This weekend the Istria peninsula in Croatia will host the 100 Miles of Istria event, which is part of the Ultra-Trail® World Tour. Held since 2013, the race has become increasingly popular, and is currently the biggest international trail race in Croatia. The 100 mile distance is the premier race in the event, but there are also three shorter distance races ranging from 42 km to 110 km. The race starts in Labin, and passes through Lovran, Buzet, Motovun and finishes in Umag. The course passes through mountain peaks, medieval stone towns, forests, and moors on varied terrain.
We interviewed the race director and founder, Alen Paliska, in order to learn more about his event.
TRAIL-RUN: Thanks Alen, for taking the time to answer our questions. Could you tell us about the history of the race, how it was initiated and developed?
ALEN: The race started as a pure experiment. There was a mountain path approximately 100 miles long which hikers usually take six days to finish. We had been organizing several running events since 2006, and one day we had an idea to cover the whole course in just one day. And so we decided to organize the 100 mile race. At first, we thought that this madness would attract only a few runners from Croatia and we were very surprised that more than 300 runners from 14 countries registered for the race. Only then we decided that it would be a good idea to mark the course :) And that was the birth of trail running in Croatia.
TRAIL-RUN: The race quickly became popular, with a large number of participants, an international field (more than 50 countries), and consistent presence of elite athletes. How did you make it happen? What is your secret?
ALEN: There's no secret, you have to work very hard, you have to be very, very patient and you have to invest a lot of time, energy, money and most of all dedication and love into the organization. From the start, we had a very strong idea of where we want to fit in the trail running world and it was great that the race evolved organically over the years. We had plenty of time to fine tune the event, to educate ourselves as well as the volunteers. Most importantly, we had a chance to educate the local people of the benefits that the race provides. On top of this, we are very lucky that we live in such a diverse and beautiful area with a mild climate, a very long and rich history, which is the most developed and progressive part of Croatia. When I think about it, it was a mixture of great natural resources, precise timing, and race organizing experience. In the end, it is my personal belief that the most important part of our organization is that we treat all participants as humans, not numbers, and we approach everyone on a very personal level, which is not always the case in other events.
TRAIL-RUN: Along with «100 Miles of Istria» you also organize 110, 67, 41 km races, as well as a race for children. What challenges did you face coordinating such a big event that covers the entire peninsula?
ALEN: There were a lot of obstacles in these past years but we managed to solve most of them. The hardest parts are the logistics and the human power necessary to organize the event on such a high level. Just the fact that there are four different start points over two days with more than 80 volunteer positions on the 200 km long course is enough to illustrate the challenge. But, our past experience helps a lot, all of us have participated in major events, not just sporting events, on organizing teams, and this experience is something you cannot buy. For example, I've worked at more than a hundred sporting events including european and world championships, and even Olympic qualifying events. It really helps a lot. Also, we have challenges in financing the race. As we grow, the budget rises and so far the state authorities have not recognized the value of the event. But, we're positive that this will change.
TRAIL-RUN: Why did you choose to hold the race at the beginning of April? The weather is so unpredictable during that time, and the temperature varies greatly during day and night.
ALEN: April is the perfect time for holding such an event because although the weather is unpredictable, it is mostly mild. The temperature rises during the day and you can see nature waking up, the trees are blossoming and the flowers are out, it is the most beautiful time of the year. If we organize the race later in the year, it would just be too hot and it would be too crowded. As you know, Istria is a tourist destination and there are milions of tourists during summer, we don't want to invite people into that mess. Apart from that, the accommodation prices in April are really affordable and a lot cheaper than during the main season. This is probably one of the better parts for the runners because they can book three or four star hotels for 30-40 EUR/night which is impossible at other races.
TRAIL-RUN: Why is the course always changing? Are there any plans to make a permanent route so it would be possible to track course records?
ALEN: To be completely honest, the course is still adjusting, we are in a constant search for the best possible route. But I think that this year's course will remain as a permanent course because we managed to produce and install permanent course markings, so for next year, you will be able to run the course thoughout the year without marking flags.
TRAIL-RUN: How many people (volunteers) do you attract? How do you see their role in the race?
ALEN: Our volunteers are the best volunteers in the world, they are the heart and soul of the race. At first we really struggled, there were only 56 of them at the first edition. Now, there are more than 400, not just from Croatia. The volunteers always get the best score in the post-race questionnaire and we are really very proud of them. In general, without the volunteers, this event wouldn't be possible at all, so we are very grateful for their dedicated work, hospitality and all the joy they bring into the event.
TRAIL-RUN: Do you have any financial support? Many race directors in Russia face challenges in funding their events and local authorities are not willing to help them. Do you get financial help from government or businesses?
ALEN: As I said before, the event financing is always one of the greatest challenges. There is some support from the host city and from the regional government of Istria but not nearly enough. The goverment has not recognized the event yet, despise the fact that it is very valuable in terms of providing out-of-season accomodation revenue and spending by the guests. But, we will continue trying because we are 100% certain that we do deserve better financing and we can deliver the results. Regarding commercial partners, Croatia is a small market, so the big brands do not want to invest in it. At the moment, our biggest commercial partner is the PLAVA LAGUNA hotel company. During this year's edition we will try to produce LIVE TV coverage in order to create a more visible platform for the commercial partners and we are really hopefull that we will be able to attract more and more partners/sponsors.
TRAIL-RUN: Do you think it is possible to make an event like this profitable at the moment?
ALEN: To be quite honest, I don't think that any such events are profitable. The event is only the trigger, capitalization should happen somewhere else, in tourism, in infrastructure, in accommodation, in expenditure all year round. Basically, the local community benefits the most from the event and it is the right way to think about the profit.
TRAIL-RUN: The sports club SportBox organizes the race, do you run any other events in Croatia or elsewhere, in Slovenia, for example?
ALEN: We organize several events, the very important trail race at the end of September- VALAMAR TRAIL in Rabac, one rogaine race in Buzet – Štriga! and one night adventure run race during the summer. There are some plans for expanding, but it is too early to speak about that. Apart from organizing the races, the company has an important role in the outdoor infrastructure development in the region. We are Compressport distributors for Croatia and the company works as a tourist agency. A lot of work, but we really like the job.
TRAIL-RUN: What do you think about the trail running boom happening around the world right now? Why is it becoming so popular?
ALEN: It is great that trail running is booming around the world. I like to say that trail running now is similiar to the marathon boom in the 80s. Trail running as a sport is very positive and lays the sound foundations of values such as authenticity, humility, equity, fair play and respect for others, nature, and yourself. The pace of modern life is getting faster and faster, people don't have time to enjoy the fresh air, they don't hang out and communicate with each other. Trail running is a solution for that and this is the best way to escape from our daily deadly routine.
TRAIL-RUN: What role did ITRA (International Trail-running Association) play in the sport's increasing popularity?
ALEN: Well, ITRA did a great job defining the sport and creating a flexible frame for it. In fact, as a member of the ITRA steering committee, maybe I'm not the best person to be asked about that because I'm too subjective. But, I think that ITRA has a very important role in the sport, or more so, in the movement.
TRAIL-RUN: Do you have a national trail running association? What is their responsibility?
ALEN: Just recently, we founded a national association of out-of-the-stadium athletics and its responsibility is to cover road running races, ultras and trail races. There's strong support from the Croatian Athletics Federation and I'm very optimistic regarding the future of trail running in Croatia. In fact, we are the leaders in the region. This year our national team will participate in the World championships for the third time, last year we organized the first national championships at the Valamar Trail race, and trail running in general is booming in Croatia. Let's hope that it will last.
TRAIL-RUN: And finally, can you say a few words to the Russian participants, please?
ALEN: We are very surprised about the number of Russian athletes at the race, it seems that they like our race very much. There are more than 50 of them which makes Russia the fifth country at the event. Such devotion is very appreciated, we will do everything we can to make them feel at home.
TRAIL-RUN: Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer, we wish you a great event!
English text prepared by Elizaveta Ershova.