I recently interviewed Andy Wacker, a professional trail runner and founder of The Trail Team, whose stated aim is “to independently support and develop rising athletes into the best professional trail runners in the world through mentorship, skill development, and media exposure.” I was curious about the structure of the team and exactly how they were going about executing on their objectives so I called up Andy and we had a chat about it. Enjoy!
Mario Fraioli: You launched The Trail Team last year and I remember seeing an announcement about it. What caught my attention was that you seemed to be specifically focused on the sub-ultra elite side of the sport. So, to start here, I’d love for you to tell me about the team’s origins and how it came to be.
Andy Wacker: I started thinking about it probably a few years ago as I became maybe a little bit of an older athlete that was more experienced. I was reflecting on all the times and all the mistakes I made as a young athlete. And I think just intuitively I was helping a lot of athletes who were jumping into trail running. In 2019, when Grayson Murphy did her first U.S. Mountain Running Champs, I remember talking to her a lot about trails and she was really new to it and it was just funny. I was like, “I’m the guy who is now giving advice versus making all the mistakes as a young person.” And then fast forward to last fall, basically I was thinking, “Man, there’s this unlimited talent pool of young good runners in our country. A lot of them are NCAA track and cross country runners, and how can we make sure that they know that trails are an option? And how can we support them as a country?” And I don’t think we were doing a good enough job. So it’s like hey, if no one’s doing this, the bar’s pretty low, I should step up and do it.
I think you filled what has long been a major void. You ran at the University of Colorado and come from that competitive collegiate background. I mean, before you really got into trails, you spent a lot of your time racing on the roads quite successfully and then transitioned over. You’re known for your success at the sub-ultra distances. I think there’s a conception out there amongst, we’ll just say NCAA athletes, that if they can’t go to the track or roads right away that there really isn’t an avenue for them. Or, if they do go to the trails, it’s got to be straight to ultra-distance races. And maybe that’s not appealing for someone who’s 21, 22 years old and still just trying to figure out who they are as a runner.
Yeah, exactly. I think we’re just trying to say that there’s a lot of people out there who are great NCAA runners. I think that people leave college and they think it’s either become a pro track runner or nothing. And honestly, that was the message I was given when I was graduating college. It was just like you’re either a professional or you’re not. And I think that there’s a lot of gray area and a lot of people I know who are really successful road marathoners who have full-time jobs. So I wanted to share that message and say there’s room to be both—because speaking of which, I’m both. I’ve been running roads for basically six months of the year and trails for six months of the year for a good part of a decade. And I think it helps me to have those seasons. I’ve always loved running on the trails, even when I was a kid and then through college at CU. So I think sending that message that if it’s OK with your coaches, you should run on trails. I think it’s OK once you graduate college to do both or to enjoy trail running. It doesn’t have to be track or nothing—it can be trail and track, it can be professional skiing and trails. It can be a combo of things that fits you as an individual.
It’s always been interesting to me that you can take collegiate athletes and they really feel like if they want to continue competing at an elite level after graduation, their options are the track or maybe move up to the marathon. But cross-country is a big part of many of these athletes’ collegiate experiences. It’s pure racing and there’s an element of trail running in that, post collegiately, isn’t really a viable option anymore. I mean, if you’re going to be a professional runner, you’re not really incentivized to race cross country. But I also know there are a lot of great collegiate cross country runners who would just crush it on the trails, especially at these sub-ultra distances. It’s not exactly the same thing but they’ve developed many of the skills that they need to be successful off-road racers. So, I think there’s a need to create awareness around the opportunities that exist as far as events, but also potentially being able to make a living at it.
Yeah, and one thing we haven’t touched on is sustainability. I think a lot of people who are really type-A… I came out of that world. You have to hit splits and that’s really hard and unsustainable as a post-collegiate athlete in some ways because if you’re a marathoner and you’re trying to run a personal best in the marathon, it’s mentally much harder year after year when you have to hit workouts that were better than the year before. It’s exponentially harder. And a little piece of what you were just saying there reminds me of the sustainability piece—you can run on the trails, or you can run cross country, and the splits don’t really matter. It’s pure racing. It’s just like you versus someone else, especially in sub-ultra trail, and that’s really freeing for a lot of people. I think that’s a nice thing for people who are continuing their running life.
Zooming out a little bit, we’ve seen a lot of interest and growth in recent years in trail running, and specifically the ultra side of trail running. And certainly on the professional level there’s more opportunities for athletes in terms of sponsorship, in terms of events that they can chase, etc. But for whatever reason, sub-ultra trail just doesn’t get that same attention from a lot of the brands, or even the media. That’s starting to change a little but it’s kind of like, “Go big or go home.” Is that something that you’ve thought a lot about as you’ve tried to get The Track Team off the ground?
Yeah, and just to clarify, we had to start somewhere. I knew there was a need to help mentor and create media for trail running, and my specialty is sub-ultra, so that’s why we chose that. I think there’s definitely room for everybody. Just personally, I think that in America we’ve really got ourselves stuck in this funny path we’ve taken since maybe 2000, where it was highlighting these extreme people doing the most extreme things. It used to be 100-mile races, and now like 200 or 250 mile races, and that’s great and I think those are amazing things. But also at the same time in Europe, right now and for the last 40 years, 50 years, there’s been this crazy amount of competition and records. Sierre-Zinal’s 50 years old this year and that’s a sub-ultra race that’s really important. And there’s several other races that are that old and the culture’s there, and people love it. It’s a lot more exciting in some ways because you’re actually neck and neck versus 10 minutes ahead or behind. Again, I’m not trying to disparage ultra, I just think that they’re different and they’re both interesting. It’s like there’s room for the 100 meters on the track and the marathon—they’re just very different.
What excites me about what you’re trying to do is that shift in the culture. I think it’s good for trail running as a whole, whether you’re racing 5K or whether you’re going to race a 50K or 100 miles or beyond. There can be a lot of back and forth between the different distances and disciplines. And I think it’s just a good way to grow excitement around the sport, especially the professional side of it, because the sub-ultra distance stuff is super exciting. It’s just good to see that shift starting to happen. My hope as a coach and just as an observer of the sport is seeing what you’re trying to do with the trail team, which is exciting at the pro level, but I think can also have this dropdown effect where people who may have gotten into the sport by running their first 50K or by running their first 50-mile are like, “Let me maybe test myself at a VK,” or use a shorter race as a tuneup for an ultra race, and realizing it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can play in both worlds.
There’s two parts there that I’m really resonate with me. One is let’s make trail running accessible to more people. You look up any statistics on trail running, it’s growing crazy in the U.S. and abroad, and to be more welcoming to people, I think it’s better to have a 10K. It’s easier to jump in a 5K or 10K trail than it is, like you said, a hundred miler. So that’s for everybody. And then the second piece is that we literally have the best talent pool. All the best runners from all over the world—from Africa, from Europe, from Asia, the U.S.—they come into the NCAA. So how can we create this sustainable, healthy way to get those athletes into trail and up to a hundred miler if they want to do that? In my opinion, I think you should start with speed and then build your way up like we do in a lot of other aspects of running, so having shorter trail races are a great developmental pathway for our pipeline of running. It’s about testing the waters and building your strength up to be good at all of those things.
I couldn’t agree more with all of that. OK, so bringing it back to the trail team, your stated mission is to independently support and develop rising athletes into the best professional trail runners in the world through mentorship, skill development and media exposure. So what does that look like in practice? How do you tackle each of those areas and provide those things to the members of the team?
It’s been awesome because I came up with that in December 2022 and we’ve definitely stuck to that and I think we’ve been able to do a lot of pieces to this mission. I think in a lot of ways we’re the anti-sponsors, and what I mean by that is we’re trying to take really good athletes that are interested in trail and we’re trying to make sure that they are happy and supported, have good knowledge from peers, and have support. Basically we chose six athletes, four of which were really good NCAA runners, two of which are pro skiers essentially.
What do you mean by “the anti-sponsors?”
What I mean by the anti-sponsors is yes, sponsorships give you money potentially and they give you equipment like gear, but if you get hurt, they’re not really looking after you. So we’re here to invest in people. We want to tell their stories through media. We want to say that this is a person you should be interested in and we want to watch and we want to be there as mentors. So we’ve had Grayson Murphy, Allie Mac, myself and Adam Peterman as our mentors, and we’ve had meetings and reached out. I was on the phone with three of the athletes in the last 24 hours just answering questions and just supporting them and talking through race schedules and things like that that you don’t really get from a sponsor.
How did you go about choosing the six athletes to be a part of the team?
We’re going to choose athletes for a calendar year. Right now we’re choosing 20 to 30 year olds who are sub-ultra focused who have some trail experience and show promise to be basically one step away from being some of the best runners in the world. So the bar was pretty high in terms of these six elite athletes. And then we had a committee who could help choose that group from an application process. We had 160 applicants and chose six through this committee process that we had in January.
Will these initial six athletes continue to receive support and be a part of the team for years to come and then you’ll bring on six more, or will it be just a rotating cast of characters year in and year out?
We’ve thought about this a lot, but you can only be on the team for a year. We [also] want to grow the community. So we’re hoping that those athletes, we can still have those relationships with mentors, maybe still include them with stuff like trail camps. Christian Allen and Anna Gibson are going to be racing for the U.S. for Challenge Stellina in Italy. So we’re doing camps and doing things where we’re supporting those athletes the week before this race. We hope that they stick around and we’re going to include them in those things in the future years, but we really want them to step up as mentors—almost like a sophomore on your cross-country team where you’re like, “Hey, I went through all these things last year, here’s how I navigated that,” or “this was stressful and here’s what you can do.” So we’re hoping to build that community rather than just pick people and alienate them or something.
You said that you’re the anti-sponsor team but these things, camps and such, they cost money. I mean they’re not free. So how do you go about funding a trail team like this?
That’s been a really hard thing because I don’t think anyone else does this. We have three ways of raising money. One would just be personal donations and we’ve gotten some of those. We’d love to pursue that further but it’s a one man show—I’m doing a lot of things so we haven’t done a big fundraiser yet. One of the other important ones is we are working with some brands, but when we’re working with brands, it’s like, here’s the deal: We want these six athletes to be able to pursue the best contract and the best thing that they can do. So yes, we want to expose them and give them equipment or product. For example, Darn Tough supports us, Näak supports us, which is a nutrition brand, Suunto watch has supported us. So we’re giving athletes some of these products to test out under the assumption that if they get a contract that says they can’t use or wear this product, they don’t have to under the assumption that these athletes on the team don’t ever have to post, ever have to mention that they’re supported by this brand at all. And that’s a pretty hard sell. But I think that was really important to us in the wording of our mission is independent, we’re not a Nike brand, we’re not a Solomon brand. We’re independent of all those sponsors so that our athletes can get the best deal they can. And also I think we want to be authentic in saying that we like these products and these things and not be beholden to someone in the way that most athletes are. So I think that’s really freeing. But it’s [also] a trade off of how do we raise money? This is a long conversation but honestly it’s a great deal for the brands even if they’re like, “Yeah, maybe we get zero social media and marketing out of this,” but if you think about it, I’m vetting the best athletes in the country who are going to be the superstars in trail. Like Christian Allen just won Speedgoat 50K, incredible performance. He hust ripped it and he’s the future of 50K trail running in the U.S. and nobody knows who this guy is. So, if we can show him your products and start building that relationship now, how good is that for a brand versus coming in three years from now when everyone knows who he is?
Hearing you describe it almost sounds like in a way you’re creating a player’s association for trail runners, providing resources for newer athletes who are getting into the sport, who don’t have an agent, don’t have anyone who can educate them on this stuff, gaining them some initial exposure and really just giving them a support network when they run into these different issues along the way.
That’s exactly what it is. I think I was inspired by a lot of things. One thing was the Pro Trail Runners Association that came out in the last year or so. I’m part of that and also just trail running’s such a tight-knit community. All my friends, I see them at races and we compete against each other, and then we hang out afterwards and I think we’re just runners helping runners and that’s a big part of it.
On your website, aside from the team of six athletes that you support directly, you have the trail team club and the trail team community. So talk about those two things and how they differ and just fit into the overall scheme of things.
Awesome. Perfect. I really wanted to talk about this. Our initial focus was getting these six athletes and setting that as an example to show that everyone can run trails. Sub-ultra, it’s accessible. Also, if you’re a good runner, please try out trails if you like that and want that. That was a big mission. But when we started doing these applications, I was like, “What if you’re the seventh person and you don’t get chosen because we have 160 applicants and you’re an amazing person, are we just not going to support you?” And there’s also a line. I can’t mentor 160 people personally on my own time. So I mulled that over for a long time and we came up with The Trail Team Club, which has been amazing and it’s so cool. The idea’s really simple. I guess if you had to have a tagline for it, it would be “the 30 best unsponsored athletes in the country for trail.” So it doesn’t have to be sub-ultra, it can be ultra. It doesn’t have to be 20 to 30 years old, it can be 18 and it can be 42. And what we’ve done with that, which is amazing because it’s not just me, is that I’ve just connected all these athletes, some who are brand new to trails, some who are really experienced, some who are really fast, some who definitely need more development, need more time, and they’ve been coming together. Broken Arrow was a huge moment for this. We had, I think, somewhere between seven and 10 people who were part of our club team and they were all warming up together and it was like, we’re a team again. It’s this community that we’re building to support more than just the six athletes. So it’s still definitely elite focused or competitive focused, but it gives us a lot more room and that’s driven by those athletes.
And then the last piece, is we’re still trying to do a lot more things just to build the community that’s important to us. So personally, I’ve been putting on a training group in Boulder and I’ve been hearing from a lot of people they’re like, “We need one in Salt Lake, we need one in Fort Collins, we need one here and there. We need one in Quebec City.” So I’m hoping that that will take off and inspire people to emulate that and say, “Let’s build community and let’s get together for trail workouts.” But again, I’m one person, I don’t know the trails. I can’t write workouts for infinite people in different cities. I just don’t know what that looks like. I’ve been doing it here in Boulder and it’s been really cool to get that together because again, it’s opening it up wider and wider. So 30 unsponsored, pretty elite, but more range. And then communities. Let’s invite everyone. Let’s get people who don’t look like me to get on the trails. Let’s get more accepting and get people together to work out like a lot of people might do for road running.
Last question, which is a bit of a thought experiment. If we look ahead five years, what does success for The Trail Team look like?
This is great because in some ways I’m so satisfied with what we’ve done already. We’ve already had Anna win the VK at Broken Arrow, she got second in the 22K, Meikael got third, Christian won Speedgoat 50K. Alex was on a U.S. team. Everyone’s doing well, which has been really cool. I think for me, I know trail’s growing. I know sub-ultra trail is growing in America. I just want to help shape that vision to be inclusive. I want to shape that mission to support small trail races in the community. That’s always existed in trails and I don’t want that to get overrun by maybe corporate entanglement or just selling out for something that isn’t authentic. And I hope that we just build a pipeline for elite athletes and also community for everyone.