America's only certified Skyrace course. Race Beast of Big Creek on Mt. Ellinor in Hoodsport, WA on Aug 3rd, 2024.

America's only certified Skyrace course. Race Beast of Big Creek on Mt. Ellinor in Hoodsport, WA on Aug 3rd, 2024.

Freetrail announced today ‘TrailCon: A New Trail Running Industry Conference’:

A Taste of TrailCon: The Trail Running Industry Conference kicks off on June 26th, 2024 and features panel discussions focused on four key growth areas in trail running. Feedback from this industry event will help collaboratively shape the programming for TrailCon 2025.

Spearheaded by Dylan Bowman, Brendan Madigan, Doug Emslie this teaser event is promised to be something new, big, and special. This year, for 2024 it’s a networking event with panels, smack-dab in the middle of the week between Broken Arrow and Western States, held right at Olympic Valley, California. The organizers are offering the half-day for free, knowing that this is more meant to be a marketing event for next year’s two day conference, and probably soon a full week of events bridging two of the US’s biggest trail running events, Broken Arrow and Western States.

A few thoughts on today’s fascinating announcement

This couldn’t be placed at a better time and location. When Broken Arrow first launched it was clear that their ambitions were to connect their event, held just a week prior to Western States at the starting location of the race, Olympic Valley. Now, a few years later and Broken Arrow having grown into the US’s foremost, and probably largest trail race event (that’s not a 100miler!) it’s time to take this to the next level. Olympic Valley is no Chamonix, but that’s the trajectory here, clearly. Or as Doug Emslie, the co-founder who brings the conference organization experience to the table, said in the launch video on Freetrail: “the conference is meant to be the Davos for trail running”. Not sure if that is tone deaf or overly ambitious, but I don’t think Davos, aside from being a gathering in a mountain town, conjures up images of being representative of the larger community, or open to community ideas, or accessible to the community at all. Davos is anything but, it’s full of elitist billionaires planning the destruction of the planet. But, I give them that this was a reference to a gathering of importance in a mountain town.

Speaking of importance: There has been a US Trail Running Conference, now in its 12th year, traveling to various places around the country to be accessible to folks in these places. This event, attended in the past by trail dignitaries Craig Thornley, Tim Tollefson, (also in on the speaker list for ‘TrailCon’) and Dale Garland, (and me) never really “made a dent” in the larger community and didn’t have the media attention and cheerleading surrounding it. Now TrailCon is meant to matter to the larger trail community, but it’s placing itself in a very special geographic location. The eyes of the trail running world will be in Northern California for this week, but, this new event will have to deal with the reality that trail running has unique regional flavors and there’s more to US trail running than “California carpet”.

Speaking of limited views: The three founders are all three white men. Heck, if I had been asked to join, I would’ve jumped and said yes too, but I am glad to see Brendan on the team, a guy who’s not going to lose focus of the need for diversity and to address larger accessibility issues. Having said this, this year’s conference feels very “business-focused” and trail running is certainly more than “brand, retail, and media”. This year’s focus of the half day of events, as mentioned several times in the intro video is meant to “bring the trail running community back together”. One concern the team is directly addressing is the need to move away from “unproductive online discourse” and back to “in-person conversations”. This, after the last 6-9 month of “UTMB-related kerfuffle” is welcome, but also creates exclusivity – not everyone is privileged enough to be able to travel to California for a day to chat. This is something the team will need to wrestle with. Some folks who are listed to speak on the panels are Catherine and Michel Polettis and Corrine Malcolm. That to me is a clear sign of what the focus of this year’s conference is going to be: To mend the fences between UTMB and the US trail running community. So far it has felt like the strategy of the players on the microphone has been to let its run its course, but this agenda seems to indicate that they are trying to make a move to address things – one way or another. I don’t know if it’ll work – certainly not for the edge lords online – but it’ll send a signal. And I believe that signal will be bigger than just ‘hug and make up’. When Broken Arrow first came on the scene it almost apologized for being a ‘Euro-inspired’ trail race. I ran the 52K in 2018, its second year and back in the PNW I always felt like I had to apologize of why I enjoyed racing big events like Squamish or Broken Arrow. I had to explain that events with sponsors and more than 200 runners did not automatically have no soul, that the RDs can be just as welcoming, and that the professional setup at a race can actually make one feel taken care of and looked after. Now a few years later and Broken Arrow is becoming the defining trail race in the US. This is a clear signal to me that the US trail community has embraced this “euro-style” event and folks are willing to make it the showcase of what trail racing can be in the US. Of course, this isn’t a signal to other RDs that they need to level up or “shape up or ship out”. And of course, it’s not a line in the sand that tells runners that if you don’t get $150 worth of high quality swag at a race you should stop going to trail races all together. But it’s a sign to the brands, the sponsors, and the media that there are trail runners in the US who see the same trajectory and potential for their sport as their European counterparts. The conference bills itself as an ‘industry’ conference, it’s not a cultural gathering or community council. The focus is business. I imagine that the ‘leaders in our sport’ have had many conversations in the past few months with brand representatives and other folks with checkbooks, about exactly this trajectory, its challenges, its potentials, and its opportunities. It’s not just about the money – or so I hope – but as our sport grows it offers anyone within small little universe a change to make a living, build a business, and create something sustainable for themselves. It’s the “rising tide lifts all ships”, or something like this. So, here we are in 2024 and Dylan’s Freetrail and Alpenglow (Brendan Madigan’s retail store in Tahoe City) are yet again changing the game. The speed and frequency by which these latest announcements have come and hit our community have been frenetic and breathtaking all at once. And while I sit here trying to keep up typing words every day I am glad that there’s something else to think and write about than new shoe releases and race results.

Alright, done writing, going to check for tickets to Tahoe for June.