The influx of trail and other off-road races seems to be causing a backlash.

Sold-out events, lottery entries, waiting lists and qualification standards are nothing new in road races. But trail races, once a bastion of roll-out-of-bed-register-and-race tactics, are selling out faster than ever, with many premier ultra-distance races, such as the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100, using lotteries and developing qualifying standards. That’s in stark contrast to the everyman attitude and crowded course of the Leadville 100 — in such stark contrast that Hardrock won’t consider Leadville as a qualifying race after 2014.

Trail events, by their very nature, have smaller racing fields. Runner safety, logistics, land agency permits and environmental impacts all come in to play, often putting racing directors at odds with governmental permitting offices, leaving frustrated racers in the lurch. For example, the U.S. Forest Service allowed just 75 runners to participate in the inaugural Telluride Mountain Run held this past August in Colorado. A different route would have required feasibility studies, which don’t come cheap and are hard to justify given the limited returns.

Yet the numbers of runners and races continue to grow, especially as the definition of “trail running” becomes less concrete. Mud runs, hill races, ride and ties, mixed-surface events, mountain running, cross country and snowshoe races are all included in the numbers compiled by the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), which show over 90,000 runners participated in 450 events around the world in 2000. Compare that to more than 400,000 people competing in 2,702 events in 2012 and it seems like races should be less crowded.

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For many races that holds true, giving new off-road runners and age-groupers the opportunity to shine at getting down and dirty. But for elite runners, caché is king when it comes to selecting races. Challenging courses, cornerstone events, competitive racing fields and even cash purses drive those angling for podium finishes.

So just how hard is it to score an entry? Hardrock has just 140 starters, but more than 800 names are entered in the lottery. As for Western States, there are more slots, about 270 (the race is capped at 369 runners, but the additional spots are held for Montrail Cup Winners, international racers, sponsors, race administration and others) but more applicants. In 2013, a record 2,295 people applied for those 270 slots, compared to 583 lottery entrants in 2000.

Those major trail races had no choice but to implement qualifying standards this fall. That’s the state of the sport for trail running, but think for a moment if other marquee road marathons like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles followed the lead of the Boston Marathon and required qualifying times to get in.

What’s Driving The Growth?

The desire to try something new, runners seeking softer surfaces, and the fun factor of adventure are just some of the reasons many hit the trails. And adding creative races (mud and obstacle runs), powerful marketing (Lifetime Fitness promoting the Leadville 100 to its health club members), and local and national race series (XTERRA trail series, La Sportiva Cup, Montrail Ultra Cup) to the mix helps make trail racing accessible.

“This expansion seems to be driven by a desire by many, who may have done other types of running, to experience the sport in the some of the most beautiful places on the planet,” says James Russell Gill, III, co-owner of Virginia-based Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports, which puts on several trail running races. “With so many road marathons now available, trails and ultra marathons offer a new way for runners to challenge themselves.”

ATRA executive director Nancy Hobbs thinks much of the trail boom is driven by response from the outdoor industry (think more and better gear options) and positive results from U.S. athletes both at home and abroad, as well as effective marketing, “with imagery dedicated to trail and mountain running.”

As for the allure of prize money, Gina Lucrezi, a Team Salomon runner from Colorado, says, “It costs a lot of money to travel and compete, so when you have the chance to make some of that back at a race with a prize purse, it is a no-brainer.”

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Which is exactly why The North Face made cash payouts a distinguishing feature of the 50-mile championship at The North Face Endurance Challenge when it was launched in 2006.

“When the decision was made to enter the ultra trail racing space, we understood that mountain or trail running was a tough sport from which to make a living,” says Katie Ramage, director of sports marketing for The North Face. “Prize money that more fittingly awarded runners for such effort, not only on race day, but in preparation for racing 50 miles, was something we believed in.”

Lucrezi also stresses the importance of balance, saying enjoying the sport for the beauty of it and even winning quirky trophies are important aspects of the experience.

“Trail running provides a sense of freedom, a freedom that money cannot buy,” Lucrezi says. “More money would allow more runners to make a living doing what they love, but it could also take away from the purity of the sport.”

What’s Next?

For the foreseeable future, continued growth in trail running and trail racing is imminent. Growth will bring more money and more money may entice more elites to races. And with almost 40,000 miles of trails between the Rails-to-Trails program and National Park Service properties alone, both new and seasoned trail runners have training options. Yet, smart growth and management are imperative to ensure popular trails aren’t used to death.

Hobbs thinks education, sustainability and “green” events are important to smart growth. Ramage emphasizes mixing long and short distance races to appeal to a range of runners.

Conversations are key, according to Mike Foote, a race director and elite runner for The North Face, who sees the current boom as an opportunity for athletes, sponsors, race directors and land management organizations to shape the future of the sport.

“If the sport still promotes, advocates and inspires folks to get out and explore open spaces, or prioritizes developing and strengthening the running community, I’m all for growth,” Foote says.

These sound like good topics to ponder on a trail run.

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