Sport Tourism (Part 2): The Urban Trail Running Frontier

At the end of my post on marathon participation in Western Canada, I noted that trail running is growing in popularity, and that a city like Edmonton – with its large parks and trails system – could be well-positioned to capitalize on this. To examine this further, I searched for urban(ish) trail races in Canada. Note that these are simply located near metro areas or major regional centres; the courses themselves are not necessarily urban.

Trail Races in Canada
I found four races centred around a metro area or major regional centre – the Yukon River Trail Marathon (Full and Half) in Yellowknife, the Manitoba Trail Marathon (50K, Full, Half) in Winnipeg, and two in Ontario – the Vulture Bait Trail Race (50K and 25K) in London, and the Sulphur Springs Trail Run in Burlington (Metro Hamilton – 100 Mile down to 25K). Unfortunately, the two Xtrail Asics half marathons near Sherbrooke, Quebec, don’t list hometowns for finishers (but the two races had 221 and 160, respectively).

Here’s the breakdown by origin for the aforementioned four races:

In addition, Alberta already hosts many ultramarathons and trail races. The Blackfoot Ultra (ranging from 25K to 100K) takes place just south of Elk Island National Park, about an hour east of downtown Edmonton. Here’s how it’s participants break down.

The Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, north of the Rocky Mountains, is a world-renowned events. Information is only available for soloists, but an additional 1280 participants competed in relay teams. Comparing shorter distances in other races, you see the number of locals increase (for example, in the Sulphur Springs 10K and the Yukon Trail relay – both not counting in their race’s numbers above), but not by a substantial amount.

Some things that stand out for me:

Trail Running (Especially Longer Distances) is Still Very Much a Niche. The participation numbers are small, even compared to smaller road races. Many of the websites are also out-of-date, and hilariously low-budget. In other words, not the sign of a major enterprise.

Most Runners Stay Relatively Local. The vast majority of participants in every race are from the home province, though not necessarily the closest metro area. The Ontario races see a larger uptake in participants from outside the metro, but even races like the Blackfoot see a noticeable number. Again, like with Marathons, for a minimal to non-existent investment, your seeing a good return in what’s being spent on food, hotels, amenities, etc.

The Death Race is an Exception. It has both a slick, up-to-date website, and draws participants from around the world.

Trail Running and Casual Runners
The 5 Peaks series consistently runs 5-race seasons in metro Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto (their Ottawa-Gatineau series varies in number from year-to-year). Using 4-5 year trends – 2007 numbers weren’t available for Edmonton (Northern Alberta) and Toronto (Southern Ontario) – here are the participation numbers for all their races from 2007-11.

Calgary and especially Edmonton can show tangible growth in recent years, while the British Columbia and Ontario numbers are more consistent. The Alberta numbers are even more impressive when you consider that their local catchment area is roughly 1/3 the size of that of BC Coast and 1/5 of Southern Ontario. While I can’t speak to the quality and organization of other areas, Edmonton’s are top notch in this respect.

Trail Running and an Opportunity to Grow
Given the participation rates in the 5 Peaks series, and races like the Blackfoot and Death Race (edit: also, the Moose is Loose Half Marathon), there is reason to believe that Edmonton and its surrounding area have a thriving trail running community. It’s also evident, comparing participation rates and scale, that – in spite of a thriving road running community as well – Edmonton has not succeeded in translating this into a significant Marathon event. It’s also unlikely to catch up to the more popular ones, given their popularity and success. The event should, obviously, continue, but it can’t be counted on to be the draw that some marathons are.

The trail running field is, however, wide open. The Edmonton (road) Marathon started 20 years ago, with only 50 participants. It’s 19th iteration last year saw more than 1900 people finish the full or half; Calgary’s, while the longest-running in Canada, was a minor event until recently. It’s not implausible at all to think that trail running could follow a similar curve in popularity. The popularity of personalities like Scott Jurek, and the Born to Run book, will continue to contribute to its rise. As many road runners cope with repetitive stress injuries (case in point – I wrote most of this while resting due to shin splints), the appeal of soft terrain races will very likely grow.

For the time being, perhaps the ultra marathon distance crowd is well-served, but the medium-long distance (up to 50K) market has room to grow. Edmonton’s river valley and trails system is a competitive advantage – one the city could use more. An urban trail race, taking residents through scenic areas, would have appeal on account of its route, convenience in an urban location, and for the time-being at least, aspect of novelty (since most races are outside of cities). I also see an early adopter advantage in terms of working out the fine details (ie. most cities would need to do part of it on paved trail, or build temporary surfaces to deal with lack on contiguity), and build a following. Use the race as a launching point to build more infrastructure around trail running, and all of a sudden you’re working on something that contributes to the quality of life day-to-day for residents. If you’re a trail runner, casual or serious, it’s all of a sudden more appealing to live there.

I noted Edmonton, since that’s where I live, but it could just as easily apply to Ottawa (with areas like the Greenbelt) or Toronto (around areas like The Rouge). Any city with the natural landscape to do so would be well-served to get in on this growing market.

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