One Dirty Magazine

Never Heard of ITRA? That’s About to Change.

Meet Bob Crowley, the first American President of ITRA, the International Trail Running Association.

Doug Mayer April 15th, 2020

Never Heard of ITRA? That’s About to Change. New ITRA President Bob Crowley at the 2017 Tahoe 200-miler, California.

ITRA, the International Trail Running Association, based in Chamonix, France, announced on Tuesday that Bob Crowley, 62, of Fair Oaks, California, is its new President. The seven-year-old 150,000-member organization’s mission is to promote trail running and its values, in all its diverse forms, worldwide. Crowley was elected to the group’s Steering Committee just last year, and shortly thereafter was elected Vice President.

The change in leadership caught the attention of more than a few in the trail-running world, and almost certainly presages new developments for one of trail running’s few international organizations.

ITRA was founded in 2012 year by Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc co-founder Michel Poletti, who has nurtured and guided the organization in the years since. As part of the transition, Poletti stepped down as President and resigned from the steering committee. Poletti retains his status as a permanent member.

Craig Thornley, Race Director for California’s Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, served for two years on the organization’s steering committee. “Michel is almost single-handedly responsible for getting the organization to where it is today,” he says. “It took someone with his drive and skill set to make it happen,” says Thornley, who also pointed out Poletti’s broader contribution to the sport. “The events he has brought together as Ultra-Trail World Tour, the development of UTMB and its races, those are all incredible contributions to the world of trail running. He should be justifiably proud.”

 

 

A “Zoomed Out” Perspective

Thornley’s friendship with Crowley goes back to 2013, when Crowley returned to California, his adopted home. Crowley immediately started volunteering locally, including for Western States, where he now organizes the hosting of international runners—a program Crowley says he’d like to bring to ITRA.

Thornley expects Crowley’s vision will result in on-the-ground changes. “For example, here in the U.S., we need a vetting process for qualifying races that’s flexible and open,” Thornley says …

Crowley, says Thornley, “Has a zoomed-out perspective on the sport. He looks at the structure of things. It’s that different perspective that is unique about Bob.”

Thornley expects that vision will result in on-the-ground changes. “For example, here in the U.S., we need a vetting process for qualifying races that’s flexible and open,” Thornley says, alluding to the complex job he oversees, vetting runners for Western States from among 140 qualifying events. Changes like that, note Thornley, “Will immediately result in U.S. trail runners and race organizations seeing more value in ITRA.”

Thornley’s hope for change is grounded in what he has seen of Crowley. “He’s very inquisitive. He’s interested in the community of trail running,” says Thornley. “He’s a man of his word, and he’s fun to be around and can make fun of himself.” The gray-haired, 5-foot 11-inch Crowley is quick to grin broadly, an instinctive reflex that now reveals a few wrinkles.

An Entrepreneur at the Helm

Crowley brings an entrepreneurial skill set arguably not yet seen at ITRA. His early business career focused on managing a series of cable TV and software companies. In 2003, he and a partner, Ben Coes, formed The Mustang Group, a private equity company that has reviewed thousands of business opportunities, working to spot larger trends and acquisition opportunities.

Coes describes Crowley as passionate and hard working, but not at the expense of other values. “He’s selfless, generous and has a great sense of humor,” notes Coes. “And he’ll admit when he makes a mistake.”

Crowley believes his business skills are directly transferrable to his new role at ITRA. “Trendspotting, building a team, developing partnerships, opening up worldwide offices and then scaling it all rapidly—that’s what I do in my day job,” he says.

While the European trail running scene has evolved with more centralized control, Crowley observes that the situation in North America is much different. “It’s the wild west. American trail runners are mustangs that don’t want to be tamed, and that’s just fine. It’s our culture.”

He points, for example, to the current coronavirus outbreak. “We need to prepare for a spike in trail running, thanks to all the people who have discovered trail running during their time at home,” he says.

Crowley is candid about the organization’s weak points. “For American trail runners, ITRA is an enigma. One of our future missions will be to try to change that. It starts with offering services that those trail runners want. We’re going to be listening carefully.”

While the European trail running scene has evolved with more centralized control, Crowley observes that the situation in North America is much different. “It’s the wild west. American trail runners are mustangs that don’t want to be tamed, and that’s just fine. It’s our culture.”

Then, there is the complex relationship with UTMB. From a distance, many trail runners conflate the two entities. “UTMB and ITRA shared offices for many years,” points out Crowley. “It helped ITRA grow from a small operation to something that could stand on its own.” Poletti, he notes, had to juggle a variety of responsibilities—UTMB, ITRA, Ultra-Trail World Tour, and, more recently, UTMB International.

As for services, Crowley sees a big upside. “ITRA offers detailed runner profiles on more than 1.7 million trail runners. We combine that with a lot of smart analytics to get ITRA’s Performance Index for each runner. We also offer insurance, at a time when many policies won’t cover extreme sports,” says Crowley. “But we need to do better. We’re well aware that right now we might not have a compelling value proposition. We’re going to change that.”

To get the process started, Crowley has already organized what he calls a “Tiger team. We’re meeting this week. It’s priority number one.”

 

Maintaining Trail Running’s Values in an Era of Growth

Core to Crowley’s interest in trail running is what he calls the “ethos and tenets” of the sport.

“They are also those of ITRA,” he says, quickly ticking off the qualities he sees in the broader trail-running culture. “Authenticity, humility, fair play, respect, solitary, teamwork.”

These values, he says, are at risk. “Trail running is growing. We are inviting big organizations and hundreds of thousands of runners into the sport,” he says, “But none of them know these values. Our mission at ITRA is to educate these newcomers, so the growth doesn’t trample the values.”

 

“Diesel” Crowley’s Three Decades of Trail Running

Crowley’s introduction to the sport came out in Northern California, 30 years ago. Part of a “Ride and Tie” race team that involves two runners taking turns riding a horse, Crowley found himself huddled around a campfire after a race one evening, listening to tales.

“These people were telling me, ‘You know, you don’t have to use a horse. You can just run.’ It sounded crazy to me, like it was a good way to get hurt,” Crowley recalls.

The year was 1989. Among the runners around the fire that night were several who would go on to become legends, including prior winners of Western States Tom Johnson and Jim Howard, and Gordy Ainsleigh.  Ainsleigh was the first to finish the event. “I went out on a run with some of them,” says Crowley, “And I never looked back.”

In 1996, Crowley moved to Boston, where he joined a small trail-running club called TARC, the Trail Animal Running Club. “I was intrigued by the low-key and authentic, welcoming nature of TARC,” he says. Crowley returned that vibe. TARC race series co-founder Josh Katzman recalls, “Bob helped me embrace the welcoming and laid-back ‘trail-‘tude’ that is a foundation of TARC. The group is welcoming, supportive and competitive, but never at the expense of camaraderie and respect for the places we run.”

A stint of raising families on the part of early TARC members put a pause to the club, but when he returned to trail running in 2006, Crowley became the organization’s co-leader, as “Head Yeti.” Under his tenure, the group grew to a few hundred members and ultimately today’s number of nearly 7,000. Along the way, TARC added a dozen annual events. “With ITRA, I see the same values and the same kind of opportunity as TARC—but on a global scale.”

Trail running has clearly been central to Crowley’s life since that campfire moment. In the intervening years, he has run over 100 ultramarathons, including iconic events like Western States and Colorado’s Hardrock 100. “Trail running has fulfilled my life,” says Crowley, “It’s my religion.”

Along the way, he picked up the nickname “Diesel,” after a friend noted the way Crowley would power his way up hills. The nickname stuck. Last fall, as Crowley battled his way around the 330-kilometer Tor des Geants in Northern Italy, cries of “Go, Diesel!” were not uncommon.

Trail running has clearly been central to Crowley’s life since that campfire moment. In the intervening years, he has run over 100 ultramarathons, including iconic events like Western States and Colorado’s Hardrock 100. “Trail running has fulfilled my life,” says Crowley, “It’s my religion.”

While ITRA seems likely to pivot under Crowley’s leadership, like Thornley, he is quick to pay homage to Poletti’s role. “Michel was the instigator. He had the vision to start ITRA and the passion and energy to lead it. We are inheriting a fantastic organization.”

If Poletti was the right man for the moment of ITRA’s inception and adolescence, it might just be that Crowley is the appropriate torch bearer. For the grinning, enthusiastic, diesel-powered entrepreneur from 6,000 miles and two continents away, it certainly feels like a good match.

 

Q & A
What is ITRA?

Crowley: ITRA is a international member-based nonprofit organization. We have 150,000 registered individual trail-runner accounts on our website, and an additional 3,700 trail-running organizations.

What is its mission?

Crowley: Our mission is to share and protect the value and ethos of trail running around the world.

How does ITRA accomplish that?

Crowley: ITRA provides services to runners and organizations. In exchange, we get a chance to share with them the value and the ethos of trail running. Then, we can engage them to protect and defend those values.

You mention services. What are some of those services?

Crowley: For organizations, we have the ability to evaluate a race course and give it a ranking on a scale of 1 to 6, which indicates the difficulty of the course. We’ve worked really hard to develop a system that’s detailed and accurate, and takes in a wide range of parameters. This provides runners around the world a means to compare trail races.  We also allow race directors to submit results, and we provide them with detailed, well thought-out safety guidelines. Finally, we provide an international event calendar on our website.

For individual runners, there’s a personal runner’s space where you can manage your own information and race stats, and add photos. That is there right now for 1.6 million trail runners.

We also offer access to our ITRA performance index for the 150,000 trail runners who have a free account with us. You can also modify and sync your race results on your account. If you used to keep your race results on a spreadsheet, you can now do that online, pulling it automatically from thousands of trail races around the world. Unlike other services, you can correct your data, too.

If you pay the organization’s $9 annual membership fee, you get all the stats and results for 1.6 million runners. Second, you get access to our international runners insurance at a great price.

What services are coming for runners in the near futures?

Crowley: For runners, we’d like to become a hub for runners—an exchange program, so if you’re traveling to a new city or country to trail run, you can connect with other runners in that region. You’ll be able to find out about trails in their region, meet up with local runners and potentially even stay in their homes. That’s just one example. There are many more services on the way that are tuned to what we heard runners and organizers want.

 

               
   
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Sally Edwards
3 months ago

After knowing Diesel (aka Bob Crowley) for over 3 decades I can attest to the accuracy of this article. Bob’s real passion is his family, his community, and making business sense for groups and organizations that need strategy, vision, and if I know Bob, a direction that takes trail runners to the Olympic games as their next sport to add.

Charles N. Steele
Charles N. Steele
3 months ago
Reply to  Sally Edwards

Olympics…exactly the kind of elitism and hype that we *don’t* need.

BTW, your triathlon book is one of the really important influences in my life — has helped my training and focus since the 80’s. I still quote it to students.

michu
michu
2 months ago
Reply to  Sally Edwards

God no ! This olympics kind of path is the worst to fear for our sport. Let the ultracompetitive egotic run for olympic trials while the trail running keeps it wild and friendly.

John Medinger
Tropical John
3 months ago

Bob Crowley is really smart, focused, and passionate about our sport. ITRA, and the future of trail running, is in good hands!

Charles N. Steele
Charles N. Steele
3 months ago

One reason I run ultras and trails is to get away from sports bureaucracies. It doesn’t matter how well intentioned this is, when humans “organize” this way they create bureaucracies. The ethos becomes bureaucracy.

Klonkas
Klonkas
3 months ago

I remember racing in Poland and Europe 5-8 years ago for almost nothing with small groups of crazy friends who just love mountains, trails and a great party after the race. After all RD’s started changing their races as a part of ITRA and chasing for the UTMB qualification points, races became very expensive for runners, changed their local atmosphere into big events, etc. Maybe for some people who want to make money and have a mission to promote the sport, it’s good but I love the local character and friendly atmosphere of races in the US. I’m afraid that it can change and then I will have to find a new place to live with small, local race with an amazing community 😉

michu
michu
2 months ago
Reply to  Klonkas

From France I can say taht if races got bigger and pricier or even “commercial” it’s really not due to itra’s symbolic fee.

Some organizers seek professionalisation, media coverage, internationnal barn expansion like utmb or maxi race. This grid is the issue not itra in its present day form.

What concerns me is taht itra seems to be really a “president driven” orgnisation with no “bottom up decision”. That is a dangerous way wich could lead to toxic “professionallisation+power concnetration”.
We are very far from that today.

Behing grotesque UTMB lies so many cool intimate races in france, of grit and rocks like Echapée Belle, UT4M etc…

 
 

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