Start of the elite women’s race, Golden Trail Championship 2020 final day in the Azores. Picture: Stephen Granger

One of the biggest opportunities in world athletics has turned into gold. The organisers of the Golden Trail Series managed to dodge the COVID bullet in 2020, using smarts, innovation and a bit of luck to hold a Championship event in the Azores that lead to a hugely successful year for one of running’s newest and most exciting properties.

Using “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-like marketing, runners for the Championship were selected through a “Golden Ticket” system that saw runners use tracking apps to certify their times on chosen national trails (yet another sports innovation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic). Winners were provided with tickets to the Azores, which hosted a hugely successful, if very wet, event. According to race organisers,

“The GTC enabled 30 different countries to be activated through the Golden Ticket system. And the 4-day stage racing format provided a solid week of outstanding live media communication. To date, the 316 articles (and counting) have reached upward of an estimated 785M, for one single event. TV coverage has counted numerous international TV networks, with 5 solid days of race content.”

Competitors in the elite men’s race hit the lava sands on the last day of the 4-day Golden Trail Championship 2020, in the Azores. Picture: Stephen Granger

The Golden Trail Series has seen its expansion since 2018 result in a highly competitive and marketable sports property. Countries around the world – including South Africa – are now lining up to host events and the renaming of the initiative to the Golden Trail World Series in 2019, points to an intent from the organisers to spread its influence globally.

The establishment of several Golden Trail National Series (GTNS) in 2019 extended the benefits of the series to a country and regional level and a number of athletes qualified for last year’s GTC through top performances in their national series. 

Following the success of the GTC and the “Golden Tickets” formula, organisers will revert to the system every alternate year, with the next scheduled for 2022. In that year there would be no separate GTNS ‘grand finale’, but the top three male and female athletes of the respective GTNS would qualify for golden passes to compete in the GTC. 

Five GTNS are being held this year – in Spain / Portugal, France / Belgium, Italy, Poland / Czech / Slovakia and the United Kingdom – with the leading athletes from those series returning to the Azores for their 2021 Grand Finale in October.

Start of the men’s race, final day of the Golden Trail Championship 2020, in the Azores. Photo: Stephen Granger

The Golden Series is the first global initiative in trail running to multiply the impact of individual ‘marathon distance’ events through a shared vision, after the Ultra-trail World Tour, which includes Ultra-trail Cape Town, was established some years back for the longer-distance events.

Thus far, both the world series and national series have largely been focused in Europe – the epi-centre of trail running. But might an African connection not become part of an expanded vision? Trail running organisers in South Africa are upbeat on the potential for such a series in Southern Africa – potentially including South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini.

The variety of trails offered by the region, from the high altitude of the Drakensburg and the Lesotho Highlands and the iconic Table Mountain to the coastal forests and fynbos of the Otter Trail and the vulture colonies, limestone cliffs and beaches of De Hoop Nature Reserve, would make for a mouth-watering feast of trail running and afford a significant media profiling opportunity.

 “I think that is an excellent idea for a number of reasons,” said Ultra-trail Drakensberg founder Spurgeon Flemington. “A unified series that incentivises the best athletes in the country to compete across a variety of courses would be a huge shot in the arm for the elite trail running community.

“The sharp end of many of our races are not always as competitive as they should be… A no-holds-barred series that allows the cream to rise to the top via incentives, such as access to Golden Trail events, would do wonders for the quality of our sport.”

Race director of the Otter African Trail Run, top Adventure Racer Mark Collins, is equally enthusiastic. 

Adventure Racer and Race Director of the Otter African Trail Run, Mark Collins, seen in an promotional picture for his adventure team.

“Such a series would absolutely be supported. In fact, we’ve been working on this concept for some time. It makes so much sense for both sporting and business reasons and I’m convinced it’s the way to go.”

“Such a series would also provide a competitive alternative to ultra-distance running,” continued Flemington. “There’s a general obsession with longer and further in South Africa, given our Comrades history.  A series which places distances such as 35km to 65km, or ‘marathon-type’ distances, on a pedestal would be a great outlet for athletes who aren’t necessarily ready for the 100-160km distances.”

Collins and Flemington agree that a Golden Trail National Series in Southern Africa could be the glue which sticks it all together.

“We would love to link with the Golden Trail Series if that can work out,” said Collins. “We have kept in close contact with the series organisers in France, who we got to know when the Otter was chosen as the Grand Finale of the inaugural Golden Trail Series in 2018 and I’m positive that something can be worked out.

“But I feel we need to go ahead with this irrespective (of a link with Golden Trail).  Clearly a series sponsor would be critical to the success of the undertaking and we are looking at a few options in that respect.”

Could the Golden Trail be the missing ‘silver bullet’ to bring the Southern African races together?

Kane Reilly. Photo: Stephen Granger

“SA Race Organisers often try and work together for the benefit of the sport but nothing has ever achieved real traction concerning such a series,” admitted Flemington.  “Something like a Golden Trail Series-SA would be the ideal vehicle to finally establish something sustainable and world-class. The events are all in place already, they just need the unified direction that a GTS would provide.”

Leading South African trail athlete and Salomon SA’s Kane Reilly would love to see the GTNS expanded to South Africa. “We would certainly be delighted to see a GTNS based in Southern Africa,” said Reilly, who hopes to return to racing Golden Trail events in Europe later in the year.

“But the reality is that Salomon SA would have to provide most of the resources to make that happen and right now we are simply trying to survive through the COVID pandemic. Also, Salomon would need to be associated with the races within the series, so there’s quite a bit of spadework to be done before that could become a reality.”

Not only in Southern Africa are ‘trailers’ hoping for Golden Trail expansion into their country or region. Although the USA hosts one of the Golden Trail World Series events in the form of Pike’s Peak Marathon, a North American Golden Trail National Series has yet to emerge.

United States trail runner Rachel Drake in action during the Golden Trail Championship. Photo: Stephen Granger

 “An American Golden Trail National Series would be wonderful,” remarked top USA trail athlete Rachel Drake.  “In my eyes, the US feels more ultra-centric relative to Europe and I think bringing the hype of a GTNS to America would be awesome for both (marathon-distance) athletes and fans of the sport.” 

Ten times world orienteering champion, Swedish athlete Tove Alexandersson, also recognises the value-add that Golden Trail brings to the sport. “I think it would be good for trail running in Scandinavia if we also had a Scandinavia Golden Trail National Series here,” Alexandersson emphasised.

Swedish trail runner Tove Alexandersson in action during the Golden Trail Championship. Photo: Stephen Granger

Whether the Golden Trail ‘Orb’ will continue rolling to fresh parts of the planet, notably to Africa, in the relatively near future remains to be seen, but as the world emerges from an economic COVID slumber, so opportunities to attract suitable partners to realise these dreams will emerge, many of them looking to invest in human health and well-being, synonymous with trail running.

And such a boost could well lead to a natural expansion of Golden Series and its ilk to Africa and all parts of the planet, bringing additional possibilities and opportunities to raise the level of the sport of trail running.

Story by Stephen Granger

©SPNAfrica News