August is the end of summer school for distance runners. Did you do your running homework to prepare for the Fall Cross Country (XC) season? Every high school and college coach prays and pleads for a squad of healthy and fit runners come the first days of XC practice. It is no different for the team I assist, the West Springfield HS Spartans in Springfield Virginia. The first full day of practice led by us coaches was August 4th. Now we have 3 weeks of practice complete and the roster is taking shape. Before we got to this juncture, the coaching staff selected the top 12 (plus or minus one runner) of each gender to the annual “Cacapon XC Camp” at Cacapon State Park in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. How were the athletes selected? It started with a team qualifying time trial of 1.5 miles on the track. That effort was part of the selection criteria that factored in performances from workouts. The last timed event that helps secure spots for runners on the bubble is the “round the lake time trial” at Burke Lake Park in Fairfax, Virginia. It is a loop course on gravel and some asphalt road. For many of the runners, this is an unattainable run. Why is that the case? The biggest hurdle new runners have in cross country is running a continuous hard-paced 3 miles. In our case for the “around-the-lake time trial, they had not showed the sufficient speed and stamina to handle running 4.5 miles in a continuous loop course.
Off to Camp in West Virginia. West Springfield’s Cross Country teams have been coming to eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia for 40 years. In a typical year, there are 12 boys and 12 girls. The girls hit the camp first with two team Moms who live in the cabin with the girls for 3 and a half days. The girls clear out and the boys arrive. One or two of the 3 coaches joins the fray in the cabin to finish out the week. Over the 3 and a half days for each group, there are a series of two main workouts each day. The 3 big running events highlight the Camp getaway: the Mountain Run, the team 3200 / 2 mile relays on turf and a longer distance point-to-point road run. The one non-running event that is key to the Cross Country Camp is the “goal-setting sessions”.
The Mountain Run. Does running up a mountain strike fear or trepidation? Maybe it’s not fear but it certainly ends up being humbling. The point to the run is to set an upper bound on what is difficult during a cross country season. No high school or college course is an uphill traverse. Sure, you will encounter hills on courses with legendary nicknames like “Parachute Hill” or “The Dip” or “Suicide Hill”. The Cacapon Mountain Run is the first of the major runs during our half week camp for each gender. Our West Springfield Team has a historic Top 20 All-Time list that spurs interest for runners each year. This year’s crew of young girl runners had 3 new names added to the list. That meant 3 former greats at our high school dropped off the list. One observation on girls distance running that has been noted nationwide and on events like our Mountain Run: girls are now “going for it” or attacking courses and races with more effort. Records are falling and in the case of our Top 20 lists, more girls are willing to push the pace even on an uphill mountain run. The Cacapon Mountain run is a 4 mile uphill run on gravel road with a total of a 1600 ft. elevation climb ending at 2300+ ft.
The Team Relays. Picture rolling hills on grass terrain surrounding a Lodge and Robert Trent Jones Sr golf course. That is the site of the Team Relays. The coaches split the group of 12 into 3 relay teams, 4 runners per team. A course that is roughly 800m in length is marked with cones or bright objects; in our case, we drop neon orange leis on the key spots. Each team sets their running order for each of the four legs. What makes this relay a test is that each runner must run twice; that is, two 800s. Each team ends up running ~6400m. Each runner is tested on speed and stamina. These things come into play in the latter stretch of cross country races.
The Long Distance Run. The final morning for each gender group is the long point-to-point distance run. The girls’ run is aptly named the “Junkyard Dog” and is 7.2 miles long. No casualties occur but there is always one stray dog that likes to make his or her presence known. The course is on rural stretches outside the State Park confines. The coaches place mile marker cones along the course. Some runners are held out or have the run’s distance reduced by having them start at the 2 mile mark. Coaches stagger the start of the runners with the goal of having all finishers within a 2-3 minute stretch. The slower-paced runners go off first and our team’s #1 or top 2 runners start last. The boys’ course is 7.5 miles and begins at the finish line of the girls’ course. It is a bit hillier and includes a steep ¾ mile downhill. As in the Mountain Run, runners shoot to earn a Top 20 All-Time placing. The long distance run teaches the aspect of a “steady-paced” workout run.
The Cacapon XC Camp experience has several intangible benefits. I mentioned goal setting. The other key element is team building. On the Boys side, the top 12 at the West Virginia Camp usually stays intact for the season. This is the group that needs to trust one another. They need to believe in each other and they need to “buy-in” to what the coaches are dishing out.
For the coaches, this is one of the highlights of the year. You get lost in time out in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia. Enthusiasm reigns and running is at its purest state. No wonder that this West Springfield (VA) team has been holding this camp for 40 years.