A good fastball led Zach Andrews to running. From 2004-2008, Andrews was an All-American pitcher for the University of Montevallo. He helped lead the team to the school’s first regional championship victory. Appearing in the College World Series in 2006, the team finished third.
“Most of our conditioning came from distance running. I started to enjoy running but I couldn’t get out on the trails,” says Andrews. “With a scholarship my coaches said we’re paying you to play baseball and don’t want you to get hurt running on the trails.”
After college, Andrews joined a band but ultimately didn’t like the lifestyle. “I got married in 2010 and was looking to stay active and adventurous, so I transitioned into trail running. After just a few weeks of running Andrews registered for the Black Warrior 50k in Double Springs, AL. Up until that point he had never run further than a half marathon. A few months later he finished the race and fell in love with running trails.
Today, running is part of his lifestyle. “Running is like having milk, bread and coffee every morning. Running is something I try to get out and do every day,” says Andrews. “ I’m not a streak runner so if I’m not feeling up to a run or have a lot of things going on with work or family its fine to step back. I enjoy getting into the woods every day. Running calms me down and sets me back into place.”
Andrews finds an inner peace in the woods around Birmingham. “The act of being in the woods alone is a way to reconnect with my thoughts and nature.” With his athletic background and college baseball experience, Andrews doesn't see himself as a competitive runner. “I run for the adventure. It’s not important to win a buckle or a medal or place high in a race. Of course, there is a competitive streak tucked inside but for the most part I’m a very relaxed, organic, free-flowing runner. I just enjoy being out on the trails for long hours.”
He didn’t always feel comfortable with trail running. The first year I ran with the mindset of a road runner because that’s what I had experience training in college,” recalls Andrews. “When I started training for trail races it was all about mileage, pace, splits and I kept getting injured and burning out. I wasn’t doing as well as I could. One day, it just clicked. I really enjoyed the idea of being on the trails for extended hours training without any set goals. That approach freed me to find my own rhythm and figure out what works best for me. It’s not about killing yourself paying attention to pace and times. I did so much better in the longer races because I was so relaxed. It feels more natural to go out and enjoy myself and be in the moment instead of worrying that I have to pick up the pace. Since adopting that approach I’ve been injury free and enjoy running more than I did the first few years.”
Running for hours and hours in the woods, covering distances of 40-50 or 60 miles at a stretch, Andrews has found ways to endure. “I’ve been blessed with an ability to endure a lot of pain. I can suffer with the best,” he says. “It’s just a matter of not stopping and continuing on. You are going to hit low points and have crappy days, but you just have to keep going. It’s all about the adventure. I feel like I’m a kid again playing in the woods running around with my best friends.”
Racing in ultra-distance events Andrews has found a way to manage the roller coaster of emotions that come in a 100-mile race. “I don’t listen to music when I run but when I’m hitting a low spot I’ll think of a popular pop song,” he says. “I was in a very low spot at the Grindstone 100 somewhere around 2-3 am and around mile 40. The race started at 6am and we had already been up for 18-19 hours. The Taylor Swift song, “Shake it Off” came into my head. I sang that song out loud running down a dark dirt road at 2am in the morning. Before I knew it I was back on pace and everything is working like I wasn't in the pits of hell 5 minutes before. For me, finding a rhythm and a pop song helps me work through it.”
Although his wife Kati prefers yoga to running, she is extremely supportive of the role running plays in his life. “She knows how important running is to me. I don’t drag her out to ultras anymore. She’s been to a few but I don’t need her to be waiting 15-20 hours for me,” he says. “When I go out to do one of these races, one of her favorite things to say is, “'I really enjoy supporting you from the warmth of my bed.' When it’s 2 or 3 in the morning and I’m freezing on some mountaintop, I picture her cozy in the bed. That image makes me smile and takes me to a better place.”