Andy Wacker uses fastest-known-times to prepare for elite trail competitions
Boulder-based runner and Adidas Terrex 20k Anniversary Run favorite is the FKT king
When the pandemic closed organized races worldwide, many elite athletes sought alternatives for priming their competitive pumps. Fastest-known-times (FKTs), particularly in trail-dense regions like Colorado, became all the rage. “That was my way to do workouts on the trails and challenge myself,” said former University of Colorado Boulder two-time All-American Andy Wacker, 33, who will race the Adidas Terrex 20K Anniversary Run on Sunday.
The crossover road marathon-to-trail star’s fascination with the old school time trial trend is emblematic of his philosophy of sport in general: It’s not about the wins or the money.
Wacker’s resume isn’t one in need of any philosophical cop-out, though. The Nike trail athlete has made 14 U.S. National teams, placed second, third and fifth at World Mountain Running Association long distance championships, and won a few USATF trail titles, ranging from half-marathon to 50K. He wasn’t exactly chopped liver on running’s traditional scene, either, with personal bests of 13:41, 28:52, 1:03:25 and 2:17:34 for the 5K, 10K, half and full marathons, respectively.
Still, the stoic person-versus-self, race against the clock battle of the FKT embodies this gutsy front-runner.
“It’s not about money and it’s not about winning races, because like, those bring me no joy,” he said.
“It’s definitely personal. Finding peace and finding depth to self, if that makes sense. The superficial stuff is so worthless in the end, which is crazy because that’s what people think it’s about.”
Student of the sport
Wacker, who taught middle school math at Watershed School in Boulder — though he’s making the move up to high school next year (“middle schoolers are tough!” he laughed) — is an athlete who has always needed an intellectual stimulus alongside his training.
“I can’t just run; it’s been intentional to have jobs,” he said.
“I also feel strongly about contributing to the community, and I know people can do that through running, but I think there are different ways to do that. For me, it’s been staying physically active, mentally active and giving back.”
On the training side of things, it means a lot of 6 a.m. workouts and lunch shakeout runs.
“This year, it had to be more regimented to fit in that marathon block,” he said, referring to his normal January-June road season, a strategy he’s implemented to focus on one of his strengths over many world-class trail runners: Top-end speed.
“Yeah, it’s on purpose, and it fits better for Colorado weather, too, to be honest,” he laughed.
It culminated this year in the Eugene Marathon, where he was targeting the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:18, a pace he maintained for the first 85% of the race before falling off. Still, he said his training has been going well. His main goal is to make another U.S. World Mountain Running team for November’s championships in Thailand. He’ll need good performances at three upcoming U.S. qualifying events: The Broken Arrow Vertical Kilometer on June 17, the U.S. Mountain Running Championships at Whiteface Mountain in New York on July 2 and the Loon Mountain race in New Hampshire July 10.
“GoPro (Mountain Games) is always a good stepping stone to get ready,” he said of the “hard and hilly” trail system.
Even with a master’s in physiology, Wacker considers himself a casual student of the sport. He relies on his new coach — he’s spent most of his career training alone — Jeff Eggleston, for the nitty-gritty scientific interpretations. The former 2:10 Boulder-based marathoner and old training buddy has helped Wacker perfect various elements of his build-up and provided fresh tools during last summer’s arduous recovery from an Achilles injury.
“It was kind of like putting things in new lenses and finding ways to say, ‘what’s a success?'” said Wacker, who joked that competing at the Mountain Games last year may have been unwise and forced him to take three months completely off.
“For me, as an older athlete who’s coached myself for a long time, it’s hard to find the joy in training when you’re not maybe at your peak and you’re not hitting the hardest workout you’ve hit (as) you’re coming back from an injury.”
Currently, Wacker has 34 FKTs to his name, but as you might expect, it’s not about numbers.
“The best thing that I’ve found is going after these, you’re like, ‘wow I never knew this trail existed’ or ‘I never would have come here,’ and now I’m checking it out,” he beamed.
“I just think it’s been amazing doing them.”
He is proud of his High Lonesome Loop record, a well-known local route anyone, even from running-crazed Boulder, may struggle to better.
“It was cool because I came back to it,” Wacker said.
“It took me a couple times to get it right and when I hit it, I just really hit it. I don’t think anyone’s going to get that time.”
The pursuit has a training benefit, too, especially for an athlete used to the strict nature of pacing on the track and roads.
“I think it’s easier to push yourself on the roads because you know what time you’re supposed to hit, and then on the trails it’s a little different,” Wacker explained.
“So, it’s nice to have a prescribed route and say like, ‘oh, these are the parts I really want to hit.’ It kind of allows you to get in a headspace where you can push yourself to new limits and push your skills on the downhills and those kinds of things.”
Wacker has built a reputation for finding his limits and testing pacing norms in long-distance races, as he did at the 2014 and 2015 Pikes Peak Ascents. He led until the final miles both times, winding up third and second, respectively. Counter-culture to the standard sit-and-kick strategy of the track and void of watches and lap counters, the trail world relies on a runner’s innate ability to internally monitor themselves. For Wacker, that trait is laced with even a more fundamental element, captured in a phrase he coined: Know thyself.
“Especially on trails, paces don’t matter,” he said, hinting at the deeper layer softly represented by the whole FKT world.
“You have to know what’s hard and how hard you should push yourself. You have to know how far you’re going. And I think that can go really deep — more than just the pacing piece. It’s knowing why you’re doing it and knowing what that’s supposed to feel like and why … and when to quit.”
Wacker won’t quit for the day after Sunday morning’s 20K. He hopes to join his wife in Pepi’s Challenge after an hour break.
“I’m kind of a fan of Pepi’s because it’s such a sufferfest,” he laughed.
“So, even though there’s no time (between races), I might sign up for it because I can’t think about not doing it.”