Lost Talent: How Do Runners in the NCAA Find Their Way To The Professional Trail Running Scene?
Not all those who wander are lost. But unfortunately those who wander into trail running from collegiate running are usually lost. Just as forest or mountain trails have countless outlets and intersections where one could feel overwhelmed with possibilities, the professional trail running scene can be an intimidating crossroads for collegiate athletes who could otherwise develop successful trail running careers. How do I find the most competitive races? How do I train for trail running? How do I find people to train with? These simple but essential questions are left unanswerable by the majority of talented runners graduating from the NCAA who express curiosity about running trails after college. Many are never able to scratch the surface of what they could do in the sport. Directionless talent is the state of the up-and-coming US trail running scene.
Runners come from all over the world to compete in the NCAA in track and cross country. The competition, infrastructure and coaching (along with partial or full scholarships to US universities) builds a community of strong young runners in the US, but what happens when these athletes graduate? The majority of NCAA runners will stop running competitively, a handful turn professional in the road and track running scene, chasing Olympic dreams or Olympic trials qualifying times. An even smaller percentage will dabble and find success in trail running, but this is changing. Those athletes that have discovered the trails are marking a course to guide others through the woods.
Trail running is now growing at a rate higher than that of road, track or any other running discipline (World Athletics estimates there are over 20 million trail runners worldwide). In Europe, many smaller countries such as Italy or Spain are extremely passionate about trail running and have established programs to develop youth trail running and grow the sport. Here in the US, track or cross country are the only options for running in high school and most runners have never heard of trail running as an organized sport, even if they have run on trails. Education is part of the problem. If trail running exists in the forest and there’s no one there to see it, does it really exist? High school and collegiate runners need a way to be exposed to the sport, and that begins largely with conversation.
From my own experience competing in the NCAA for The University of Portland, I can attest that no one on my cross country and track teams knew that trail running was an organized sport until I started running trail races. I’d receive questions from teammates such as, “Is there prize money?” Which I answered by winning an oversized check at the Speedgoat 50K and a goat hoof trophy. How long are the races? Do you have to wear different shoes? How many miles do I have to run per week to finish a trail race? All of these questions are the basics for developing awareness and conversation about trail running.
I, like many collegiate runners discovering trail running, jumped headfirst into the trail running scene, not knowing anything. In my first trail marathon I competed against two-time World Mountain Running Champion Joseph Gray and Pikes Peak Marathon Champion Dakota Jones (I had no idea who these legends were). I didn’t know how to fuel and hydrate properly (I found myself eating snow on top of a mountain in the Broken Arrow Skyrace 54K because I didn’t carry a water bottle). I didn’t know how to train (I developed chronic achilles and feet problems as I attempted to integrate trail running specific workouts such as hill sprints into an already demanding NCAA training load). I had no one to teach me, no one to talk to about trail running. Any brief chance I had to talk with professional trail runners who graduated from the NCAA might provide me with a few nuggets of wisdom, but they had figured things out on their own too.
Andy Wacker’s Trail Team Project Brings Conversation To Trail Running
Andy Wacker, four-time trail national champion and two-time cross county All-American for the University of Colorado, wants to provide clear structure and guidance to young talent in trail running with his new project: The Trail Team. The mission: “to independently support and develop rising athletes into the best professional trail runners in the world through mentorship, skill development, and media exposure.”
The project will offer mentorship to six US-based athletes (ages 20 to 30) who are committed to pursuing sub-ultra distance trail running on the highest level. In addition to the six selected athletes will be The Trail Team Community (TTT Community), which will offer training and racing resources to a broader pool of athletes including non-elite runners, ultrarunners, and youth under twenty.
Wacker has established himself as an American trail running legend in the sub-ultra scene (and continues to add to his own reputation), but he admits that he (like myself) was also quite clueless about trail running when he first discovered it. Wacker found success after college in road, track and cross country running, but once he discovered trails he knew it was the sport he wanted to pursue for the rest of his life. He aims to make sure other talented runners find the knowledge they need to test the waters in trail running and see if it’s a place for them.
Wacker says, “The impetus of creating this team is that there is so much talent and so many young runners in this country. All of the professional trail runners I talk to have the same story that they just happened to find themselves as trail runners. It was never the plan, but they found their way eventually. That was my story. I always loved the trails but I pursued roads and track because I never saw a clear path for how to become a professional trail runner. Once I found my way to the trail running scene, I knew it was right for me.”
Wacker wants to give others the chance to see how a career in trail running could be right for them. For him, that starts with conversation. “The biggest thing that’s missing right now in trail running is a platform to connect young people so they can share knowledge, that’s what the trail team is. Success for me for this team is having a conversation with young trail athletes that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Wacker will not be the only one giving these six selected athletes the conversations and guidance they need for success. The Trail Team consists of three “Mentors,” or experienced collegiate turned professional trail runners who have found success in both realms and want to share in the conversation to guide rising athletes to professional trail running careers. The Mentors include Allie McLaughlin (2022 Uphill Mountain Running World Champion and All-American for The University of Colorado Boulder) Adam Peterman (2022 80K Long Trail World Champion, 2022 Western States 100 Mile Champion and Two-time All-American For the University of Colorado Boulder) and Grayson Murphy (2019 World Mountain Running Championship and sixth place finisher at the 2021 Olympic Trials in the 3000 meter Steeplechase). This team is a chance to learn from some of the best trail running athletes in the United States.
Get Involved With The Trail Team!
The application period for The Trail Team is from January 6 to February 6, 2023. Apply Now!
See a list of qualifications, support, and team camp dates below:
- 20 – 30 years old
- Live and train in USA
- Focused on sub-ultra trail races
- Need additional support in order to compete at a national and international level
- Committed athletes ready to devote considerable time to training, racing, and mastering trail running
- Must be able to participate in team camp, team events, goal races
- Our athletes are expected to support each other, competitors, and our community
- Clean sport proponents, training and racing with integrity on a level playing field
Support includes “mentorship from established trail elites, a community to build your brand, training camps to perfect your skills.”
- Training camps
- Cash stipend
- Media Coverage
- Strength training
Team Training Camp Dates:
- Moab, UT – March 20-24 (optional)
- Colorado – August 27-Sept 17
- California – Fall 2023
Are you excited about The Trail Team but don’t fit the criteria? Apply for the The Trail Team Community to be involved with the program and receive training and racing resources from Wacker and his group of mentors.
[PRO TIP: Learn about more professional development opportunities for young trail runners at youthtrail.com.]