kimball (sub ultra as well), Anne Riddle, Connie Gardner, Ann Heaslett, Ann Trason. These are just a few of our stars.

  6. How many women would you estimate participate in trail running today as opposed to earlier years?

  7. That's a great question. I'll see if I can dig something up.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. To the anonymous poster right before me -

    I'm happy to allow comments of controversial nature, but ask that you please sign your name to it. All conversation is welcome if you stand behind it!

    Thanks, SD

  10. regarding earlier comment on nancy hobbs "selection" of the neat elite that you deleted... anonymous or not, I (and others as well) stand by it.

  11. You anonymously stand by it? Isn't that an oxymoron? ;-)


  12. Unless you were a "chosen one", you werent chosen.


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