Photo by: Dave Watt 

August’s call is heard throughout lakeside trails, neighborhood sidewalks and mountain roads. It is the call for boys and girls to ratchet up cross country training. For me, this is year #4 in my foray into the world of high school cross country coaching. Three years ago, I managed to convince a young high school head distance coach that I could provide value to the West Springfield High School Cross Country Team. Our daughter Alex had graduated and was off to study and run at Virginia Tech. That quest continues as we enjoy being college cross country parents, as well as track & field supporters.

I have said it before and I might as well repeat it: there is nothing like cross country as a sport. Everyone, boys and girls run the same event, the same distance and the same competition field or venue. It’s just one race for each gender and may the fastest team win. The purity and simplicity is so alluring. So is the essence of running along a trail in the woods, along a lake or up a mountain or hill. It is August and high school teams across the country have started official practices. Coaches find out who did summer homework; in other words, we find out who did adequate mileage each week to build up a base.

Cross Country Camp. Many teams have one once official practices start. Earlier in the summer, independent camps welcome groups from high schools and virtually any boy or girl who is willing to run and have fun. At West Springfield, the Camp is a tradition dating back to the late 70s and long-time legendary Coach Vic Kelbaugh. At some point early in Coach Kelbaugh’s early career, he got the idea to take some of his top runners to his native West Virginia. There were plenty of trails and fields that were ideal for cross country training. He set the camp date for the 3rd week of the pre-school start training period or thereabouts. He selected the top 12 runners who set themselves apart from the others on the team. In the early years, it may have been the entire Boys’ program. As the years went on, the girls program joined the boys and eventually split time in the cabin during a one week stay in Morgan County West Virginia. The 3 and a half days each gender group spent involved hill running, speed on grass and a long distance run over rolling road terrain. Teams’ size grew and the competition to earn a slot to the site at Cacapon State Park in Berkeley Springs, WV became more intense. “Earning a Cacapon slot” became a singular focus for many runners each summer. They had heard the stories and wanted “in” on the fun. That fun was not just sitting around making smores by a campfire. It was bonding with your teammates, learning to love running hard and most importantly setting goals for yourself as a cross country racer / runner. The goal setting element of the Cacapon Camp became the most important aspect of the Camp. Each runner verbally states his or her personal goals for the season and puts out what they feel are Team Goals. By having a high school athlete state those goals to the team and coaches, it forms a form of verbal contract.

Cacapon 2013 started with the arrival of the Girls Top 13. It is hard to miss the leader of the girls’ team and the #1 pre-season girl in the state of Virginia and a strong All-American candidate. Caroline Alcorta is no longer the shortest girl on the West Springfield Spartans Cross Country (XC) team. Her 5 ft “plus” frame is solid and strong. Two years ago, Alcorta joined the Spartans distance squad after playing JV Field Hockey in her freshman fall season. Her emergence in indoor and outdoor track foreshadowed the greatness that was to follow. Caroline arrives at Cacapon’s Cabin 22 along with 12 other teammates and is raring to go. The #2 girl on the team is no slouch either in Katie Kennedy. After one full season with West Springfield after living in Kentucky for 2 years (Dad is an Army Officer), Kennedy has become a strong #2 to Alcorta and broke the coveted 5 minute barrier in the mile last spring. Along with the front two, the girls have a chance to match or exceed the best team in the 45 + years of West Springfield HS’ existence, the 2009 team that won Districts, were a Regional Runner-up and finished on the podium in 3rd at States. Among the other 11 girls are a talented freshman and a slew of juniors ready to fill the critical 3 thru 7 slots on the team.

First up for the girls at Camp is the Park FAM Run or “Tour of Cacapon”. This group run shows the new attendees the scope of the hills and beauty that is Cacapon State Park. The Park Tour run is late in the day of the first half day. Next up on Tuesday or the first full day is the Mountain Run. To say that this uphill run is a mere hill is a big understatement. The terrain is mostly crushed gravel. The elevation climb is roughly 1500 ft over the 4 mile run, all of which is uphill. The idea behind the Mountain Run was to let the runners realize that this would be the toughest run they would complete all season. If you can run this hill climb to a mountain summit, you can tackle or run anything.

 

The Mountain Run starts at 7:50 am. The head coach, Chris Pellegrini, drives up the mountain to put out cones at the 1, 2 and 3 mile marks. The coaches are the Finish Line at or about the 4 mile mark. The method for this test is to handicap the team of 13 and try to have as many of the girls finish the Mountain Run at the same time. The first 2 runners go at 7:50. There is a 3 minute gap to the next group. All told, there is a total stagger of 12 minutes between the first group and Caroline who is the last to depart the base start line. Over the next 4 miles, the terrain and steepness increase in difficulty. The final mile is the most difficult. Runners are urged to run the entire way but it is inevitable with several runners. At two miles in the race, the gaps are closing. Alcorta and Kennedy are narrowing the gaps to the earlier starting groups. One other limiting factor to the Mountain Run is being a rookie. Experience running the Mountain is essential to a fast time. In this year’s group there were 8 Rookies. One surprised the handicappers as Jessie Settles made up a stagger and exceeded her projected finish by a few minutes. The other top performance was by Alcorta. Recall that she was 12 full minutes behind at the start from Group #1 and 10 minutes behind Group #2. Caroline ended up running 30:53 and was nearly 8 minutes faster than #2 Kennedy who ran 38 minutes plus.

The second test in the Cacapon Triad of running events is the Team Relay. In this team event on Day #3, all 13 runners are split into teams of 4 runners; 5 on one team. Each runner is tasked to race a rolling hills 800m loop, not once but twice. The event is a back-to-back 3200m Relay. Each team sets their order and can change it up on the second 3200m. Before the actual relay race, each team is required to run a moderate time trial to qualify for the event. The purpose of the Trial is to further cement the aspect of team and pacing in each runner. Handicapping the runners is done in this running event as well. The goal is to have equally talented relay squads. It only takes one runner to exceed your expectations and the goal of 3 close finishes is out. Senior yet new distance runner Jessie Settles blasted an opening 800m and put her team in the lead from the outset. Her team never was challenged and won by 20 seconds. Later in the week, the boys’ relays were much closer as all 3 relay teams finished with 10 seconds of each other after 6400m of rolling grass hills running. The fastest runner in the relays was also our Mountain Run Champion, Caroline Alcorta. One of our new cross country runners is Reagan Bustamante. As a freshman last spring, she surprised everyone with a 4th place 2:14 all-state finish in the 800m. Her speed helped put her team a bit closer to Alcorta’s team. Same went for Kennedy, as her team kept things close and eventually finished 2nd to Alcorta’s relay.

 

Two of the 3 main running events of Cacapon XC Camp were complete. The last test is the long distance run aptly nicknamed “The Junkyard Dog”. The run takes place on the final day of camp for the girls (boys also have a long distance run on their final morning). Years ago, there were more loose or untied up dogs; hence, the name “Junkyard Dog”. The course is rolling hills on asphalt roads that wind and twist to a finish line at the nearby West VA Fish Hatchery. The total distance is 7.2 miles. Coaches did the handicapping again with a total of 10 minutes between the first group and Alcorta in the Final. In many years, humidity and heat can play a factor. The 2013 Cacapon weather was near ideal and led to fast times. Alcorta had the top time and broke her previous #1 all-time finish from a year ago by 2 minutes. Katie Kennedy improved by 5 minutes from her Rookie Run of a year ago with a time that put her #7 on the All-Time list for Girls.

In between the 3 main events of the WS XC Camp at Cacapon were a few other runs, team bonding time in the lodge and cabin and a night of bowling in nearby Berkeley Springs, WV.

 

The Top 12 boys arrived on Thursday mid-day just as the Top 13 girls departed. Out went the quiet girls and two “cabin Moms” and in sweeps the hyped up not-so-neat group of boys. Two coaches replace the Moms in the Cabin. What else changes besides hyper-active young teens and smellier conditions in the cabin? First off, I can understate the rambunctious ways of a dozen boys. First goal: get them running and keep them active as long as possible. The “Tour of Cacapon” run starts the afternoon as it did for the girls. Once the run was complete, we headed to the sand volleyball court and kept up the activity. Coaches knew the truth. It takes a lot more running and physical exertion to get boys to settle down and relax.

Mountain Run for the Boys  The 2013 Boys team is almost a new squad from the one that ran at West Springfield the past 2 years. Four of the top 5 boys were seniors in 2012 and are gone. It first appeared that the Boys XC Team would be building towards a solid Conference title contender in 2014. Expectations changed with the welcome addition of a couple of military families to Springfield and two veteran cross country runners. The addition of new outside talent was a blessing. Confidence and leadership were low. The new boys who had experience racing cross country. What better way to increase competition that to have new talent arrive with their own expectation of post-season success. Back to the Mountain Run. The newcomers cannot overcome inexperience racing the Mountain and have to settle for a humbling run up the 4 mile road. Bryce Wason earns the top time up the Cacapon Mountain and earns a top 20 All-Time List finish. Wason is one of the rare 4 year Cacapon veterans and that experience showed on the Mountain Run. Rookies just have a tougher time running up a mountain that you do not get a chance to test out on the earlier day

The Boys’Cacapon Relays were as close as one could expect with 7 rookie runners at Cacapon. The coaches’ handicapping worked this time. The final result came down to a separation of 10 seconds for the 3 relay teams. Recall that each runner had to complete two 800m loops on the rolling grass hills. The team led by cross country rookie Owen Buck prevailed. Buck crushed his opening 800m in 2:09 and held on the anchor finishing loop in 2:25. He was not the difference maker just as had happened a few days earlier for the Girls’ Relays. It was the unforeseen relay member who exceeds the handicapping and runs a faster expected time. Tim Ward our other new military brat transfer runs even splits of 2:31. With no degradation from the opening 800m to the final 800m loop, Ward was able to secure victory for his relay.

 

The Long Distance Run for the Boysis a bit different in route then the girls. The Boys start their long run at the Fish Hatchery and are hit with a challenging first 2 miles. It is thus named “The Fish Hatchery Run”. The uphills are significant. Once through that tough stretch, the runners hit a long straightaway of 2.5 miles. That leads to a steep downhill where some boys hit 5 minute pace and let their bodies fly. The last mile and a half of the Fish Hatchery Run lead directly back to the Cacapon State Park. Each of the 12 runners began bunching up as the Finish area in the Camp approached. The last half mile is uphill after runners enter the Cacapon Park. Top finisher was Bryce Wason once again. Wason had won the Mountain Run and came back strong to post a very fast 7.4 mile run. Wason is the person expected to finish in the top 5 each week. He cemented that feeling with his strong Cacapon Camp performances.

Cacapon Cross Country Camp comes to a close. Coaches and runners have had an immersion into distance running and the competitiveness of cross country racing. Now questions linger. Can a Cross Country Camp benefit a team for entire season? Do runners heed the coaches’ advice and start a running and nutrition log? Do teammates pledge to each other that they will take training runs after school seriously? Will we carry a chip on our shoulders into the season? Can we return to the days of winning?

Many of the posed questions can be answered by the Teams’ Boys and Girls. They all know who is working hard, who slacks on distance runs, who want to be the #1 runner (at least on the boys’ team as Alcorta is clearly #1 on the Girls Team). Camp Running brings a positive jumping off spot for high school cross country teams. Goals have been exchanged and discussed. Difficult early running tests were administered. Fun abounded.

How not can one love cross country and going to a team camp? It was easy for me to answer. I loved Cacapon.

The Staff of American Running