US Junior Mountain Running Program Comes of Age

Written by Paul Kirsch. Paul has been the team manager for the US Junior Mountain Running Team since 2010. He is a seasoned race director, and competitive masters runner. Paul lives in Madison, NH with his wife Catalina and their sons, Lucas and Miguel.

The first year the US Mountain Running Team fielded a junior squad was in 2002. Back then, mountain running was still an unknown sport to many in the US, and it was even less known to runners in their teens.

Team USA Junior Women

Since then, the program has grown considerably, with the US junior teams having multiple podium finishes in recent years. Some of these top finishes caused many junior team candidates to take notice such as Mandy Ortiz’s gold-medal performance in 2013 in Poland, and Allie Ostrander repeating that feat in 2015 in Wales. These top performances, along with the first-ever junior men’s podium finish by Levi Thomet, who won silver in 2015, to lead his teammates to a team silver medal, created a buzz for the program.

Recognizable names on the high school and collegiate level who have participated in mountain running, has helped to get the junior teams noticed. Junior athletes recognize an opportunity to compete for their country on an international stage going head-to-head with runners from over 30 countries.

Team USA Junior Men

The growth of the mountain running program in many ways follows the growth of trail running in the US. More and more teens spend some of their training time on trails, whether for fun, or to mix trails in with their road regimen. Therefore, the idea of running uphill, or doing loops up and down a mountain can seem less daunting than it was in the past.

Another contributing factor in the growth and quality of the team has been the tremendous support of coaches at both the high school and collegiate level. Plus, the experience of competing at a world championship level enhances a student-athlete’s perspective and confidence. For some incoming college freshmen, a junior team appearance provides a chance to compete at a level they may not experience the rest of their first year at college, which can only help to build their strength and skills for the rest of their collegiate running careers.

Steve Taylor, the head coach at The University of Richmond, and co-founder of the Collegiate Running Association, shares this perspective on some of his athletes who have competed at the World Championships: “It’s amazing for them to leave (for the international competition), and when they return five days later, notice a complete transformation. Their eyes are opened to a new world…and a new level of competition.”

So, what is involved in applying for the US Junior Mountain Running Team? Unlike the senior teams, who are selected at a qualifier race each year, it is not realistic to put the same expectations on junior athletes to attend a sole selection race. Instead, they are chosen by running resume and application, with recommendations from coaches and parents. Runners considered for the team have specific 5km time requirements but, beyond that, the runners who excel at mountain running are as varied as the ones who excel on the track or cross country. Strength certainly plays a factor as does leg speed (especially in up/down courses), as well as the mental toughness to climb a mountain at a speed that may seem relatively slow compared to a typical cross country race, but with as much or more effort required.

Team USA Junior

As team manager and recruiter, I always encourage runners who are thinking of applying for the team to try out a local mountain race if they have one in their area. One important note – short mountain races are very different from ultra-distance trail races. When I work with a runner to help find them a race to try, I tend to steer them away from an ultra as their first mountain running experience, especially if their goal is to know what it might be like to compete in a race like the World Mountain Running Championships. In some parts of the country, ultras tend to get more focus and attention than shorter mountain races, but one can usually find a short mountain race or very hilly short trail race instead. While ultra races can be great tests and a lot of fun, they aren’t the best bet for a junior runner looking to get that first mountain race experience.

Being involved with the mountain team now for seven years as the Junior Team Manager, it is always exciting to go back and talk with former team members. They all share a common theme: being on the team was an experience they will never forget. Plus, they never again looked at their local “hilly” cross country courses as daunting.

For complete details about the US Junior Mountain Running Team, visit

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