The rise of the youth

As the trail running world emerges from the covid cave, you may have noticed a few changes at trail races - the aid stations no longer have a communal bowl of M&M's for every athlete to plunge their hands wrist-deep into. Also gone is the communal piece of cardboard smeared with vaseline also intended for mixed use to soothe chafing runners.... Perhaps these little adjustments are good ones!

You may also have noticed the complexion of some of your competition is different... More zits! It seems that more youth runners are taking to trail races than previously. Why the uptick in interest?.... I caught up with Lauri Van Houten (Executive Director of Skyrunning International) and Nancy Hobbs (Executive Director of The American Trail Running Association) to find out more!

Ridgeline Athletics - What growth have you observed within youth trail running within the last few years? 

Nancy Hobbs (ATRA) - There is for sure growth as we are definitely realizing more opportunities for young runners primarily in terms of events, camps, and even international competitions. Many races are adding youth divisions (and even discounts for youth). Offering a welcoming environment and one that is more accessible is terrific to see and contributes to the growth we are seeing. For the USATF U18 and U20 teams, there is increased interest year over year. This is a great sign.

Lauri Van Houten (Skyrunning) - We introduced The Youth Skyrunning World Championships in 2016 - There were approximately 75 runners from 9 countries. In the most recent 2023 Youth Champs we observed about 300 runners from 31 countries... Yes, it's growing!

Ridgeline - What do you think attributes to this growth? 

LVH - I think the reason for the growth is simply that there was a need for new generations to get a taste of Skyrunning and the word spread – principally through our members (we have 50 countries) but also of course media and social media. Once they get a taste of it, it also spreads to friends and newbies.

Ridgeline - What do you think this means for the long term for trail running in North America? 

NH - Providing a pipeline for youth to compete and learn about trail running will only help the sport grow and evolve. Youth are our future leaders and stewards of public (and private) lands and integral to the continuity of our sport.

Ridgeline - Why has it taken younger athletes more time to find their way to trail running? 

LVH - The Youth Skyrunning World Champs is super important, as I said in my header: “Today’s Youth. Tomorrow’s champions”. We’re also really excited that we managed to bring down the minimum age of participation to 15. Frankly, it’s very inspiring to see such young kids doing a VK or SkyRace. When Marino Giacometti invented the sport in the early 90’s, the youngest participants, of whom there were not very many, were around 30.  One reason was that “trail” running, which at the time were ultra distance races in the US, or running in the (real) mountains didn’t exist as a sport, and those trying it came from other disciplines like mountaineering, skimo, road running .To do such a hard sport required, apart from the physical training, a strong mind to face the technical sections, and of course practice on them. I still think it’s an underdeveloped sport for young kids, but being pretty niche, it needs parents, coaches etc with a love of mountains to put it before them. Our last 2023 Youth Champs in Gran Sasso, Italy saw 31 nations take part, including new countries like Mongolia and Chile, for example. It’s a source of immense pride to have so many nations participate and to pass on this hugely inspiring sport to new generations. 

Ridgeline - What hopes does this youth involvement give you for the future? 

NH - My hope is for more opportunities for youth from events, education, to camps. It would be terrific to see a regional high school championship program feeding into the national high school trail running championships. (maybe something similar to that of cross country for high schoolers). I'd also like to see more youth get involved on committees that represent and promote the sport.

Ridgeline - If I’ve got a 14 - 18 year old aspiring trail runner at home, how can I get them involved and psyched on the sport?

Ryan Kerrigan - Within the US there are many short mountain races appropriate for youth athletes. The Cirque Series is a good place to start. Also, American Trail Running Association has a link to all youth trail races. 

Furthermore US Skyrunning is working on developing a youth training camp within each region. Stay tuned for details!

Ridgeline - How can the coaches at Ridgeline Athletics be supportive to youth athletes? 

Ryan - Well, we all once were youth athletes, and we've stepped into many of the pitfalls typical to early athlete development, and can share that experience to aspiring athletes to help them avoid some of our common mistakes. 

We've also had the experience of tracking athletes at the national and world level over several years, and have seen which regions develop strong athletes continuously, and understand the structure and lifestyle demanded to reach desired performance levels at a young age. 

Want to get more info on youth trail and SkyRunning? Got a youth who needs some help getting out on the trails? Send us an email and we’ll get the coaches from Ridgeline Athletics to help you out!



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