Kingdom Trails, across from the Wildflower Inn
Every time I mention to someone that I spent the first two weeks of August at running camp, I worry that this sounds juvenile and undignified… even for me. So I hasten to add that no, I was not a camper; the campers were mostly high school runners. I was a staff coach with actual adult responsibilities.
But still, you know, why would an old fart like me want to feel even older at running camp?
I have to admit that there are times when I do feel out-of-place among so many younger, fitter people, but mostly I find camp both interesting and inspirational. Interesting? Well, until a couple of years ago, I had never been to an organized camp of any kind, so all of the funny rituals of camp life are new to me. Inspirational? I didn’t expect that at all.
It all started in the early spring of 2015 when my then assistant coach, Julia, kept urging me to consider joining her that summer at the Northeast Kingdom Running Camp, based on the campus of Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vermont. Julia had already managed to convince several kids from the team to attend the camp, and, in the back of my mind, I felt I should experience the camp myself before I recommended it to others. Being a loner, I didn’t see why running at camp would offer any advantages over running by oneself, but maybe I would find out I was wrong. In any case, I finally agreed to give it a try, and with Julia’s letter of introduction in hand, reached out to the directors to ask whether they could make a place for me on the staff.
So it came to pass that several months later — on a beautiful Sunday morning in August — I found myself driving North through the White Mountains of New Hampshire on my way to remote Lyndonville, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I still didn’t know exactly what I would be doing as a staff coach. I had the impression from Julia and from the minimalist communication from the camp directors that I’d be joining kids and other staff on runs, and that I would be leading/teaching a couple of break-out sessions, but those seemed to be my only specific responsibilities. I wondered what I would do all the rest of the time, and I was concerned that I would feel bored, out-of-place, or even homesick. In other words, I felt like the new kid arriving at camp for the first time, some forty years later than all of the other new kids.
Over the next week I discovered, to my great surprise, a community of people with whom I had an uncanny amount in common. Among the older coaches were men and women from schools whose programs I had admired for years. Among the younger coaches and counselors were athletes whose athletic careers intersected with my own early coaching career. Within a few minutes of meeting my roommate, a young coach from the Hartford area, I found that he had been one of the runners in the fastest H.S. two-mile race ever run in New England, a race won by Chris Barnicle, who I was coaching at the time. Instantly, we felt connected as witnesses/participants in that event.
After a few days, I was no longer surprised to discover other connections with almost every adult at the camp. It was as if the camp had been waiting for years for me to show up, as if my finally being there was inevitable. Before arriving, I had worried about finding people to talk to, but it turned out NKRC was full of people with long running stories to tell that paralleled my own story. Discovering connections became a major motivation for me to overcome my natural diffidence and initiate conversations with new people.
That first year, I also began to appreciate the DNA of the camp – its history and rituals, as well as the ebb and flow of the daily schedule, including the periodic “announcements” in the main auditorium that kept campers and staff in sync and provided ongoing comic relief. Among the adults were several who were very comfortable on stage, and skillfully kept a room full of teenagers rapt with attention and amusement three times a day for six and a half days. Underlying all of this, was an undeniable consciousness that this camp was special, a home for those who felt passionately about running, and wanted to share that passion with 300 of their closest friends.
At the end of that first week two years ago, I was sorry to be leaving.
Morning shake-out run in the meadow.
Although my first summer at camp had left me wanting more, the next summer would sorely stress my stamina and show me I still had much to learn. I arrived at camp in 2016 with some physical issues, and with a lot of things going on in my home and professional life that tugged at my attention. After the first week, which went well enough but took a lot out of me, I started feeling both mentally and physically exhausted. I found it hard to maintain the enthusiasm that the kids deserved, and I struggled through the last few days. It wasn’t just that running twice a day had taken their toll, it was also that I had taken on more responsibilities, and hadn’t known how to use downtime to recharge.
During my first week the previous year, I had only tagged along with my group while another coach did all the leading. In my second year, I did more of the leading, which included taking attendance for a group of 12-14 kids the first week, and a larger group the second week, while making sure no one got lost, or missed a bus, or was having a rough time. There were other responsibilities, too, such as creating and giving a presentation to the entire camp, leading break-out sessions, helping with video analysis, among other things.
After last summer, I wasn’t sure whether this summer I should attend camp for one week or two. In the end, I decided to sign up for the full two weeks again. I’m glad I made that decision.
Knowing the schedule and the need to be fitter than the kids i my group, I trained more to prepare for the hills and the doubles. Knowing that I would be giving four break-out sessions, I prepared all my materials before I got to camp, so I didn’t have to use downtime to be work on PowerPoint slides. And perhaps most significantly, this summer I didn’t have the full-time job to worry about.
I also arrived at camp feeling like an old-timer, and fell easily into the routines that I remembered well from the previous two years. With less overall stress, I was able to focus more on the kids in my group, and I lucked out in getting a really great group of kids for Week 1, and a really great junior counselor as my co-leader.
Leading a group is a miniature version of coaching a team. There are the basic logistics to be managed – taking attendance, monitoring safety during runs, listening to reports of aches and pains – and there is the more elusive task of creating esprit du corps. After all, why run with people if you don’t enjoy their company? So I spent a good deal of time, especially in the first couple of days, getting to know the kids and helping them know each other.
But esprit du corps can be tested if some kids can’t keep up with the pace of the group, or if they feel it is far too slow for them. The camp does what it can to place kids in groups where they will all be comfortable, but inevitably there are issues. Maybe one day a kid has an upset stomach, or some other reason for lagging behind. Or maybe the accumulated mileage starts to wear on them. Dealing with those issues in a positive and encouraging way is probably the most important task for the group leader. It is also where the values of the camp come into play, and it was stressed over and over that every kid deserved to be in a running group that worked for them.
That is probably why someone like me, old and slow but reliable, can still be useful at a place like NKRC. There’s no chance I could run with any of the top groups, who are filled with elite high school runners. My place is in the higher-numbered groups, among the less experienced high school kids, the middle school runners, and those who for whatever reason are more comfortable with nine- or ten-minute miles than with eight-minute miles. In these groups, I have something to offer — and I have a blast.
Week 2, Group 15, after completing the “Grad Run” (700′ vertical climb in 1.1 miles)
I think the other reason that this summer went so well is that I began to see what the camp was all about, and why its directors were so passionate about it.
It was about dreams.
One of the themes of NKRC is that it’s OK for high school kids to dream big – as big as making the U.S. National team and competing at the Olympics. To underscore this theme, the camp always manages to invite one or more professional runners to speak to the kids and answer their questions. In many cases, the pro runners have a connection to the camp itself, or to one of the high schools represented at camp.
For example, one of this year’s featured speakers was two-time Olympian Donn Cabral, a proud graduate of Glastonbury High School, in Glastonbury, Connecticut, whose coaches are on staff at NKRC, and whose runners regularly attend camp. Remember the young coach who was my roommate my first year at camp who ran in that epic Hartford two-mile back in 2004? He was a senior at Glastonbury when Cabral was a freshman.
The point is that while not everyone in camp today will make it to the Olympics, the directors believe that at least one camper will, and maybe several. And that belief inspires a profound sense of mission amidst all the fun of being here.
In the course of the two weeks, campers would hear from four other Olympians: Julie Culley (North Hunterdon H.S., London 2012), Abby D’Agostino (Masconnomet Regional H.S., Rio 2016), her coach Mark Coogan (Bishop Feehan H.S., Atlanta 1996), and Cathy O’Brien (Dover H.S., Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992). Each of the speakers talked about how their high school experience was foundational (although not necessarily predictive) for their later success.
The founders of Northeast Kingdom Running Camp aren’t Olympians, but they are runners who, when they were kids in high school, had crazy, audacious dreams. They dreamed of running sub-four-minute miles, of winning championships, of making it to the Olympics. Some of them came pretty close before realizing that they wouldn’t make it. Some of the younger staff members are still pursuing the dream and might, in future years, return to the camp as guest speakers to tell the story of how, against formidable odds, they made it to Doha or Tokyo or Paris.
But making it or not making it, realizing one’s craziest dreams or falling short, are not the only measures of a life spent trying to honor the gift of running: there are the lifelong friendships with others who share the dream; there are the hard lessons about persistence and picking yourself up after your failures and stupid mistakes; there are the little victories, and maybe – if you finally get it right – a big victory to remember for the rest of your life; there is the journey itself, and the memory of the places it took you.
Some of those dreamers become coaches, and some of them – some of us – find a second life of satisfaction in sharing what we have learned, including our conviction that running well is one of the most demanding and rewarding things on which to spend one’s precious time.
One of the coaches at NKRC told me that when he gathers his team for the first pre-season practice in the heat of August, he begins by telling them, “We are here to do something special.” I have come to feel the same way about running camp, and, I will steal that line to tell my own team at the start of this season.
My favorite shirt from running camp has a Christmas tree on it. I’m not sure why a Christmas tree, unless it’s an homage to the many Christmas tree farms in the Northeast Kingdom. I like to think it’s because, like Christmas, running camp feels special, but what really matters is that, like Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” you promise to keep that feeling in your heart every day of the year.