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SCOTT Running's Alex Nichols competes in the 2016 Vail GoPro Games. —Photo by Peter Maksimow

Pro Runners Talk: Trail Running in the U.S. Versus Europe

How does trail racing stateside compare to running in Europe? Some of Colorado’s elite runners point out the differences. 

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Colorado’s trail running is arguably among the best in the country. Thanks to our massive mountain summits, altitude, and epic scenery, the Centennial State continually plays host to world-class competitive races (our trails being accessible, well maintained and challenging doesn’t hurt, either). If you’ve ever wondered how America’s rocky roads and rural paths compare to others throughout the world, we’ve uncovered some answers. Here, local runners who’ve hit trails here and overseas share the differences.

The Courses Are (Even More) Gnarly in Europe

You’ll find steep grades, trails littered with rocks and roots, and far fewer switchbacks on Europe’s big mountains. While there are many gnarly races in the U.S.—hello Hardrock 100—trail runners say that American races have more forgiving terrain overall.

“I do think that in general European runners prefer courses that feature more technical terrain than what we commonly find in the U.S.,” says Alex Nichols, winner of both the 2015 Pikes Peak Marathon and Mont Blanc 80km (one of the most arduous 80k trail races in France).

According to Crested Butte’s Stevie Kremer, winner of the 2013 Pikes Peak Marathon and 2012 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships, the difference in terrain may lie in the trails’ grade—runners traverse 10 miles to gain 6,000 feet of elevation in the U.S., while in Europe, they do so in six miles—as well as altitude. “The races I’ve competed in in Europe have been, for the most part, steeper and more technical than those in the U.S. They typically start at sea level and climb 6,000 to 8,000 feet.”

European Races Draw a Rowdy Crowd

In Europe, onlookers don’t stick to the most accessible areas. Even when the terrain is treacherous, spectators are known to navigate a course’s remote sections to cheer on the runners. “Spectators will climb to the highest points, leaving at the wee hours of the morning, just to cheer you on,” says Kremer. “The trails are lined with people, cheering and supporting.”

Here in the U.S., only the biggest marathons see that kind of turnout. “European races run through towns, where everyone in the city comes out to watch. At the Zermatt marathon [in Switzerland], fans lined an entire mile of the course,” says Andy Wacker, 2015 USA Track & Field (USATF) 50k Trail Champion. “That kind of support can only be compared to races like the Boston and Chicago marathons [in the U.S.].”

Trail Running in Europe Is Nearly A Religion

Trail running is to Europeans as baseball is to Americans: It’s deep-rooted in the culture.

“Trail running in the U.S. is great, don’t get me wrong, but it is nearly a religion in Europe,” says Wacker. “At the Jungfrau marathon in Interlaken, Switzerland, groups of local fans wore traditional Swiss garb, and swung cowbells larger than most small children. Old men stood near the summit playing the alphorn [think Ricola commercials] for hours.”

This cult following has lead to a culture of celebrity that U.S. trail runners have yet to experience. “Europeans seem to spend more on gear. With more participants spending more money, there are more spectators and status [for running] in Europe,” says Cassie Scallon, 2016 USATF 100k Trail Champion and fourth-place finisher at the 2015 Grand Trail des Templiers in France.

European Races Have Fewer Permit Restrictions

Trail running in Europe has blossomed, in part, because races can spring up nearly anywhere. “I don’t know what type of regulations are in place in Europe but they don’t seem to be nearly as strict as what we see here in the U.S.,” says Scallon. Here in the States, it’s challenges to get permits for mountain races. U.S. National Parks never allow races. Some permits are granted for races in National Forests, but they’re rare and highly restrictive, limiting the number of participants and where they can run. “I was running with a European [recently] who couldn’t believe that public land wasn’t universally open for all people to enjoy here,” says Scallon. “I’ve run courses in Spain that will leave the trail for long periods and have racers traverse high-altitude tundra. In the U.S., this would be forbidden.”

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