Young runners reflect on their US Junior Mountain Running Team experience

Written by US Mountain Running Team juniors coach Paul Kirsch. The American Trail Running Association has raised money for the US Mountain Running Team to reimburse athlete travel for over 15 years.

The United States first fielded a Junior Mountain Running Team at the 2002 World Mountain Running Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. The thought of running up and down mountains was more obscure then, especially for high school and college athletes. Since then, trail running has exploded in popularity, and many young adults have taken to the trails as an integral component of their training programs.

As the sport has grown in popularity, so too has the US Junior Team program, with the likes of high school and collegiate standouts such as Allie Ostrander, Lauren Gregory, Jeff Thies, and Quinn McConnell all taking the opportunity to represent their country at the World Mountain Running Championships.

Recent years have seen multiple US podium finishes at the championships – the Junior Women taking silver in 2017, in Premana, Italy along with Lauren Gregory (U of Arkansas) and Talon Hull (U of Washington) taking individual bronze medals. Before that, in 2015, high school and college superstar Allie Ostrander won individual gold in Wales, while fellow Alaskan, Levi Thomet led the junior men’s team to a silver medal – their first-ever team medal at a championships.

Lauren Gregory on her way to a bronze medal at the 2017 World Mountain Running Championships.

Lauren Gregory still remembers the race and experience fondly.

“The junior mountain running team was so valuable for me as an athlete. It helped me realize confidence in my abilities and strength that I never knew existed. It also made me realize how incredible the mountain running community is worldwide. I think back to my race in Premana during hard workouts and collegiate races and it gives me so much confidence in my strength. I loved every part of being on the junior team in 2017”, noted Gregory

Gregory’s teammate, Quinn McConnell, who is finishing up a storied high school career and heading off to Furman University next fall, agreed with Gregory’s assessment.

“Participating in two World Mountain Running Championships completely opened my eyes to the opportunities in our amazing sport. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting athletes from many different countries while having the honor of representing Team USA. The grueling races were one of the most challenging things I faced, yet at the same time the most rewarding. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities and life changing experiences I had,” said McConnell.

Quinn McConnell at the 2017 World Mountain Running Championships.

Key to the team’s growth has been the incredible support from both high school and college coaches who realize the value in their athletes getting the change to compete at such a high level.

Rob Conner, head coach at the University of Portland has been a big supporter of the program. He shared, “I have always encouraged our top freshmen to consider applying for a spot on the US Mountain running team. The benefit of facing international competition on a very difficult course allows for a confidence boosting experience. This event is about building toughness and our guys have elevated because of it.”

One of Conner’s athletes who competed for the team was Jeff Thies. Thies went on to a great career at Portland, including finishing 14th at the NCAA 2017 National Championships in Cross Country. Thies attributes his Mountain Champs experience to one of the components of his success for the Pilots.

“Representing Team USA at the World Junior Mountain Running Championships is one of the highlights of my running career. It was honestly a dream come true to wear the USA singlet, and I believe the experience of a World Championship set me up for success while competing at NCAA Championships. Competing at such a large stage helped calm the nerves when racing at many of the top meets in the US,” noted Thies.

Jeff Thies at the 2015 NACAC Mountain Running Championships in North Vancouver, Canada.

University of Richmond Coach, Steve Taylor, had similar sentiments to those of Conner when we spoke to him.

“The opportunity to represent the U.S. is a career goal only a few athletes will realize in their lifetime. The U.S. Mountain Running Team provides one more discipline for athletes to chase that goal. I’ve been fortunate to see first hand how the opportunity to compete on a U.S. team in the World Championships changes the athlete, and it’s all for the better. The exposure to new cultures and the opportunity to meet athletes from other counties under the common umbrella of endurance running is extremely motivating,” said Taylor.

This year, the World Mountain Running Championships are moving from their regular early fall competition timeframe to mid-November, where they will take place in Villa La Angostura, Patagonia, Argentina. This will be the first time the championships have been in South America. With the time of year change, it presents a new opportunity for both college and high school athletes to compete. While some coaches have been hesitant to send their athletes during the beginning of cross country season, Taylor sees the November 15 date of this year’s World race as a new opportunity.

“I’ve always found the strength running required for mountain running compliments our athletes cross country season (even those selected to the World Championship team), but I know there are coaches apprehensive to allow their athletes to participate largely due to the World Championships being held at the front end of the season. With 2019, the World Championships are to be held at the end of the NCAA and NAIA cross country seasons in November, so there’s an incentive for those athletes to apply for the junior team since there are no conflicts with the college season,” continued Taylor.

One of Taylor’s athletes who competed on the team was Marisa Ruskan. She was a member of the silver medal team at the 2014 Champs in Italy along with teammate Mandy Ortiz. Ruskan still looks back at the experience as a life milestone.

“Being a part of the Junior US Mountain Running team and competing at the World Mountain Running Championships was one of the most impactful experiences of my entire life, hands down. It was my first real exposure to competing on the international stage. To really understanding how running transcends the language barrier—the love for and dedication to the sport is the same no matter where you come from. The beauty of an experience like this is that you can never look at it in a vacuum. It didn’t just influence me as a runner, but also as a human being. And years later, I am so thankful for the foresight of the USMRT coaches and my university coaches for understanding the value of this kind of experience on a younger athlete,” noted Marisa.

Tabor School, Marisa Ruskan and Mandy Ortiz show off their 2nd place team prize at the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships in Italy. 

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, mentors, and/or 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.

As the team manager and primary 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. The World Championships are short distance races, with this year’s championships for Juniors being just under 7 kilometers in total distance. This is important for athletes to be aware of, as sometimes athletes think that the races will be more along the lines of ultra-distance trail races.

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 a decade as the Junior Team Manager, I always enjoy watching the team members take their experiences and excel in their next life running chapter- whether in their final high school years, college or beyond.

Tayte Pollmann at the 2018 Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Poland.

Tayte Pollmann, who was member of the historic silver medal team in 2015, has taken his love of the mountains to the next level, becoming a progressional trail and mountain runner after college. The team experience helped him see that was possible.

“After competing in the 2015 US Junior Mountain Running Championships, I began to imagine mountain running in my future after college. I dreamed of competing in the sport at the highest level. Now, this dream has come true. I compete as a professional athlete for the Nike Trail Team and travel to the world’s most beautiful mountains for racing and training. I’m grateful for all the people who believed in me when I applied for the US Junior team. Being a part of this team inspired me to dream crazier and look for highest mountains,” said Pollmann.

We are still looking for athletes ages 16-19 to apply for the 2019 Team and we will be taking applications through July 31. Complete requirements to apply are at our team website at usmrt.com. I also encourage coaches who have questions about the team to reach out to me at pkirsch2@gmail.com with any questions about the process and this year’s race in Argentina.

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