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Lauren Gregory has known for a long time that she wanted to pursue trail running at the highest level.
And yet, she’s become one of the best middle-distance track athletes in the collegiate ranks. Given the recent trends, the sixth-year University of Arkansas senior could probably start earning a living as a track athlete chasing fast times around the oval.
And, yes, she loves racing on the track—as evidenced by her second-place finish (4:34.24) in the mile at the March 11-12 NCAA Division I Indoor Championships—but her heart has always felt the most full while challenging herself on rugged, crooked, and undulating trails.
She’s already raced several high-level trail races in the past several years, including the 2022 World Mountain and Trail Running World Championship, where she finished 12th in the 8.5km Classic Uphill Race and helped the U.S. win a team gold medal.
“When I went into college, I was already certain I wanted to run trails when I was done with school,” says Gregory, who grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. “It was just how we trained in the summer. We would just run up near Horsetooth Reservoir every Friday in the summer and do our long runs on trails. It was just so much fun to be running out there with my team. I just love being out there running on the trails.”
Gregory graduated last year with a degree in biological engineering and is now enrolled in a graduate certificate program focused on sustainability. But when she’s done with her college eligibility after the outdoor track season in June, her dream job would be that of a professional trail runner who also races on the track and roads, much the way Grayson Murphy and Max King have done in recent years. Meanwhile, Sam Hendry is also keen on getting more into trail running, even though he’s been mostly focused on Nordic skiing most of his life. The University of Utah senior just wrapped up his college career with a fourth-place finish in the 20K Classic ski race at the NCAA Championships that helped the Utes win its fourth consecutive team title. He might continue to ski next winter, but he’s really looking forward to running trail races.
Gregory and Hendry are good examples of young athletes interested in trail running, even though it’s never been their primary sport discipline. Neither knows much about how to make a living as a runner, let alone how to train as a professional trail runner. But who does?
“When you get out of school, there’s really no roadmap for how to get into trail running,” says Andy Wacker, who founded The Trail Team in January to help develop young sub-ultra-distance trail runners and eventually steer more young athletes into competitive trail running. “In talking to runners, most said they didn’t know how to train, which races to run or how to find a coach. The goal of The Trail Team is to give them support to find their way into the sport and make trail running a first choice.”
For years, the obvious path for the fastest collegiate runners has always been to continue pursuing track goals—because that’s where the money has been for post-collegiate brand partnerships—while almost everybody else would quickly move up to the marathon and chase the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifying standard while working at least a part-time job. Trail racing was usually an afterthought or something some runners stumbled into when all else failed.
Trail running has grown enormously over the past 10 years and become a real option for runners hoping to continue their competitive zest, but the sport is still largely unstructured without any specific path to success, Wacker says. Further muddying the outlook for young runners is the fact that most of the money and attention in trail running have been in ultrarunning, and going from racing a maximum of 10K in college to the thought of running 50 miles, 100K or 100 miles can be bewildering.
Those are exactly the scenarios Wacker encountered 12 years ago when he ended his collegiate career. He struggled to figure it out on his own, eventually understanding how to train, which races to focus on, and how to approach brands and secure sponsorship deals en route to becoming one of the best sub-ultra trail runners of this era. He formed The Trail Team to help ease the transition for the next generation of trail runners.
Part of the organization’s strategy is to guide a team of six runners throughout a season, providing them with knowledge and insights about how the sport and the business works, helping them improve their skills and enhance their training and offering mentorship from other American athletes.
The recently announced inaugural team of athletes includes Gregory, Hendry, and collegiate runners Anna Gibson (Washington), Meikael Beaudoin-Rousseau (Stanford). and Christian Allen (BYU), as well as Alex Lawson, a former Middlebury College athlete who is a professional Nordic skier.
The biggest goal of the program is to help elevate each of the athletes and help them become an inspiration to other young runners.
“It’s a great opportunity and I think there’s just a huge area for growth in sub-ultra trail running right now,” says Hendry, who has raced in the Cirque Series for several years and last year competed in several Golden Trail World Series races. “I’ve never had a running coach and I’ve always just kind of made a training plan on my own for running based on what I know about skiing. So it’s going to be nice to get to learn from the experts, learn from other athletes and figure it all out a bit better.”