Why an Elite Development Team is Needed Now

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Andy Wacker

By: Andy Wacker

Andy is a four-time trail national champion. He has represented Team USA 17 times, placing 2nd in 2015 and 3rd in 2014 in the Mountain Running Long Distance World Championships. He is a two-time cross country All-American for the University of Colorado.

Editor’s Note: When I sat down with Andy to talk about his new project, The Trail Team, it was clear he’s incredibly passionate about helping the next generation of trail athletes. He sees the pipelines functionality but also the missing puzzle pieces he hopes to help fill. If you are an up and coming sub-ultra trail athletes (age 20-30 years old) or know someone who is – I urge you to apply! Applications close Sunday February 5th.

I was running on the Boulder Creek path about a week ago, when a fellow trail runner brought up the age-old misconception, “Aren’t a lot of pro trail runners former road runners?”
to which I frustratingly replied, “Name one!”

As an elite sub-ultra runner, this really irks me. It sounds like trail runners are just washed up has-beens. That we must be ‘road runners that are retired’. That we are only here because we couldn’t ‘cut it’. The truth is, most elite sub-ultra trail runners are typically crossover athletes that choose trails first.

Maybe the misconception is the ‘crossover’ part.

Crossover Athletes

Sage Canaday has had a well known slogan any distance, any surface for years. What I mean by ‘crossover athlete’ is that you can or could compete at a high level in two or more disciplines of running or even in another sport while competing in trail running.

Crossover athletes are starting to be the norm on the most elite stages of trail running. Look at the breakout of 2022 – Sophia Laukli, a 22 year old who is also an Olympian in nordic skiing and is currently competing on the World Cup. She went on to push the world’s very best in the Golden Trail Series during 2022, winning Stranda Fjord, the Broken Arrow 26k, and placed third at Pikes Peak Ascent in the deepest year in its history. Need more proof? The woman who won the Golden Trail Series Final in 2022 was Nienke Brinkman, a Dutch woman with a 2:22 road marathon best, who runs for Nike and NN – that’s right the same team that sponsors Kipchoge, of sub-2 hour marathon fame.

However, crossover athletes aren’t new.

Max King won the 2011 World Mountain Running Championship, and the 2014 World road 100km Championships on a paved loop. In 2016 he was 12th in the US Olympic Trials Marathon.

Jim Walmsley ran a 1:04:00 half marathon to qualify for the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials, and went on to set the course record at Western States.

2019 Mountain Running World Champion, Grayson Murphy placed 6th in the 3000m steeplechase at the US Olympic Trials in 2021.

Joe Gray won world titles in Mountain Running in 2016 and 2019. Amongst many other achievements, he won the US Club Cross Country title in 2013 and in his off time he ran 28:18 for 10,000m in 2017 on the track!

The bottom line is that for the top trail runners in the country, crossover athletes tend to be the rule rather than the exception. We should be looking for this, supporting and elevating it.

Andy chased by up and coming 'crossover athlete' Eli Heming
Andy leads up and coming ‘crossover athlete’ Eli Heming – PC: Paul Nelson

Trail is Growing

Trail running is growing. According to World Athletics there are more than 20 million trail runners world wide. A number that has grown by roughly 15% a year for the last 30 years.
This trend, the popularity of trail running, seems to be accelerating more and more. Since 2020 and the COVID19 pandemic, the allure of being on secluded trails and soft surfaces seems to be even more enticing.

When you pair trail running’s mass appeal with the fact that elite runners are becoming faster and faster – that’s exciting! There are seventeen US High school boys who have broken 4 minutes ever. Thirteen of those times occurred in the last ten years. Similar breakthroughs have been seen in every distance and every level. Sierre-Zinal, possibly the most competitive trail race on the planet with a fifty year history, had its records broken in 2019 by Kilian Jornet and by Maude Mathys in 2021. Similarly, record times were shattered at Zegama in 2022 by Nienke Brinkman and Kilian Jornet.

Trail running is certainly more competitive compared to a decade ago, so you might be wondering “Where do we stack up?” Can the US compete? The answer is yes! American athletes Grayson Murphy, Joe Gray, Jim Walmsley, Adam Peterman, and Allie McLaughlin all won Mountain and Trail World Champions in the past two editions. And what I think might be most exciting is the US based NCAA system. The world’s running talent pipeline goes right through it , and it just so happens some of the best athletes are tested, proven, and sometimes discovered within it.

We have the young talent here in the US and we have the best elites on the world stage, but something strange happens if you ask most pro trail runners how they ended up trail racing. Most will tell you they lucked into it. For me, I made a US national team for long distance trail running in 2014 after my training partner and world class marathoner, Jeffrey Eggleston asked if I wanted to run a hill workout. The ‘hill’ was the fourteen and a half mile race up Mount Evans, one of Colorado’s 14ers. I won the race, made the team and ended up with a world bronze medal after a good run up Pikes Peak. I lucked into it. What is obvious to me is that the US needs to bridge the talent gap from the NCAA to post graduate professional trail running.

The Trail Team: The US’s First Professional Trail Pipeline

Support for young talented runners entering trail running is vital now more than ever. What started out as a passion project five years ago to help new athletes get into trail racing, has morphed into what I’ve named The Trail Team (TTT).

The Trail Team’s mission is to independently support and develop up and coming athletes into the best professional trail runners in the world through mentorship, skill development and media exposure. In 2023, TTT will sponsor six under-supported sub-ultra runners, ages 20-30 years old, that live and train in the US. The goal is to bring in high level athletes and good people that just need a little boost. They inspire and encourage all trail runners and will set an example of what the sport can be in the future.

We asked NCAA athletes interested in running trails post-collegiately what they needed most, the answer was mentorship and training camps.

Mentorship means having an established professional trail runner who the athlete looks up to help them transition to the trails. This could mean helping crossover athletes balance a schedule of races in two sports, or offering support and guidance when it comes to signing a professional contract.

Training camps will be a place where young talents on the team meet up with their mentors to practice running on technical terrain and to create a team culture of support and community. This year’s mentors are;Adam Peterman, Grayson Murphy, and Allie McLaughlin who are not only the biggest names in the sport but also really great people (the ideal mentor).

Finally media exposure will be used to build athletes’ personal brands and inspire future generations. The idea is we will dispel the rumor that trail runners are washed-up road runners and rewrite the narrative to one that NCAA athletes can choose trails first.

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