A trailblazing scheme to encourage long-distance runners in the countryside has ignited controversy, with a petition launched against the installation of a series of electonic boxes fixed in remote locations.
The Trailblaze system was launched by commercial operators, with the blessing of Natural England, on Good Friday.
But walkers and other enthusiasts are questioning how the Government’s official advisory body on the outdoors came to agree to the pilot scheme which has seen a system of tally points fixed in the countryside along national trails.
The Trailblaze network is the brainchild of the Endurancelife company, owned by running enthusiasts and which already organises ultrarunning events, triathlons and other endurance fitness activities.
But the Trailblaze boxes, fitted along eight national trails, including part of Britain’s first long-distance path, the Pennine Way, allow runners to tackle the route whenever they want, aiming to run as far as possible while punching their timing tag into the boxes fitted at points along the route.
Prize draws will be held at the end of the first year’s running, and wristbands awarded for extending the distance run. Green bands are available for runs up to 16km, while black bands, for extreme athletes, will be on offer for runs of 80km.
The National Trails website says: “Natural England have been working with Endurance Life to set up new extreme running trails along national trails in England – and the first one is opening for business on Good Friday.
“Trailblaze is a brand-new concept designed to test runners’ limits and fire their spirit. This hand-picked portfolio of tough endurance challenges consists of a selection of stunning trails which pass through some of our most demanding and inspiring landscapes.
“The beauty about extreme running is that the participants pass quietly, lightly and quickly through the landscape without disturbing anything or anybody. Trailblaze is not a race where large groups pass through at one time. Runners enrol to tackle a course which they can run at any time to suit them, so they are usually alone or in a very small group.
“The trails differ greatly, but the challenge is always the same; to travel as far as you can under your own steam in one complete attempt. As well as earning rewards for reaching important milestones, known as ‘hotspots’, there are some amazing prizes up for grabs.”
But the installation of the boxes, emblazoned with the company logo along with the national trail acorn symbol, has caused a stir among outdoor traditionalists.
The petition organised against the scheme says: “Permitting Trailblaze boxes on our national trails is a mistake. They are ugly, manmade intrusions into our beautiful countryside, and we object to the website advertisement appearing on trail furniture.
“Please don’t allow any more installations until you have assessed the environmental impact properly. Please remove the existing devices at the end of the pilot period.”
The opponents’ website continues: “The company behind Trailblaze is clearly seeking to make a profit from the installations, and by selling equipment and souvenirs. Each metal box advertises their website.
“The trail managers who have agreed to these installations – allegedly on a pilot basis – were probably motivated by the 20 per cent of the registration fees that Trailblaze says it will pay.
“This amounts to £4 on a one-off registration or £14 on a multi-trail, unlimited annual subscription. Whether that amount will offset the impact on the trail of the extra runners is an issue that a pilot scheme might have addressed, but we have seen no information on this.”
The ‘leaderboard’ for the first active route shows three men and one woman have so far reached the 35km ‘hard’ stage on the South West Coast Path in Devon.
Other routes which will form part of the network are the southern part of the Pennine Way from Edale to Horton in Ribblesdale; the South Downs Way; the Ridgeway; the Cleveland Way; the Cotswold Way; the Thames Path, and the northern section of the Offa’s Dyke Way.
Journalist and broadcaster Cameron McNeish said of Trailblaze: “These boxes go against the ethos and traditions of long-distance walking in the UK and add further clutter to signposts. Many backpackers and hikers, like myself, dislike the blatant commercialism behind the scheme. If runners want to time themselves, surely the best way to do that is with a wristwatch?”
Craig Taylor of Edinburgh added: “I’m a competitive runner and I enjoy being outdoors, but the last thing I want to see is man-made boxes like these installed. Personally I run to escape from technology!”
Endurancelife, the company behind Trailblaze, says: “We aim to bring people into regular activity within the natural heritage areas of the UK, and by doing so inspire an active community who understand the importance of conserving the natural environment and the health benefits of connecting with it.
“In plain language: we aim to build a huge community full of active and adventurous members who are up for anything, love a challenge, and care deeply about safeguarding the natural world for future generations to enjoy.”
The company has a curious YouTube offering featuring a pair of computer-generated, American-accented cyber office workers discussing the Trailblaze concept, complete with goofy references to the ‘Tames Path’ and ‘Pennin Way’.