Top 5 Takeaways From A U.S. Mountain Running Team Coach

This article was written by Andrew Simmons and first appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of our Trail Times newsletter.

It was an honor and privilege to be a coach for the U.S. U18 Mountain Running Team this past June in Saluzzo, Italy, for the WMRA U18 International Mountain Running Youth Cup. This was an official USA Track & Field (USATF) team brought together for the 15th edition of the Youth Cup. The event brings together 16- and 17-year-old athletes on a world stage to compete for medals and accolades as the world’s best aspiring mountain runners. The experience was one that will last a lifetime for me as well as the athletes. Below are some lessons we learned:

U.S. Team coach Andrew Simmons. Photo: Nancy Hobbs.

Buy In Before Lift Off

There is a lot of coordination to get youth athletes overseas to race. With only five days together, the goal was to have a team that was connected and somewhat established before we landed in Italy. It was imperative to not only create a connection as coaches and athletes, but we knew how important it was for the athletes to be connected with one another. Social media certainly gets some bad press these days, but connecting eight kids from four U.S. states required us to be creative and use the platform in a positive way.

Team staff (myself and Lin Gentling), scheduled a few virtual meetings. The first meeting was focused on introductions and sharing Instagram and Snapchat so the eight athletes on the team could stay in touch and get warmed up to one another on their terms. There was a shift by the second and final meeting before we lifted off and the team had already established an understanding with one another that they were the “U.S. Team.”

The U.S. girls team. Photo: Andrew Simmons.

Reinforcing The Team Connection

Working with young adults demands tact, poise, and often the ability to let go versus trying to control every moment – you often have to trust that they will, “do the right thing.” I had chaperoned an athlete for the 2017 edition of the U18 Mountain Running Cup and seeing the inner workings of what it takes to get a team across the pond is an immense task with many moving parts.

As team staff I knew that the success of this team coming together, performing, and getting as close to the podium as possible would be a coordinated effort. Lin, my amazing and talented co-coach, was instrumental in reminding me that part of this experience was growth and self-reliance. The U.S. Team became what it was this year because we gave the athletes a longer leash to go out, explore, and be controlled only by the time schedule we put in place…and checking in and out with Lin and me so we always knew where they were.

Benji Anderson leads Garrett Stickley. Photo: Marco Gulberti.

Fulfilling Our Mission

As the hours ticked by, the start of the race inched closer and closer. Our preparation was thorough. We walked the open portions of the course numerous times and documented the full course so we could review video the night before race day. It was during this walkthrough that you could see the gears really begin to turn. The boys started to believe in a bigger mission than simply competing against the other countries, but competing for podium spots (the U.S. Team had not yet had an individual or team medal on the boys’ side). The same thoughts were buzzing through the girls’ side and the demeanor of the team took a turn – the focus set in with 24 hours to go. The mission for the boys and girls was clear: it was time to put it all out there.

Rosie Mucharsky-O’Boyle. Photo: Marco Gulberti.

Race Day Focus

On race morning there was an anxious stillness that swept through the team camp. Athletes of all nationalities milling around the hotel in team jerseys made everything feel real. There was an understanding that transcended any language barrier – it’s time to run and lay it all on the line. As we prepared to walk down to the start you could have heard a pin drop, the feeling wasn’t anxious, it was focused. The energy was high, but pinpointed to a razor-thin edge, they knew the course, the plan, and the strategy for the race. It came down to today and this moment — a chance to represent their country with pride in a sport they loved. It was time to put it all together on the biggest stage possible. Every athlete put it on the line for their country — finishing on empty leaving it all out there leaving no question that they had done everything they could on the day to achieve the mission of the team.

Alyssa Sauro. Photo: Marco Gulberti.

The Outcome

The U.S. Team’s Alyssa Sauro ran a perfect race trading places with England’s Rebecca Flaherty and then out kicking her in the finish line straightaway to bring home an individual gold. Teammates Rosie Mucharsky-O’Boyle would cross next in 18th, Milaina Almonte in 20th, and Victoria Rodriguez in 23rd. This closely packed group would finish fourth place as a team behind England with 12 points, France with 25 points and Italy with 27 points.

The boys’ race was aggressive, fast, and unrelenting. Poland’s Maciej Lachowsky raced to the lead over the 4.4-kilometer course chased by several Italians and the U.S. Team’s Porter Middaugh. For much of the race, Porter and American Benji Anderson raced shoulder-to-shoulder with Porter finishing one place off the podium in 4th and Benji back three places in seventh. U.S. Team members Garett Stickley and William Wachter finished in 32nd and 37th respectively. The Italians placed their Team A in gold medal position and Team B in silver. The team score ended in a tie between France and the US with the placing of the fourth runner deciding the bronze medal. France would come out ahead in the placing and the U.S. Team finished in fourth place. Read a recap of the race on this website.

Overall the U.S. Team had a great result this year and five of the team members are age-eligible to return for the 2023 edition to be hosted in Annecy, France the weekend of May 27-28.

Overall results for the 2022 U18 International Mountain Running Youth Cup can be found on the World Mountain Running Association website [PDF].

The U.S. team selection criteria will be published on this website soon.