For the better part of the past 20 years I have spent a significant amount of the fall at my home away from home: Training Camp. First as an athlete and now a coach, I head to somewhere remote, often at a high altitude, and spend 4-6 weeks in a place where time operates on an entirely different wavelength. This is the life of the professional endurance athlete, coaching staff and support crew
For the better part of the past 20 years I have spent a significant amount of the fall at my home away from home: Training Camp. First as an athlete and now a coach, I head to somewhere remote, often at a high altitude, and spend 4-6 weeks in a place where time operates on an entirely different wavelength. This is the life of the professional endurance athlete, coaching staff and support crew. Mammoth Lakes, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Font Romeu, Iten - they all possess the same basic characteristics - lots of hills, lack of air and many more trees than people. It's often what distance athletes need to return to the center.
I arrive at these places and immediately realize how small I am and how big the world is around me. Is it the size of the mountains or the volume of visible stars at night? Or perhaps it's just the quiet. The silence that screams out is greater than the cacophony of taxis on a busy Manhattan day. It demands my presence. It demands all of our presence. It is the only here and now that exists at camp. It is a symbol of the origin of it all.
Over the years these camps have afforded me plenty of time to observe and understand why they matter so much to our athletes. I have found that the camps themselves follow a movement, not dissimilar to that of a symphony. They run through their phases and tempos - fast, slow, faster once again and if done well, on to one hell of a crescendo. Each athlete contributes to the chorus, testing limits high and low until the harmonics finally align and the collective voices are now only one voice, one step, one breath.
And so it begins. Day 1 at camp is best described as both an arrival and a retreat. Landing on your feet in a new place can be exhilarating, but it is the retreat from where you were last that is the most important aspect of this first movement. The freedom that comes with walking away from so many unimportant things, both real and imagined, breathes new life into athletes. It creates an immediate excess of energy.
Day 1 buzzes with opportunity. The loads of general life stress and the mundanity of the same old running routes are now unleashed and unburdened. The air tastes different. The water has a thinness to it that permeates and pervades from head to toe. It’s a rekindling of the first time that you knew you were a runner. All things seem possible here.
Why is it that it takes this retreating movement to actually experience the present? Why is it that to actually understand what is truly important and to also realize what is not so significant we have to travel many miles from home?
As camp settles in, the silence begins to speak. Or maybe it simply reaches into our minds and brings thoughts back into our consciousness. Ones that once were important, but have been long forgotten. First on a long run in the middle of nowhere and then on most evening runs as the sunset crests over the last mountain peak. It is as if the air is conversing not to us, but through us. The shiver that is more than cold, the shaking in our bones that says if not now, when?
We stretch again, but not just our limbs. We stretch our intents - the ones that got lost in the shuffle. We strengthen all those parts that we somehow denied. It is a rediscovery of our will. We renew beliefs in ourselves and our teammates, in our goals and our perseverance. This chance to refocus without distractions is precious. It is what is needed to move ahead - and although fatigue is setting in it is somehow a welcome feeling. It is an embrace with the truth. The truth that says all great things take work.
There is a lingering that often takes place here at camp. It holds on tight - this old skin. The past. Even though we know that what came before can never come again we still have trouble letting go. So we go deeper. We run longer and faster and with greater conviction. We don’t stop running until we reach the point that we aren’t running to anything anymore. It is only then that the skin is shed and the past is left where it belongs.
We are only ever running. Once free of fear, time, and selves that we thought were us, but were merely fragments, we now reimagine. Or is it "imagine" for the very first time? Just like every step is the first step that we have ever taken. That is the goal.
Imagine the amount of energy one possesses when there is no more baggage to hold on to any longer. Imagine a present that experiences each stride in and of itself. No fatigue. No falling off or falling apart. No wondering whether I can or can’t, only I do. When the fear of time has been shed energy abounds and limits disintegrate.
Ego has no place in nature. It slides a veil in between what is and what appears to be. Division is a poor choice of perspective and stops us from ever being fully aware of where we belong. Nature can only be what it is - unapologetic and uncompromising, but always inviting. We belong to nature, to one another. We are nature and one another simultaneously. How do we lose sight of that?
Our fitness is a symphony - a harmonics of everything we do, everything we believe, everything we are. Getting stuck on the 1/4s or the 1/2s is to dwell on that which is miniscule. Why be small? We need to be more. We are more.
How does one truly live when always dissecting? Listening, seeing, breathing, tasting, touching demands our full attention. They are all one sense - together. This step demands our full attention. It is the only step we ever take. Together.
If closing out camp is a preparation for getting back to reality then where are we now? Here in the woods - is this somehow not real? Are the miles logged somehow only mythical? Does the fitness gained dissolve as we head down the mountain? Are the changed perspectives lost once the reintegration occurs? Is this great crescendo an ending or a beginning? It only ends if we let it. Don’t let it.
Camps rekindle the essence of what running is about. Camps recapture community. They are the morning alarm that wake us from our slumber. It is our job to carry the movement of the camp as far as it can be heard. Please be heard. The training never leaves us. It has never left us. It is in each and every step, always.