Andrew Schilling grew up running among the endless birch trees and pine groves of the Northwoods. 

These days, however, the forest he runs through gives way — in just a few miles — to high-rise buildings and parking garages.

“I really like to go through the (University of Wisconsin) arboretum,” said the Minocqua native, and current Badger men’s cross country runner, about his favorite route in Madison, one that makes him feel right at home — sort of.

“It’s not quite as pretty as home, because the leaves don’t really get as colorful for some reason,” Schilling said.

But the sub-par autumn colors are only a minor blemish on the bright future he’s carved out.

Schilling, a Lakeland Union alum, recently ran in the Big Ten Conference Championships held in Lincoln, Neb., on Oct. 28, and the Badgers took the title. He finished 43rd overall in 24 minutes, 45.80 seconds, a personal best that gives him the chance to run in the NCAA Division I Great Lakes Regional race in Terra Haute, Ind., today.

He’s come a long way since his days training as a Thunderbird on Minocqua’s Bearskin Trail, and his route to the Big Ten has been just as twisting and turning.  

Schilling was not recruited out of high school, and therefore if he was going to run cross country for UW-Madison, one of the elite programs in the country, his only option was to walk on.

“To make the team here at Madison you pretty much have to be a state champion or at least top three or top five in the state and I was not there,” Schilling said.

But, as a high school senior, the program he ran for was. In 2014 LUHS, then under head coach Kevin Fitzpatrick, took third as a team at the state meet, so Schilling was not unfamiliar with having top-notch running mates.

“It seems like a lot of the guys on the team here in Madison, they were like some of the best guys in the state and were all-state runners when they were freshman and sophomores,” Schilling said about his early cross country career. “But when I was a (high school) freshman and I was a (high school) sophomore I wasn’t even one of the best guys on the team. There was always guys on the team better than me and I didn’t finish a race as our top guy until my junior year. So just always having guys that were better than me on the team, that made it a lot easier to improve and do well and just want to get better seeing that there are guys doing the same training as me who are better than me. So, I knew that if they could do it I could do it.”

And he did. Unlike his first two years in high school, as a junior he picked up on the benefits of intensive training throughout the year, rather than just trusting his natural ability at the start of the season.

“I didn’t get super competitive until my junior year because I never did much training in the off season,” Schilling said. “I kind of just went into the season without much base and then whatever happened, happened. But then going into my junior year in cross country I ran about 340 miles in the summer compared to nothing in the previous two summers.”

It paid off. In 2013 Schilling broke away from the pack of his fellow Thunderbirds and was the only one to qualify for the state meet in which he finished 29th in 16:53.08. The following year he would again be the top T-Bird, finishing the state meet in 14th place in 16:21.05.

But his times were not Division I-caliber when he graduated. Schilling wanted to keep running, in particular for the Badgers, so he joined a club team in Madison his freshman year to begin walk-on training.

“We have a track club here and those guys are pretty competitive, too,” he said. “It’s a bunch of guys who have all sort of different skill levels.”

While the track club did maintain his competitive spirit it also brought him back to the roots of his interest in cross country, established when he began running at age seven and competition had nothing to do with it.

“When we were younger, it was more about having fun,” Schilling said. “There’s guys who just keep running because they love the sport.”

Though Schilling enjoyed the running for running’s sake atmosphere of the club, his times against some of the Division III colleges they raced against began to drop near varsity levels.

“I was able to get my times down competing with those guys and then finally at the end of my sophomore year I ran 1:54 for the 800 meter and I thought that might be a time that was good enough to let me walk on to the (varsity) team,” he said.

He was right. Assistant UW men’s track and field distance coach Gavin Kennedy called Shilling a couple days later and told him he would be given a spot on the men’s track/cross country roster as a middle distance runner for the 800 meter race.

“It was pretty unbelievable,” Schilling remembered. “It was right after finals and I was home for the summer working at my dad’s pizza restaurant. And right before I went into work the coach game me the call. My mom (Nancy Schilling) walked in the door when I got the call and then she started crying because she knew what was going on.”

Then Andrew Schilling made the biggest delivery of his summer, and it wasn’t pizzas.

“I immediately drove into work and told my dad (Billy Schilling) what was going on,” he said. “It was a super emotional experience for us.”

After a summer of slicing pies, Schilling returned to Madison and began cutting his times.

Up until a couple weeks before last year’s Big Ten Championships he had been primarily training for the half mile on the varsity track team. But during the 2017 Nuttycombe Invitational “B” race, which he ran unattached to the team, he caught the eyes of the cross country staff.

“I ran 26 minutes I think or 25:59,” Schilling said. “They decided to put me in for endurance-based training for the rest of the season and beyond that.”

Schilling went well beyond that. He ran last year’s 8K Big Ten Championships in Bloomington, Ind., in 25:44.0 and then the Great Lakes Regional 10K race in Terra Haute, Ind., in 32:16.80.

His conference time this year in Lincoln was about a full minute faster. Today, he hopes to cut his 10K time as well at the regional and then run the following week at the NCAA National Championships, hosted by Wisconsin.

To do so, Schilling says he will trust he strength as a late-race sprinter and not be concerned with the energy expenditures of leading the whole time.

“There’s a lot of strategy that goes into that, just trying to keep yourself in a position close enough to the front but not in the front,” he said. “Where you can still make a move toward the end of a race and put yourself in a good position.”

So far, in his cross country career, Andrew Schilling has had no problem doing just that.

Jacob Friede may be reached at jacob@lakelandtimes.com or sports@lakelandtimes.

com.