The 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships.
Elmir Askarov from Azerbaijan was beaming, high-fiving spectators as he battled the nausea-inducing final grassy grade of the vertical race in Stubai, Austria, this past Wednesday. Over its 7.1 km (4.4 miles) distance, the course climbed 1,020 meters (3,346 feet).
It was the first in a series of over a dozen public and elite races that, taken together, constituted the 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. And of the estimated 50,000 racers, support-team members, spectators, and media that gathered over the course of the week, it might just be that no one represented the spirit of the event better than the sole attendee from Azerbaijan. “Everyone is smiling and wants to help. Innsbruck is great!” Askarov said. “I’ve been drinking in the beautiful water of the alpine lakes and streams.” He meant it literally, of course, but the phrase worked figuratively as well.
Askarov’s time of 1 hour, 15 minutes, and 2 seconds was 34:44 off Kenya’s Patrick Kipngeno’s winning time of 40:18. (Kenya and Uganda split the men’s top four spots, with Joe Gray from the U.S. finishing in 5th in 42:32.) Landing in 118th, Askarov narrowly dodged a Dead-F*ckin’-Last designation. He did, however, have a legit excuse. “Three days before arriving, I ran a 100-kilometer race in the Russian forest,” he said.
The women’s race had spectators cheering wildly during the final 800 meters, as Austria’s Andrea Mayr regained first from Kenyan Philaries Jeruto Kisang. She went on to win in 48:14, 37 seconds ahead of Kisang, and scored her seventh gold medal in a world championship race. American Grayson Murphy was third, 31 seconds behind Kisang.
For the hundreds of onlookers and racers high on the course during that opening race, the idyllic scene set the tone for the week. Parasailers floated on high. An oompah band played at a mountain cafe along the course. A few dozen kilometers away, the glacier-covered North Chain glinted in the sunlight.
If the races were generally well designed and executed, the scene back at the Innsbruck event hub was nicely chill. Because, well, trail running.
Take, for example, the opening ceremonies. Reasonably enough, they were modeled on the pageantry of the Olympics, but how many trail runners do you know who are let’s-all-march-in-lock-step types? Country managers wrangled their athletes as best they could, however, with the resulting ceremony feeling like it might have been organized by your stoner friend from college. Which is to say, perfect for trail running: low key, fun, upbeat, with happy energy. And arguably still not quite ready for prime time.
The good vibes continued throughout the week. Typical of the scene was a group of trail-running friends gathered high on an airy ridge during the trail short race. Dressed as clowns, they rang cow bells and added a lively twist to the final climb of the day for racers.
“It’s really cool,” said Bend, Oregon racer Max King. “We have several teams competing, and everyone’s supporting each other. And the races are a lot more competitive than they used to be.” King should know. He’s been part of the U.S. Championship team since the 2010 World Mountain Running Championships in Slovenia. “In those days, it was a much smaller production. There were fewer countries, and each team had just five members.”
One of the key factors contributing to the supportive environment was the team format, in which each country received a score that was the cumulative time of their top three finishers. “It was fun and inspiring,” said racer Emily Schmitz from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, who finished 7th in the race’s demanding 87-km trail long event that challenged runners with 6,500 meters (21,325 feet) of vert. “Allison Baca came out of nowhere and flew by me near the finish, yelling, ‘We need to run and pick off as many people as possible!’ The two pushed hard, and were part of a U.S. women’s team that finished fourth. In the end, France dominated the event, with Benjamin Roubiol and Marion Delespierre both taking gold. The U.S. men’s runners were shut out of podium positions but landed fifth, sixth, and seventh and included a finish that might have been a highlight of the week, when Zach Miller and Drew Holmen sprinted to the finish. Holmen beat Miller by five seconds. Those strong combined finishes allowed the U.S. men’s team to take silver, after France.
All told, the U.S. team had 39 athletes, six volunteer staff, and numerous family and friends present, as well. Not every country had such strong representation, with many countries sending a dozen or so athletes. And then there are runners like Askarov, the sole representative from Azerbaijan, who once had to attend a long, technical meeting before a race the next morning. Taiwan, Cuba, and Zambia similarly sent a single, lonely runner-manager-coach.
“I’m an ultrarunner,” Askarov said, when I asked if it was hard covering multiple roles. “We’re all crazy!” Two years ago, the Azerbaijani runner ticked off 3,000 kilometers over 44 days, running one kilometer for each victim of his country’s war with Armenia. Point proven, Elmir—and with a heartfelt touch, too.
Nepal, a nation with a developing mountain-running team, was represented by three runners and Preeti Khattri, Technical Director for Nepal’s Mountain Sports Federation and the team’s leader. “It’s a lot of juggling,” says Khattri, “We rented a car and drove around to look at the trails. I go to technical meetings, I take photos, posted to social media, crewing the runners, corresponding with officials. Tonight. I’m going to sleep well.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world’s inequities crept into the event. Countries that face economic disparities at home confronted them in Innsbruck, as well. An athlete from one such country who wished to remain anonymous told me, “It’s just a mirror of what’s going on at home.” That country’s sports federation provided transportation, uniforms, and the equivalent of about $40 spending money per person for the week. Event organizers provided hotel rooms, which included breakfast. But runners from impoverished backgrounds lacked the funds to get transportation from their hotels to the complimentary food offered at the event’s hub downtown. There were event shuttles, but the timing was often inopportune at best. As a result, some of them missed meals. “I don’t know what they did for dinner,” the athlete told me. “One of our runners finished the marathon course, and missed getting lunch by a minute. They’re not eating properly, they’re not refueling. It’s completely invisible to everyone here.”
There were disparities, too, among the support provided by national federations. One of Australia’s top trail running stars, Lucy Bartholemew, called out the country’s federation in an Instagram post before the Innsbruck event. “You are expected to purchase; uniform, flights (to EU and back), membership, a levy, an accom[odation] expense and membership cost … this creates an inability for athletes to afford the opportunity to represent their country.”
Throughout a week of mostly fair weather, teams ticked through races of varying formats. Thursday brought the “Trail Short”—though some might argue that “short” and 45.2 km (28 miles) with 3,121 meters (10,239 feet) of climbing should not be anywhere near each other. Four hours and 13 minutes into the race, France’s Clementine Geoffray passed Switzerland’s Judith Wyder on the final climb, winning by 2:01 thanks to a strong final descent. The French team won team gold, with the U.S. taking bronze. Jennifer Lichter had the highest U.S. finish, coming in fourth in 5:11:55. A storm some hours into the race was the only meteorological hitch in the events, as fifty runners were stopped during the final climb.
Norway’s Stian Angermund got a long sought after wish of defending the title, incredibly running through each aid station without stopping. Garret Corcoran finished 14th, the highest U.S. men’s finish. Max King followed in 19th, then Jackson Brill in 30th. The U.S. men’s team finished sixth in the trail short.
WMTRC 2023 comes on the heels of the first edition of this iteration of world championships that took place in Chiang Mai, Thailand in November of last year, when more than 900 athletes from 46 countries attended the rescheduled, just-barely-past-Covid event. This year, the event surged to more than 1,300 athletes from 68 countries.
For decades prior, a disparate collection of trail-running organizations—WMRA, IAAF, ITRA, IAU—all presented their own races.
How they came together is a point of understandable confusion. Two years ago and after some years of discussions, that acronymic mouthful of entities came together with the goal to, “develop, expand, promote, and take trail and mountain running to another level across the world.” Many negotiations, some heartburn, and a few bruised egos later, a biennial world championships emerged, all taking place under the banner of World Athletics, the international organizing entity for competitive sports.
By all accounts, it’s working. Max King points out a few reasons why. “This is going to grow. I’ve gotten way more followers and sponsorship from the championships I’ve done, than a brand race. Winning a World Championship,” says King, “means a lot more to the people outside of the sport.” King sees another upside for athletes, as well. “It’s not a for-profit event running it, so hopefully some of that money is going to go back into the pockets of athletes, and not to corporations.”
Over the course of the week, there were a few glitches, of course—most notably, a six-foot wide, constructed trail installed for 100 meters down the middle of an Innsbruck pedestrian zone that looked like it was built by a low-budget Hollywood studio. Race organizers had planned to use the model during the start of the trail short, a situation that some country managers and athletes felt would wreak havoc at the start of a race, when runners are vying for position before the course heads onto narrow single-track. During a technical meeting, organizers settled on a “neutral start,” asking runners to hold their positions once they got onto the faux trail. “There was really no neutral start,” says King. “Everyone was trying to jockey for position.”
If trail building was not the organizers’ forte, many other skills were. Notable at the event was the high quality of the online race streaming and commentary. Camera angles, coverage, and commentary were some of the best of any race series to date. Fans around the globe tuned in via a variety of different websites, thanks to commentary available in six languages. In all, Head of Media Communications Egon Theiner estimated that 10 million viewers tuned in.
The World Mountain and Trail Running Championships are taking on considerable momentum. Shane Ohly, owner of a number of Ourea Events, UK-based long distance mountain races, was part of a World Athletics Observer Program that included members from six other countries, each of whom was exploring a possible bid to host either the 2027 or 2029 championships. “Perhaps one day,” Ohly mused, “The UK will be able to host this showcase event.” World Athletics projections suggest the event may be several times larger by 2029.
Around the world, trail running is in transition. Cash is flowing in, as private equity eyes the desirable demographic, the critical mass of runners, and the upward growth trajectory. International Sports Marketing firms and big-name brands are creating or snapping up races around the planet. But if Innsbruck 2023 is any indication, there’s plenty of goodwill and upbeat spirit still to be found.
On the last day, American “Racin’” Grayson Murphy beat Tove Alexandersson by 57 seconds to win the 15 km (9.3 miles) Mountain Classic Race. Onstage just a few hours later, the U.S. team had something to celebrate together, as well: third overall in the team standings. As the anthems played and the evening wore on, U.S. team volunteer, photographer, and past national team member Peter Maksimow turned to me. “This,” he said, “Is our Olympics.”
The World Mountain and Trail Running Championships moves next to Canfranc-Pirineos, Spain, deep into Pyrenees mountains on the border with France, for its 2025 edition. Mark the dates on your calendar: September 25 to 28, 2025. See you there.