Tracing a history of any sport is difficult. Although many myths and legends attest to instances of inspiration where a sport is born from nothing, many remain nothing more than folklore – there are few moments where a sport was created from thin air, despite what you know about William Webb-Ellis and other ‘origin myths’ of sports.
Running is perhaps the most difficult of all to study from a historical perspective. How can you define a starting point when humans (and likely our pre-human ancestors) have been doing it for millennia? It was almost an innate behaviour, evolved for survival and hunting. While this is not so much the case in the present day for most, the essence of competition exists as it did then – the fastest or strongest ones who could keep running for the longest time guaranteed their survival. Here’s TR’s potted history of the sport we love.
1829BC-1064 - The ancient world
Recreational competition may have existed throughout human history but the more substantial accounts of footraces are from the ancient world.
In pre-Christian Ireland, the Tailteann Games featured a number of competitions with evidence that running races were featured alongside wrestling, dancing and singing contests. Some have placed this festival celebrating the goddess Tailtiu as early as 1829BCE. Many ancient competitions and festivals such as this would serve religious, social purposes, often identifying skilled members of communities to fulfil purposes. Footracing, sword-fights and combat sports would be likely used for military purposes and showed physical aptitude in members of society.
Ancient Greek society held running races in its Olympic games. Beginning around 700BCE, Greeks would differentiate between short races (stadion) of roughly 200m and longer races (dolichos) of around three miles. While many of us run with packs, spare a thought for Hoplitodromos runners, who’d race in full armour!
Of course, we cannot ignore the apocryphal tale of Pheidippides in 490BCE: a messenger dispatched from Athens, first to Sparta to call for the assistance of the Spartans during the Battle of Marathon. This was supposedly a 150-mile journey which he completed in under two days. Following the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon, Pheidippides was to run ahead to reach Athens and deliver news of the victory. Upon arrival, the myth goes that he had just enough breath to utter the Greek word ‘nikomen’ (we win) before collapsing dead.
We’ll never know the truth, but the concept of long-distance feats clearly played a part in Greek society. What we now know as ultra-marathons perhaps date to the messengers of the ancient world. Let’s not forget the terrain could hardly have been a flat tarmac road, either! This was trail running.
As early as 1040 or 1064 (opinion varies), historical records illustrate the first known organised hill race. King Malcolm III (of Macbeth fame) offered a prize to the people of Braemar for the first to run up the neighbouring mountain of Craig Choinnich. The winner claimed the position of Malcolm III’s messenger. Travelling the rugged terrain of Scotland was often quicker on foot than on horseback, so foot messengers were an important line of communication. In his history of fell-running, Stud Marks on the Summits, Bill Smith notes how this not only was a very early reference to fell running, but also gave birth to the Highland Games, which features a hill race to this day.
1100s-1800s The sport of all classes
In the 12th century, servants had to follow their masters’ carriages on foot, running and walking for long distances. Over time, pitting two servants from separate households against one another became a popular way to wager money. The finest footmen would race a certain distance or run the furthest in a set time, which could vary from less than a mile to hundreds of miles over multiple days. Yes ... a 12th-century ultra.
The sport became known as pedestrianism, and by the late 1700s it was not just lowly servants who competed. Captain Robert Barclay, a member of the Scottish aristocracy became a household name thanks to his ultra-feats, such as his one mile per hour, every hour for 1000 hours over Newmarket racecourse.
During this period, the landed gentry began racing horses seriously. As breeding became popular to produce the fastest and most nimble hunting steeds, races would mimic the hunting terrain, following a direct route to the nearest church steeple on a course encompassing hedgerows, streams and other obstacles. The Steeplechase was born. Eventually, this kind of racing would be taken up by runners, birthing the modern track event, but it was very much an off-road affair.
Similarly drawing from hunting, the sport of Hare and Hounds was growing in the public schools of Britain, where a pack of runners would chase down a single runner (the hare), over farmland, woodland and marshes. These races from September to December evolved into what we know as cross-country.
As public schools took to chasing each other over fields, in the north of Britain, mountain-folk took to racing each other, with ‘guide races’ becoming common in the mid-19th century. These were local affairs, often held during summer festivals and town fairs, and similar to today’s fell races.
1900s - America’s turn
‘Trail running’ is a term that we use to cover a lot of forms of running, with the only constant really being that it takes place off-road, on foot. At TR we cover everything from short runs on canal paths, to fell runs, to multi-day ultras and everything between. However, up until now, we’ve looked at the UK and Ireland as forebearers of the sport, but it was not until the turn of the 20th century that we can see a true trail race take place, and it happened far from the British Isles.
The summer of 1904 saw a few friends challenge each other to a race over the foothills of the Californian coast to be the first to reach the newly opened Dipsea Inn, just outside of San Francisco. The following year, on November 19, the group returned to stage the event, this time having formed a formal club and hosting the first organised event – the Annual Championship Cross Country Run, Mill Valley to Dipsea by the Sea. Thankfully, the name has been pared down since. In the modern era, it’s now called the Dipsea Trail Race, but it is still held annually over the 7.8-mile course.
How the Dipsea race differed from the other off-road races we’ve mentioned was not just that it was in a new country. The importance lies in the mixture of terrains that includes mountain tracks and redwood forest paths, and an element of navigational skill required by the runners to follow the route – it took pieces from other running disciplines, but applied them to the new terrains not found this side of the Atlantic.
Perhaps in an unintended way, the race encompassed a pioneering spirit of adventure that drew from the origins of running itself. The race was uniquely beautiful in a way in which fell-running, for example, was not (not to say that the fells are any less picturesque!). Today, this spirit lives on as a defining trait of everything we think of in the sport: the challenge, the beauty and/or the uniqueness.
Since the Dipsea race, the 20th century saw a gradual increase in the number of events on the calendar, many of them unsanctioned. The Roaring ’20s in the USA were known for their extravagance, leading to running events such as the Trans-America Footrace (or Bunion Derby) being organised by wealthy eccentrics for the purpose of entertainment, with participants from all walks of life enticed by big money and the chance of fame. Elsewhere, the Comrades Marathon in South Africa has also been run since the 1920s.
1972-now - The world’s fastest-growing outdoor sport
Amongst the first premier trail races on today’s calendar is the Western States 100, which began life – similarly to the steeplechase – as a horse race known as the Tevis Cup. The goal was the same: 100 miles on the Western States Trail in a single day. One rider, Gordy Ainsleigh, decided in 1972 to complete the race on foot. His completion of the course just 18 minutes shy of the 24-hour cut-off proved it possible, inspiring attempts from two more runners later in the ’70s and the first official Western States Endurance Run in 1977.
The formation of the Badwater Ultra and Hardrock 100 followed in the ’80s and ’90s respectively, while the notorious Marathon Des Sables began in 1986, with 23 runners following in the footsteps of adventurer Patrick Bauer who ran the course solo in 1984.
While road, track and cross-country races became codified under various governing bodies such as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF; now World Athletics), trail and ultra-running took on a more rogue existence. This has been a boon and a burden, allowing innovative new races to be run without the pressure of governing bodies, but detrimental to the acceptance of trail and ultra within formal running circles.
It was not until 1984 that the world first saw official bodies to govern our sport. The World Mountain Running Association and the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunners) were formed ushering in a new wave of sanctioned events. Now, the IAU certifies world championships over 50 and 100km, as well as over 24hrs, while the WMRA have hosted the World Trophy, which became the official World Championships in 2009. Surprisingly, there was no federation specifically for trail running until 2013, when ITRA was formed. But now the federation serves alongside the IAU to host the Trail Running World Championships. Nowadays, World Athletics recognises mountain running as an official discipline. And next year World Athletics, IAU, ITRA and WMRA will host a combined championship, merging all trail disciplines into a single event.
Trail running has grown beyond a niche discipline within this century and even more so in the last decade. Events now considered the pinnacle of the sport are less than 20 years old, including UTMB (2003), Tor des Geants (2009) and the Spine Race (2012). What characterises the rise in popularity of trail events is the focus on the individual challenge. Even more so than other types of running, the emphasis is on the personal, rather than simply winning or losing. Events are an experience in themselves, with runners ranging from record-breakers to first-timers. If you’re from a road, track or cross-country background, it’s easy to get swept up in the end result of your races, but perhaps we should all be looking to trail events to redefine our goals, to focus on processes to enjoyment. which will ultimately breed success on the personal level. Trail running: it’ll change your life.