There’s a new running event series in town. And country. Its name is EcoTrail, and it’s the fastest-growing trail running series in the world. The idea is as brilliant as it is simple: bring eco-friendly trail running events with different distances each time into significant cities to remind runners—locals, or not—that a preferable natural path is never too far away from the buildings they live by.
The EcoTrail movement started in Paris, back in 2008, and today shines all over Europe, a bit in Asia and now in the Middle East. And it’s growing. This is where it comes from and where it is going. And when it finally gets to America, this is probably why you should go for it.
EcoTrail’s founder, Jean-Charles Perrin, is an ex-Danone Waters white-collar boy who, in the span of 20 years, has, without a doubt, become the best running event architect Europe has ever produced. His ideas are fresh and he has no shortage of them. They always challenge the status quo and meet up with success.
Perrin is one of the few wizards behind the spectacular growth of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and its global spinoffs, working mainly behind the scenes with the race directors, sharing his vision and marketing skills.
Around 2005, Perrin told me about a new trail race he envisioned in and around my busy, noisy, touristy hometown: Paris. I knew we had great trails in the suburbs. I lived there and I ran them all the time. We had hills, dirt, and nasty slippery roots on the ground. We had everything to train for epic trail races. Except real mountains.
Perrin believed runners would travel to Paris and pay a $100 registration fee just to run on those trails. I didn’t. Why would you come to Paris for a trail running race when you could go to the Alps and pay approximately the same entry price but get a life-changing experience in return? I certainly didn’t buy it. I knew my fellow Parisian, and suburban trail runners wouldn’t buy it either. Or so I thought.
EcoTrail Paris launched in 2008 and was an immediate success. It still is. And I now have no doubt its 13th edition next March will carry on successfully. For its 13th edition, organizers are adding a 10K to the existing 4 races (50 miles, 28 miles, 18 miles, 11 miles) which saw 10,776 overall finishers last March (1977 finishers for the 50-mile race only).
The concept is noble: Optimize the natural trails around a city, offer runners all kind of distances, up to ultra, and have them realize how precious and rich their natural environment actually is, as well as teach them good manners. EcoTrail indeed encourages more sustainable public transport by giving you free tickets to regular city trains and buses to reach the different starting lines, seeks to reduce any sort of waste at every aid station by having runners carry their own cups as well as their own trash pouch, and only offers local products to eat and drink.
Jean-Charles Perrin underlines it well: “From the very beginning, in 2008, we clearly stated that being environmental friendly was within our DNA. Trail running is about running in nature. If nature goes away, if nature dies, so does trail running. Fortunately, more races are now embracing that environmental friendly culture. It’s great for us all. Our name is explicit enough for people to understand what we are about”.
A Winning Combination
But the brilliance of EcoTrail lies elsewhere: It is in the mix of a trail running event with a race in a destination city with all its sites. Including the Eiffel Tower. At EcoTrail Paris, you start roughly 50 miles away from the French capital. You run on trails for 90–95% of the time, connect suburbs to each other with the unavoidable roads and finish running up the first floor of the most visited paid-for monument in the world: the Eiffel Tower. Most runners reach it at night. A few steps later, 347 precisely, Paris, the city of lights, is at their feet. Quite literally.
Among other European destinations, an EcoTrail franchise quickly rose in Florence. Firenze, as the Italians call it, is an architectural wonder. It is a town like no other and a constant enchantment for the eye. Everything in Florence breathes the Renaissance, every street, every galleria, every palace, every garden.
Starting and ending a trail running competition down in the center of Florence, overseeing the Duomo, its grandiose cathedral, circling then in the surrounding hills, passing gardens and woods few tourists ever go through, reaching vistas over the city you can only dream of is an indescribable experience overall.
Imagine starting in the Santa Monica mountains trails and finishing in Hollywood boulevard, in Los Angeles; or running around Boulder’s hills and having a grand finish downtown Denver. And what about starting in New Jersey and finishing in Manhattan? The list of potential North American towns for an EcoTrail setup is infinite.
“We started EcoTrail in Europe, we ran it in Asia, and we’re now building our newest event in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t bring it to the USA. It’s just a matter of time,” Jean-Charles Perrin told us. But for now, from his office in one of Paris poshest suburbs, he has licensed other territories and cities for 2020:
- Alula (Saudi Arabia, February 8th)
- Paris (France, March 14-15th)
- Florence (Italy, March 28th)
- Olso (Norway, May 30th)
- Geneva (Switzerland, June 6th)
- Stockholm (Sweden, June 13th)
- Reykjavik (Iceland, July 3rd)
- Brussels (Belgium, September 5th)
- Wicklow (Ireland, September 26th)
- Putrajaya (Malaysia, October 17th)
- Funchal Madeira Island (Portugal, October 24th)
- Madrid (Spain, November 14th)
- Chiang Mai (Thaïland, first edition was November 24th 2019)
There are 13 EcoTrail around the globe. Will USA be number 14th?
“We’re looking at an East Coast important town right now, working on getting it all in place there,” Perrin says. “We’ll announce in 2020 and launch in 2021”.
Beyond Revealing, Creating
“Our newest venue is surprisingly in Saudi Arabia,” Perrin says. “And the fun fact about it is that the town of Alula is not even finished yet! It’s being built right now, and the local officials agreed on keeping our trail route untouched…forever. It means they will build the town around our defined trail. Isn’t it incredible? They will not touch it. All those years, we brought runners on trails that survived the development of modern western towns. But in Saudi Arabia, the process is now being reversed”.
The Saudis are indeed not just town and pipeline builders over desert empty lands anymore. They are also visionaries of their own and marketing magicians. Like their rich neighbors from the UAE, Qatar, or Bahrain, they understand the value of positioning themselves as a touristic fun destination. It did not take long for them to realize the potential of an EcoTrail franchise, which, again, is based on an environmentally friendly equation.
Eco Trail Putrajaya, Malaysia / photo: courtesy EcoTrail
Mohd Bukhari Ismail, race director of EcoTrail, Malaysia, says, “We’re proud to be the first EcoTrail created outside Europe. There are a lots of running events in Malaysia already. Some are even organized by us. But they all are kind of similar.
“EcoTrail is an eco-friendly concept that no one else had envisioned before. Through EcoTrail, we hope to start changing the way people manage and participate in running events. We want to bring awareness to the necessity of being more eco-friendly. But we also want to show them all the hidden potentials of our city for outdoor exercising.
“Putrajaya is the latest city development for all administrative purposes of the Malaysian government. In Putrajaya, which is really a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, besides the sophisticated city aspect and all the tall buildings, there are many green parks. They are the lungs of the city but they are rarely visited by tourists. It’s a shame. As a result, our EcoTrail race offers up to 70% nature trails and a 30% mix course, all in Putrajaya.”
The last EcoTrail of the year was last weekend in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the 1st EcoTrail of Thailand. More than 900 participants from 27 different countries attended the race. The movement is on: Next year, maybe you’ll travel to a far-flung destination and taste their urban trails, or maybe an EcoTrail event will come to you.
All photos by EcoTrail Organization / P.Mangez, R.Runnar, Ian Corless, JM. Faria, Sportograf.
Gaël Couturier is a French journalist who left Paris to travel the world and mostly divides his time between San Clemente, Southern California and Venice, Italy. He’s also an experienced runner, 4-times UTMB finisher and 2-times EcoTrail finisher, among other ultra running and Ironman triathlon nonsense.