The 13th year of the Southwest Missouri Running Camp didn't go off without a hitch, but at the end of the week it was another successful event.
Runners from 40 different schools converged on a campsite east of Neosho late last month, taking part in two different sessions. Somewhere around 300 kids registered for the event this year and camp director Jake Holt believes the camp could've surpassed 400 if it wasn't for some fears tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Christian-based camp for middle and high schoolers is a running camp in name, but there is so much more that goes on during the 4 ½ days each camper is there.
The teams camp in the woods, have morning runs and various games fill out some of the afternoon. Nightly worship services conclude the day and then it repeats. There were scavenger hunts, tug of war, volleyball, trivia, water noodle relay and a float trip on the Elk River.
"It builds relationships with coaches and teammates," said Holt, who is the head cross country coach at East Newton High School in Granby, Mo. "Cross country is a unique sport. There is a family atmosphere and kids feel cared for and are around people that love them."
This year a basketball court was installed on the grounds. While the running camp is a non-profit that puts a lot back into making the event successful each year -- this project was crowdfunded right before the camp this year. Parents of past campers raised the money needed in June and by July, the foundation was poured and a basketball goal installed just in time for session one.
"It's a little overwhelming … makes you feel a little unworthy," Holt said of the generosity shown by the donors. "I think parents see the benefit of what is going on. Not just the running, but the spiritual side."
At the end of each session was a monster 5K race.
The camp provides an escape from the technology driven-world and teams camp together. This year, a downpour of rain led to flooding in the camp site in the early morning hours the day of the 5K race.
"The kids had to push through," Holt said. "They were tired and all the adversity they faced."
This year the camp featured members of the McFarland cross country team, which brought 12 girls and one boy. Coach Thomas Valles was a guest speaker at the camp last year and brought members of his team this year.
If that name sounds familiar, Disney made a movie called McFarland USA in 2015 that highlighted the McFarland program that won nine state titles in 14 years in California.
The group attended the second session, but left on a Sunday to get to southwest Missouri on Wednesday. David Diaz, the oldest of the Diaz brothers that were highlighted in the movie, came as well and switched off driving with Valles.
"I hadn't been on a road trip like this in a long, long time," said Diaz, who has two daughters on this current McFarland team. "Being away from home for seven or eight days. For the kids, it's fun. The road is fun. Like Thomas said, team bonding. Running is good but team bonding is an awesome experience. It can last a lifetime and pass it forward when they are older."
In high school, Valles and Diaz traveled to run in Korea and Taiwan after the success at the state level.
The McFarland group went from California to Arkansas to New Mexico to Oklahoma through Arkansas before coming into Missouri.
"We came for team bonding," Valles said. "I got a couple of freshmen. I am really senior heavy. We have six seniors and I got five of them here. I have been working with them since they were five or six years old and now they are seniors. I think team bonding is important. Running is running. You have to put in the work and I hope they venture out and meet other teams and learn about them."
"I had an amazing experience with the kids last year (as a speaker). Coach Holt asked me to bring my kids. I told the kids last cross country season we would make it out here. I haven't been able to meet with them due to the COVID-19 distancing. They have done a phenomenal job of running on their own. I would send them little messages like 'I know I can't be out there right now but I see you. You may not see me but I see you in groups of two or three girls running at a time.' I have parents on board and I have the support of the community to come out here and it has been an adventure."
The runners are broken up into teams and have camp counselors that run them. The team names this year were the Black Knights, Blue Bison, Orange Olympians, Purple Pumas, Red Ravens, Silver Sasquatch, White Wolves and Yellow Hawks. Similar to assigning houses in Harry Potter.
The counselors are a mix of former campers themselves and some of them are running collegiately at schools such as Southwest Baptist, Hannibal-LaGrange, Columbia College, Missouri Southern, Metropolitan State and Pittsburg State.
There have been plenty of talented runners to attend the faith-based camp. Holt remembers one year where there were three state champions running together during one of the 5K. That group featured Caleb Hoover (College Heights Christian), Trenton Morris (College Heights Christian) and Daniel Everett (Westminster Christian). Hoover and Everett two were Division I All-Americans at Northern Arizona and Columbia, respectively. Morris was a Division II All-American at Southwest Baptist
The first session this year featured a state champion from last year in El Dorado Springs' Daelen Ackley, the Class 2 champ in 2019. Ackley won his 5K in 16 minutes, 46.56 seconds.
"I wasn't sure how the 5K would go, but it went pretty well," said Ackley. "I haven't had any races for nine months; I did a mile-time trial in March. It was nice to race people. It was cool to have the competition. It makes me run faster and push myself to go faster. I know where I am at now compared to last year. I ran a faster time here than last year."
The St. Joseph Central boys team had five runners in the top seven -- a good sign for a team that took fifth place in Class 4 last year. East Newton, a third-place finisher in Class 2, had two in the top 10.
The Central team made its ninth straight trip to the running camp under the guidance of head coach Bob Miller.
"It is just a great time," he said. "I love Coach Holt, who puts it on, he does an amazing job to create opportunities for kids to connect and just have fun. For us, honestly it is like a break. We run less here than here at home. It's an opportunity to get miles in and playing games and doing different things. I know every year it really connects our team and bonds us together. I know the incoming freshmen feel like a part of what we are doing and try to learn our culture and who we want to be, as a team.
"For us, for Central, what we hang out hat on is ultimate frisbee. We won every year. They split up our team and they played each other in the finals. It was a pretty epic finish."
The session 1 girls champion was Nixa's Alicen Ashley, who took 15th in the Class 4 championship and was the Central Ozark Conference champion.
Fulton's Kayanna Gaines won the second session's girls race by 42 seconds. Other top 10 finishers featured Cassville's Jordyn Strafford, a district champion and seventh-place finisher in Class 3 last year. Sianna Meadows, who took third, came from Mound City -- a four hour trip. Conlie Smith, from Tahlequah Sequoyah, has helped her team bring home state trophies her first two years in high school.
The boys second session 5K was won by Johnny Cordero, who attends Springdale Har-Bar High School in Arkansas. Craig LaBrue, who took fourth, was a fourth-place finisher in the Kansas Class 4A finals last year running for Winfield.
For some of the runners, this was a final tuneup before fall practice starts in their respective states.
"I think it is a good foundation for what we want to be as a team," said Holt, who has brought home state trophies for the boys and girls at East Newton. "You toe the line with your fellow brothers and sisters and you will fight a lot more for them. This lays a foundation throughout the rest of the season for us."
The camp initially started as a group of East Newton runners and former Neosho coach Harry Lineberry brought his runners over as well.
About 50 runners took part in the first camp back in 2008.
The camp has steadily grown from that and once the numbers swelled over 300 runners, Holt decided to split the camp into two sessions. The camp originally held in Ridgley and then a location south of Joplin through the first six years.
Then became a transcendent moment. After holding the camp in 2013 near Joplin, Holt learned the camp site would no longer be available in 2014. As it happened, he and his wife, Allisa, bought some property in Neosho. The plan was to hold camp there eventually but it got fast tracked and five months later, the camp was off and running.
"We had to camp here or we would cancel it after six years and we didn't want to do that," Holt said.
This summer was another time when the camp was perhaps in peril, not because of the lack of the location, but the impact of the pandemic spanning the globe.
Extra cleaning measures were implemented but there were some changes with new counselors and not all of the volunteers that normally appear did this year. The camp also had face masks for each runner there -- given with the team color and mascot.
"We received a lot of pressure not to have it and we had several experts tell us and advise us kids this age need something," Holt said. "The American Pediatric Society said kids need to be doing something. You can definitely tell the kids were hungry to be around their peers and see friendly faces. If we canceled it, it would be one more thing taken away from them."
The camp provided some physical activity and competition for runners who had been idle since early spring. Some runners have been keeping up with their miles but others had to knock off some proverbial rust when it came to logging miles during the camp.
Each camp has a theme and this year's was Running Home and Holt noted in a Facebook post after the camp ended that he saw kids grow in running, relationships, perseverance and personal faith.
"The last day it feels empty when all the tents are gone. It's a pretty sad time. It was so good to see joy, to see smiles, to see friendships and team bonding," he said. "The camp is the highlight of my year and so many others."