Andy Wacker's first mountain running race was the 2013 USA Mountain Running Championships.
"I had done more traditional half marathon road races," said Wacker, "And I thought, oh, this will be easy, no one good does mountain running."
The top six finishers in the race qualified for the U.S. team. Wacker was seventh.
"Seventh place was the best position to be humbled," said Wacker. "It was really eye opening if you come from a road background."
Wacker was partially referring to the fact that in mountain running, time doesn't matter.
"It's easy to roll out six-minute miles on the road, but on the trails, you might run a 20-minute mile running up the side of a mountain."
He is quick to praise the talent of his competition.
"The field isn't as deep as the road scene, but there are incredible athletes. Joe Gray can run in the low 28's in a 10K on the track, Patrick Smythe was 12th in the US Marathon trials, and Max King was a nationally ranked steeplechaser. It really shows when top guys can compete in many different distances."
It's a bit more difficult to get Wacker to talk about himself. In college, he was a two-time All-American in cross-country at CU Boulder, he placed second at the 2015 Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Zermatt, Switzerland, and he won the USATF Trail Half Marathon in 2016. Last year, he was also a member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team, which took home the gold medal at the World Mountain Running Championship in Bulgaria.
2017 marks Wacker's fourth consecutive year on the U.S. Mountain Running Team, which won the bronze medal in the World Mountain Running Championship (13K), held in Premana, Italy this year. His teammates included three-time XTERRA Trail Run World Champ Patrick Smyth, 2016 XTERRA Trail Run World Champ Joe Gray, and 2017 XTERRA Trail Run National Champ, Brett Hales.
Wacker also competed in the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship in Premana (32K), and in the IAU Trail Run World Championship (50K). In both races, the U.S. men's team took home the silver medal.
He's no slouch on the roads either. He has PRs of 13:41 in the 5K, 1:03:25 for the half marathon, and he's run a 2:26 marathon.
Wacker is planning on running the London Marathon this spring, with the hopes of qualifying for the Olympic Trials again, but he admits that it's the trails that have captured his heart.
"It's so simple. In the summer, I'll just go run to the top of some mountain peak. And the plot is you just have to get there. It's not contrived or forced, like doing hill repeats. It's just what you have to do."
While mountain running is just beginning to gain popularity in the US, it's been big in Europe since the 1980's.
"There's such a rich history we don't even know about," said Wacker. "In little mountain villages in Europe, they've been 'sky running' for at least 40 years. If there's a mountain in the town, they say, here's the peak so let's run to the top and come back down. That's the challenge for that town and people get really into it."
This year, Wacker is going to make his debut at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship in Kualoa Ranch on December 3rd.
"I've been wanting to do XTERRA Worlds for a long time, but because it has coincided with cross-country season, it's been hard to sneak it in."
At the start, he will face his U.S. Mountain Running teammate Joe Gray.
"I'm getting more and more into trails each year," said Wacker. "For me, it's so many things. Road marathons are kind of all the same, whether you're in New York or Frankfort. In trail running, every course is different. You go up to a mountain in a tiny town in Europe and you really get a sense of the place."
Learn more about the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship, held in Kualoa Ranch. The race is open to the public - it's not necessary to qualify in order to enter.