It was during a recent running race that I questioned the distinction between trail and hill race. Some called it a hill race, others tagged it as a trail run. Inevitably the race went up a hill, involved a series of off-road ascents and descents and was attended by a variety of runners, ages, sexes and experience/fitness levels.
The thing with distinguishing between these two branches of ‘running’ is that it is more about what they are not than what they are. The natural environment plays a crucial role; generally people are doing it for the experiential joy, as the natural landscape that envelops routes of trail & hill races is integral to the feelings associated with trails and hills. Crucially the surface is not a road or track, they fundamentally reject this quantified aspect of the sport. At their heart they represent a rejection of road running and the commercialisation of our sport (even though both contain races that are big, commercialised and more in line with road races).
The very joy or thrill of trail running is encapsulated by the ascent, the uphills and the downhills. It is in these moments that feelings are most affected by the terrain and topography. Both trail and hill running share two critical common elements. Something they involve: undulations, hills, ascents. And something they don’t involve: manicured ‘man-made’ surfaces. We don’t always realise it but the surface has a huge impact on our emotions and feelings as the proprioceptive receivers in our bodies are signalled by the terrain that we are moving within somewhere more natural and ‘green’. It may not always be the most picturesque of places but if there is dirt, rocks, branches, roots, grass etc then we know, consciously or not, where we are and what experiences are being generated.
Its interesting that in any advertisement or review of either a hill race or a trail race, people usually mention ‘the view’ and its attractive features in making the race or run more enjoyable and enticing. But because you are running you have little time to pause and admire this ‘view’ so the aspect that is often billed as the most appealing for runners and main draw of either branch of running (the ‘view’) is actually a very small part of what gives people a more holistic, multi-sensory and enjoyable experience.
For me, both are all about the thrill, the bodily engagement with the environment and the activation off all the senses and proprioceptors within your body. That is what makes them what they are. That is what makes them of interest.
Distinguishing between the two has little practical importance but the differentiation offers interesting caveats about what they are and the draw of either of them.
For sure, trail running is more of American thing, and Hill running is more Scottish (in England its called Fell running). As with many things national differences will occur. For here in Scotland the main aspect is that hill running is supposedly more raw: often no set route, no race package and a more ‘pure’ experience for those with higher experience levels (physically, I’d argue hill running is harder…) whilst trail running is perhaps more an entry level or ‘less hardcore’ pursuit than running off the beaten paths in the Scottish hills. However, there are many trail races where the terrain can be just as challenging.
Perhaps a key difference talked about is the route; hill races often have no set route and ‘a day in the hills’ rarely follows a designated path on the map whilst trail races often have marked routes, following well marked, set paths (hence its potential to be more beginner friendly). But there is often cross overs and what is classed as a path is vague and open to interpretation.
One thing I have noticed from reading a lot on the subjects and being a part of both communities is the gendered side of the two. Engagements with hill running and their spoken narratives often come from a male voice, talking about his heroics of conquering the tough rough terrain that serves as a justification for the outing and generally, (speaking from personal observations), hill races are far more popular amongst men than women in comparison to trail races. This gendered aspect is fascinating but I believe is too large a topic to tackle here
Trail running and hill running have many similarities and some differences but both are based around the fundamental notion of having enjoyment in a natural environment, away from the quantified road running scene. Both are individually defined (and that’s ok).
Oh, lets not even mention ‘sky running’….