Getting a sense of direction

Action Asia talks to Kris Van de Velde, creator of the Asia Trail Master series, about the boom in trail running and the challenges the sport faces


What do you think of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) recognition of trail running as an official discipline last year?

In my opinion, trail running needs more governance and protocol if it wants to develop as a genuine sport, because here and there boundaries are being tested on what is medically and socially acceptable.

Trail running risks becoming a victim of its own sudden success. Governments and other forms of authorities are becoming increasingly nervous in some countries, and the recent ban on trail running races in a popular national park in Taiwan could be a dangerous precedent. Unfortunately, the IAAF is dealing with its own share of issues at the moment, and I fear that until the Rio Olympics are over we should not expect too much guidance from Sebastian Coe.

The problem is also that there are two official bodies under the IAAF that are both staking their claims, each with legitimate arguments. Best known is ITRA, the International Trail Running Association, which was set up just three years ago by the founders of UTMB in Chamonix, France, the most popular race in the world, especially for Asian runners for whom it is the ultimate goal.

But then there is also the IAU – International Association of Ultrarunning – which has been around longer than ITRA. The IAU works together with national athletics federations and has been organising world championships in ultra road and trail running for a number of years already. In 2016, those world trail championships will be held in Portugal and it will be a joint IAU/ITRA organisation, but questions on where this will all lead in the short- to medium-term remain.

In my view, the IAAF probably has a vision to take trail running down the Olympics path. However, this process will take a long time as trail running is still a niche today when you look at overall numbers.

With doping in sport so much in the news, what steps should be taken to set standards?

The issue of doping will not get solved as long as there is no proper governance of the sport. Who is going to do the testing? Who is going to pay for it? And most importantly: what products and methods are they all going to test for? People have much too simplistic a view about drug testing in sport. The costs are high, usually to be borne by the race organiser.

How would you compare the trail running scene in Asia versus other parts of the world?

This is a hard comparison to make, because the differences within Asia and even within Asian countries can be big. In countries like France, Italy, Spain, UK or the USA, trail running has a longer tradition than in Asia, where things only really got going in 2011/12. This means there is a lot more technical expertise in those countries, and more consciousness about what is acceptable and what is not when you set up an event that is open to the general public.

What kind of topography and distance would you consider appropriate for Olympics, should trail running be introduced into the games?

In my view, the topography can be anything. I disagree with the view that trail running must include several thousand metres of elevation gain. There are fantastic trail races out there at low altitudes and that are just as stunning, or tough for that matter. Last February a new trail marathon was introduced in Brunei with hardly 700m of elevation gain in 42km. Well, the DNF quote was exactly 50% and fervent 100-mile runners said afterwards it was one of the toughest races they had ever run. It was hot and humid in Borneo, and the succession of 14 short, steep hillclimbs, followed by several kilometres on loose beach trails just drained everybody’s legs! There are no mountains at all in Belgium
[Ed: Kris’ home country], yet for many cyclists the Tour of Flanders is the hardest one-day cycling race in the world. Numbers never tell the whole story.

Destination racing – what factors make a race desirable enough to travel for?

Exciting locations that are relatively easy to get to make for great weekend or extended weekend events for the whole family. What’s more, runners can do several of those in a year. If going to an event requires taking one, two or three days off work, there is a high hurdle to overcome for many people, especially if they have a family. Organisers in Asia often underestimate this. When people bring friends and families to an event location, that place benefits more than when only the runner flies in.