We recently had the pleasure of speaking to Kris Van de Velde, the founder of Asia Trail Master, to discuss current trends in the Asian trail running market.
Kris is an experienced race director and event manager in the endurance sports industry. Since moving to China in 2010 he has designed, directed and promoted a large number of running and cycling races in Asia including the Granfondo Yunnan and the recently launched Ecotrail Putrajaya. In 2014 Kris founded Asia’s first trail running race series called Asia Trail Master.
Since its launch in 2014, the Asia Trail Master series has become an internationally acknowledged series of trail running races. The series now includes a total of over 30 races taking place in 15 different countries. Asia Trail Master has helped to create a community of trail running enthusiasts across Asia. It has also provided numerous trail running event organisers with a platform to help them promote their event internationally.
Below you will learn about Kris’ insights on what is currently happening in the world of trail running in Asia.
What are the main changes that you have observed in the Asia trail running industry over the last 5 years?
In 2014 trail running was very much a developing sport in Asia. At that time, many countries were launching their first trail running event. Since then the overall level of technical organisation has improved a lot. At the beginning, it was quite frequent to see large numbers of participants getting lost because of poor marking. Luckily this isn’t the case anymore. As the events become more mature, the organisers become more experienced and so naturally the event organisation is becoming slicker.
The overall fitness level of race participants has also improved across the board. The top pack is definitely becoming more competitive.
Based on your experience, are there any specific challenges that trail running event organisers are facing in Asian countries?
Safety during races can be a bit more of a challenge in Asia. This is mainly related to the fact that trail running is still a relatively young industry here. In Europe, especially in countries where the trail running industry has a longer history, the safety protocols are much stronger. That’s why we put a lot of emphasise on safety when we collaborate with race organisers for the ATM series.
Another reason why safety can be more challenging in Asia is the nature of the terrain. In Indonesia for example, most races take place on volcanoes. In Malaysia most trails go through very thick jungle. If something happens in that kind of environment, it’s going to be very difficult to get rescued by helicopter.
Apart from the safety aspect I wouldn’t say that there are any Asia-specific challenges faced by organisers. The challenges that organisers face here are very similar to what organisers deal with in other parts of the world. The main issue is usually budget; trail running organisers usually have to work with a very low budget. Another common challenge is the obtention of permits to enter reserves and national parks. This often requires a lot of finesse and negotiation skills.
In which Asian countries is trail running currently booming?
Two countries that are really booming are Vietnam and Thailand. The running industry has exploded in both of these countries in the last two years. There has been a huge increase both in terms of number of events and number of participants. Malaysia also has an enormous number of road and trail running races.
Are there any countries that have reached a plateau?
Yes, interestingly. Indonesia seems to be stalling a little bit. The number of events is starting to decrease and the number of Indonesian participants in ultras is also going down. Trail running races in Hong Kong are also experiencing a slight decline in terms of participation.
The Philippines, especially the northern part of the country is starting to reach plateau as well. There are still a very large number of trail running races taking place there but I don’t see big growth in this area. One reason for this is the competition that trail running is getting from Spartan obstacle racing which has become very popular and trendy in the Philippines. I have heard from many local event organisers that more and more participants are moving to obstacle racing and away from trail running.
I wonder if this is linked to the fact that mainstream runners are getting tired of taking part in 100k and 100mile races all the time. Another factor explaining this trend could be Manolito Divina’s recent move from trail running to obstacle racing. Manolito won the ATM Championship in 2016 and he is a very popular filipino trail runner. The Philippines have a longer history in trail running compared to other countries in Southeast Asia so I wonder if this trend could be a prelude to what is going to happen in other Asian countries.
What would you say are the most popular trail running distances in Asia?
Based on what I’m hearing from runners I would say that 50k and 70k are now the most popular distances. Why? Probably because it is easier for participants to fit these races into a weekend trip. 50k and 70k trail races usually start either at sunrise or just before sunrise and they finish in the afternoon or in the evening. That means that people don’t have to run through the night. That makes it more feasible for runners to take part in these races without being completely exhausted on Monday morning when they have to go back to the office. One thing for organisers to remember is that most people taking part in trail running events have regular 9-5 jobs. So being able to take part in an event without having to take an extra day off work is important. Moreover, many trail runners have ticked that 100k or 100mile race off their bucket list by now. The novelty is starting to wear off.
Women’s participation in running races has been increasing over the last few years. Do you see a similar trend in trail running events in Asia?
Yes definitely, I don’t have exact numbers but there are races where male:female participation ratio is actually very close to 50:50.
Who are some of the top athletes that you have seen coming through the ATM Championship Series?
Ruth Theresia from Indonesia has benefited a lot from her Championship title in terms of getting sponsorship from big brands. Then there is Tahira Najmunisaa who was Champion in 2016. She has since become a household name in the running community in Malaysia and even in the rest of Southeast Asia. Everybody knows her. The same applies to Manolito Divina in the Philippines and Steven Ong in Malaysia.
In ATM we naturally focus a lot on the Asian runners, but we have had great expat runners as well such as Alessandro Sherpa, Salva Rambla and John Ellis, just to name three. Harry Jones is an international top elite and has won a couple of ATM point races in 2018. The same applies to Jeff Campbell and Yan Longfei. Obviously, those latter guys have other duties year-round, but it’s nice to see them pop up at an ATM-promoted event every once in a while. They’re also all very supportive of what we are doing in Asia, so that’s always nice to hear.
Recently it has also been interesting to see the development of Asuka Nakajima. She is Japanese but lives in Jakarta and is the current leader in the 2019 Championship for women. Asuka won the Ijen trail, the Mantra Summits Challenge in Malang and also the Tahura trail. She is a road runner who has been running internationally but she is switching to trail this year. Since the start of the year she has been improving a lot and getting very fast.
Another woman who has raised plenty of eyebrows recently is Shanghai-based Slovakian Veronica Vadovicova. She has recently switched from triathlon to trail running and has shown incredible speed and strength on various terrain and distances.
What is one piece of advice you would give to an event organiser looking to achieve long term success in the Asia trail running market?
I would say, ask yourself how you can incentivise the majority of race participants to return to the same event year after year. How can you attract those runners who do not compete for victory, but just want to take part and challenge themselves, to come back to your race after they have completed it once. That’s the key to building an event that’s successful in the long run. The big question is “who is the trail runner”? Is he an athlete or is he a tourist? When people have done an event, what is their incentive to return to the same event? A lot of people travel to a trail running event because they want to see a certain national park or climb a particular mountain. But once they have done it you need to give them another motivation to fly back to the same country and do the same race a second time.