Never Give up Attitude Pays Off For Hornecker
BOULDER – On November 23, 2019, Alec Hornecker was on top of the world. He had just placed 38th at the NCAA Cross Country Championship in Terre Haute, Ind., earning himself All-American honors. The Buffaloes placed third as a team, finishing just one point behind the favorite, Northern Arizona.
It was a pretty exciting moment for anyone, but to Hornecker, it was practically a dream come true that he didn't know he even had. After all, in his own words, he stated, "When I was in high school I was good, but I was nothing really special."
A Golden, Colo., native, Hornecker graduated from Golden High School in 2016. He was all-state in cross country his senior season, finishing second at state, and was the school record holder in the 800, 1,600, 3,200 and 5,000-meter runs. With family in the Pacific Northwest, he looked at colleges in that direction and chose to continue his running career at Portland State.
But things don't always work out the way you think they will and after one year, Hornecker returned home to Colorado. Between the weather, being away from family and having suffered a knee injury, the combination wasn't working for him anymore and he needed to make a change.
"I had great teammates and coaches at Portland State," he said. "I just knew I couldn't stay in Portland. I wasn't in the best state of mind."
After returning to Colorado, Hornecker started to miss running and slowly started getting back into it and enjoying it. It was also time to think about where he would continue his education and the draw of in-state tuition was sounding nice. He applied to CU for the business school but did not get in as he was missing a statistics credit which he could get at a community college. At this point, Hornecker knew what he wanted. He wanted to attend CU.
After a fall of training on his own and taking classes at the local community college, Hornecker contacted CU's recruiting coordinator/assistant coach Billy Nelson to let him know he had an interest in running for the Buffaloes and planned to attend CU regardless.
His hard work paid off and he was accepted into Leeds School of Business at CU and would start classes in the spring of 2018. Now as a student at CU, he reached out to Nelson, who had him run a tryout. Hornecker said he, 'ran poorly' and ended up injuring himself, forcing himself to take more time off running. Not surprisingly, Hornecker was not discouraged.
"I decided I didn't want to give up and I still wanted to run," he said. "Late spring into the summer I was training really hard trying to make the team [fall 2018]. I was running fairly well but not great. I was having trouble adjusting to college training. I didn't run many miles in high school and now in college, I was getting asked to double them in order to be good and it just wasn't working super well."
Finally, something clicked. That fall he ran a couple of races and after finishing sixth at the Roadrunner Invitational on October 6, CU head coach Mark Wetmore and associate head coach Heather Burroughs agreed to let him walk-on to the team.
"I'm pretty firm on what we accept here when people are trying out," Wetmore said. "So it wasn't a favor or out of friendship. He ran pretty well down there in Denver."
Even though he was finally on the team, things did not magically get easy. In fact, Hornecker recalls the first practices being "pretty brutal."
But he was part of a team and part of a team is helping each other out. He was able to look up to the older guys like John Dressel and Joe Klecker, who were a huge support. But there were also the teammates his age and younger supporting him as he adjusted to mileage and training.
The fall of 2019 saw Hornecker record a third-place finish at the Wyoming Invitational to start the season. It was a good run to start the season, but there was a long way to go. The next race, the Joe Piane Invitational, had a higher caliber of competition. There he was 26th overall as CU's fifth runner. At NCAA Pre-Nationals, Hornecker was once again the fifth man for the Buffs, finishing 38th.
He was hitting his stride, but the best was yet to come that season. At the Pac-12 Championship, Hornecker earned All-Pac-12 Second Team honors by placing 12th overall as CU's No. 4 runner. In doing so, he helped the Buffs win their seventh Pac-12 team title in nine years.
Hornecker did not race at the NCAA Mountain Region Championship, so the NCAA Championship on Nov. 23 would be his first 10k ever. It's fair to say he crushed it as he earned All-America honors placing in the top-40.
"Early in college when I was trying to get on the team, I didn't think that I even had the potential to be an All-American and for it to just come to us like that, that's probably one of my best accomplishments," Hornecker said. "That was a very exciting accomplishment for me."
His finish drew attention from others, as it had all season. Following the race when Wetmore was asked about Hornecker's performance, he said, "Everywhere I've gone all season people have been asking, 'Who the hell is Alec Hornecker?' and I say, 'He's the guy that knocked on my door and said I'm coming on to your team.' I didn't make it easy for him and he didn't need it to be easy and look what happened."
Extremely humble, Hornecker remembered that just the year prior to that cold November day on the podium, he did not know if he would be a member of the seven-man roster at NCAAs given the amount of talent that is on the team every year. And two years before that he was not even a member of the team and had been training on his own. But his hard work and perseverance paid off, for him and CU.
"He is an extremely rare story here because it's a very competitive program," Wetmore said. "We run in the most competitive distance event conference in the country and there are very few stories like his of people who tried out and gained a spot and became a contributor for us."
Only nine Buffs, seven men and two women, have ever made the jump from walk-on to All-American on the list that goes back to 1991. Pierce Murphy was the last to do so, walking on to the team in 2011. When he left in 2016, he had recorded eight All-America honor, including three in cross country.
Now heading into a very different looking cross country season, Hornecker will be one of the leaders with the departure of Klecker and Dressel. But no matter how different the season may look, the team always has the same goal.
"As a team, we are always looking at a national championship," he said. "I want to do what I can to put my team in a good position there. I feel very confident about the guys surrounding me. We have a great group of guys. That's what has gotten me and all of us to this point. We want to compete on March 15th and put CU in the conversation for winning another national championship."