"This is a true team bonding experience," emphasized camp director Jake Holt. "We stress hard work, fun, team building and faith. This is not a church camp, but it is a Christian camp and there is a focus on character, discipline, and Christianity."
There are a number of running camps available to young runners throughout the country. Many schools hold camps for just their runners. What sets the SWMO Running Camp apart is its acceptance of runners of all abilities. Instead of just catering to the elite, All-State caliber athletes, SWMO has programs and developmental activities for all levels, beginning runners to advanced.
Of the 192 campers who started the week on Monday, July 23, nearly half were girls. Many campers were from middle school -- a testament to their commitment and the commitment of their school programs.
Holt does his best to make his camp available to anyone who is interested. The cost of the camp is incredibly low compared to other weeklong cross country camps -- only $120. Donations make scholarships and reduced rates available to some runners who could otherwise not attend.
"Costs keep going up," said Holt. "We may have to increase our fee structure next year when Sagmount encloses the pavilion and installs air conditioning, but we will hold them as low as possible."
The young runners camped out in tents in the Kenyan tradition. Some entire teams stayed together in larger tents while many individuals pitched smaller shelters. The girls camped on the hill near their shower house -- affectionately called "the chicken coop" - with their tents arranged in neat rows beneath the Sagmount shade trees. Makeshift clotheslines accented the landscape. The boys were not nearly as meticulous in erecting their canvas village between the pond and the softball field, but no style points are awarded in camping. No matter where a tent was located, its occupants were treated regularly to the serenade of the passing trains.
Coaches were allowed the option of sleeping in an air-conditioned bunkhouse, and many took advantage of the opportunity. The 20 counselors -- many of them former campers -- tented with their charges down in the valley.
After an opening assembly early Monday afternoon, the camp population got down to the business of training and education. Campers were divided into color-coded teams for the games competition, and were divided into 12 separate training groups for the grueling two-a-day runs.
Reveille consisted of Ben Muehler's "Wake up!" every morning at 5:30, although a piercing train whistle usually beat him to the punch. By 6 a.m. every morning, long lines of athletes snaked up and down the local roads, logging the miles necessary to compete in the distance running world.
Counselors and some coaches ran with the groups, teaching pacing techniques and encouraging runners to become mentally tough in challenging situations. Runners were not locked into their groups: it was common for runners to finish the week in a totally different group than they started in on Monday.
There was a variety of running routes available. The hilliest courses began on the grounds at Sagmount and extended out along the paved country roads. The "River Run" wound through a tree-canopied network of back roads that offered welcome protection from the sun. Tuesday morning, runners were bused into Joplin for a refreshing 40-minute run on the Frisco Trail system. Cross training and pool workouts were also part of the weekly training regimen.
The support group of the camp was amazing. Besides Holt, who is the head cross country coach at East Newton High School and a communications arts teacher in real life, a seasoned staff handled the meal preparation, supervision, and counseling duties.
Dustin Miller, of Carthage High School and Missouri Southern State University, is the assistant director and has been with Holt since the camp first started in 2008. He is responsible for the crew of male counselors and assists in camp planning and scheduling.
Allisa Holt, Jake's wife, is the nutrition director and is the district training manager for Hardee's of Southwest Missouri. For a camp that molds its participants with the rigorous warm weather camping experience, the food was excellent and plentiful.
Dr. John Dougherty heads up the medical team at the SWMO Running Camp. He is currently the Department Chair over the Division of Family Medicine at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. With record high temps seen early in the week, Dougherty preached hydration with solid results. The camp population downed over 200 gallons of water per day, and only a few campers suffered any heat illnesses despite the grueling afternoon workouts under the glaring sun.
Dr. Tim Howard was also on site and provided treatment for campers as needed. Emily Heronimus, a med student, assisted in providing care. Many other volunteers filled the needs for bus drivers, concession workers, pool supervision, etc.
"Have an attitude of gratitude," Holt encouraged his campers at the very first assembly, emphasizing how much they owe to the volunteer army that makes their camping experience possible.
Besides the workouts, campers had an opportunity to learn from an all-star panel of coaches, nutritionists, physicians, and other running specialists throughout the week. Most of the counselors were current or former elite runners, and they shepherded the groups through each training run. Every night after dinner, campers came together at the main pavilion for a praise and worship service, and then split into teams for testimonials and reflections on the day's activities.
"Where you lead, I will follow," was the camp's mission statement for 2012, a statement that had both Christian and athletic connotations.
Away from the confines of public school policies and political correctness, coaches and counselors shared their faith, provided real life illustrations on handling burdens, and challenged campers to develop not only as runners but as young men and women of character.
Dan Hay, of Springfield Parkview, shared his Boston Marathon experience from last spring. Hay won the 50-54 age group of the most prestigious road race in America, and he did it with a renewed commitment to training and to God.
"I just let God be my coach this year," Hay told his young audience.
By letting biblical principles guide his workout schedule and race planning, Hay overcame the unusual heat at Boston in claiming a division trophy. Each runner he passed during the race got a mini-sermon as they read the "In Christ" motto he had written on the heels of his racing shoes.
That story and many others like it filled a week of growth and development for the campers.
"You will leave this camp changed forever," Holt promised his campers at the very first assembly.
Many were changed during the week, and all were challenged. Like all training activities, the runners mostly got out of camp what they put into it. All were provided with a blueprint for planning for success, but were also warned that life is not always fair and that no formula is foolproof.
The best part of attending the camp was watching the growth of relationships among the athletes and how they developed a sense of responsibility for each other. They all left camp with a renewed sense of purpose and a sense of urgency for the fast approaching cross country season.