The World Mountain and Trail Running Championships – a look back at their (surprisingly short) history…

The 2023 World Trail Running Championships - as part of the WMTRC in Innsbruck Stubai - will only be the 11th edition of the trail running world championships. We are taking a look at their history back to their beginnings in Texas in 2007.

The boom in trail running continues, with more and more athletes participating in more and more competitions - yet, the sport is still a very young form of running. The first world championships took place only 16 years ago, in December 2007 in Huntsville, Texas. There was no International Trail Running Association ITRA yet, which is why these - unofficial - World Championships were organized by another organization, the International Association of Ultrarunners, or IAU. It was more than logical; after all, for a long time trail running was almost synonymous with ultrarunning, i.e. competitions that covered the classic marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers and more.

As the first man and woman ever to win the IAU Trail World Challenge, Jaroslaw Janicki, from Poland, and Sakurai Norimi, from Japan, made history that year in Texas, with a total of 128 men and 44 women crossing the finish line after 80.5 kilometers.

To be precise, this first edition was not called World Championships, but World Trail Challenge, just like the second edition in 2009 in Serre Chevalier, France. It was not until the third edition in 2011 in Connemara, Ireland, that the World Challenge became the World Championships.

In those days, they ITRA did not yet exist. But in 2012, 150 trail enthusiasts from 18 nations gathered in Courmayeur, Italy, to promote and support the sport that some might argue was born in the US in the 1970s. Athletes, coaches, organizers and outfitters debated how best to guarantee the health and safety of trail runners on the one hand and to define and defend the core values of the sport on the other. Subsequently, in July 2013, the world association ITRA was founded and since 2015, the ITRA has been involved in the organization of the World Trail Running Championships together with the IAU.

With the ITRA’s involvement, the numbers of participating athletes and national teams increased drastically. While there were 18 teams and 118 athletes participating in Conwy, Wales, in 2013 - before the ITRA’s involvement - the number increased to 35 teams and 263 athletes only two years later in Annecy, France. It culminated in 53 teams and 433 athletes participating in the 2019 WC in Miranda do Corvo, Portugal - a pre-pandemic highlight, so to speak. The WMTRC in Innsbruck Stubai will see a total of 1,600 participants from 70 nations.

There have been other changes since the ITRA started getting involved, and for a period of time, the World Championships were staged annually rather than every two years. What remained were the different course lengths. While in 2016, the route in Braga, Portugal, covered 85 kilometers in length, the 2017 course in Badia Prataglia, Italy, was around 50 kilometers; the 2018 route in Penyagolosa, Spain, covered 80 kilometers, while the one in Mirando do Corvo, Portugal, in 2019, “only” only covered 44.2 kilometers. Starting with the first World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in 2022 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Championships, which should have happened in 2021 but had to be postponed due to the pandemic, returned to a bi-annual rhythm. The new concept covers both distances - with the Trail Short, which is roughly the length of a marathon, and the Trail Long, which is in the range of ultra races and covers around around 80 kilometers.

The most successful athlete in the history of trail running is Spaniard Luis Alberto Hernando, who won silver in 2015, followed by gold three times in a row. Apart from being a trail runner, Hernando also pursued biathlon and cross-country skiing, and even competed in World Championships and the Winter Olympics. Admittedly, he was not nearly as successful in biathlon as he was on the trails. In 2006 in Turin, he came 80th in the individual biathlon and 82nd in the sprint.

Among the women, the French athletes have been dominating the scene, taking home six of 11 World Champion titles. Blandine L'Hirondel came out on top in Miranda do Corvo in 2019 and again at the inaugural World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Chiang Mai in 2022.

Since she took the reins on September 11, 2021, Janet Ng has been the first woman to head the ITRA. The trained lawyer from Hong Kong started trail running more than two decades ago, has been organizing trail events for more than ten years and was the ITRA’ treasurer before being elected its president. In addition, Janet Ng is the Vibram Hong Kong 100’s co-founder and race director.