Before the close of my sophomore year of high school, my coach approached me at practice with a brochure. On the printed cover there was an eclectic group of boys and girls, strategically picked to mirror the diversity of the United Nations, running down a trail. I was skeptical. He opened up the pamphlet and pointed at one of the pictures, “Look! This camp brings you to where this year’s state meet is going to be. Go.” I did not have the fortune to matriculate into a high school powerhouse. Instead I came into a program of sprinters, and under the guidance of a soccer coach. But despite having limited experience with distance running, he was smart and willing to learn. So together through my high school years we read books, talked to other coaches and athletes, and developed a program that would work. For what he lacked in knowledge of lactate thresholds he made up in wisdom. And sending me to cross-country camp was one of his best moves.
There was no way I was going to camp alone though. I was a social butterfly of prodigious standards, but I wasn’t going to show up without a backup plan. I convinced my teammate Leroy to tag along, who was more a wrestler than he was a runner, but he was always down to make new friends. We pulled up to the campgrounds, and we were baffled. Cross-country camp was nothing like we had imagined. Everyone was having a good time playing basketball, but the kids were a bit bigger than we imagined. I looked at Leroy who sat beside me in the back seat to see if he was equally confused. His initial concern about camp had been resolved, “It looks like I’m not going to be the only black kid.” We rolled up in our car and spoke to one of the counselors. It turned out that the cross-country camp was a bit further down the dirt road. We followed the path and crested the hill only to see dozens of shirtless kids tossing a Frisbee across the field. That’s more like it, I thought.
Coming from a high school without a real running tradition, I was regularly mocked for sporting short-shorts to practice. In the most stereotypical fashion, the football players would call out and whistle as I ran around their field. This was flattering. But at camp, I was no longer the lone soldier. Within a couple hours of being there, and before even heading out for a run, I had been accepted solely by the condition of being a fellow runner. In that one week of camp, I listened and absorbed the lessons from such runners as Dick Beardsley, John Gregorek, Henry Rono and others like my running group counselor who was a former Footlocker National champion. I left camp with a new sense of pride to be a runner. As an athlete who was participating in one of the less popular sports in school, it was comforting to see that I was not alone. Somewhere out there were running nerds, just like me. But I didn’t find them until I went to camp.
Eight years later and I am headed back to camp again, yet now I return in a different role. Now it’s my turn to motivate some kids, share some wisdom, and make them laugh on the longest runs of their lives. However, at the end of the week when I am exhausted from waking up for early morning runs, playing Frisbee, putting on skits, swimming in the lake, and teaching clinics, I will come away with a spark of inspiration myself. As I am doing my best to eclipse my personal bests, and make a splash on the elite scene in the upcoming year, it is easy to be consumed by the business-like side of racing. But spending a week with kids who enjoy running for its purity is a refreshing look back to where I started, and to appreciate where I have ended up, so far.
Since cross-country runners have more camp pride than a wizard and their Hogwarts house, I’ll plug and say next week I will be up in Rockhill, NY at 5 Star XC Camp (www.5starxc.com). There’s still time to sign up and drink the ambiguously flavored red drank.