“Pain brings people together”
By Kristy Acuff
For some, the term “summer camp” evokes images of roasting marshmallows, swimming off a dock into a cold lake and maybe crafting a braided rope bracelet or tie-dye shirt.
For the 184 participants at Team Prep, however, summer camp means strength training, sprinting on a track and running up to 40 miles daily across the trails in the Gunnison valley. And while that might sound like punishment or some sort of deferred juvenile detention treatment to non-runners, these kids look forward to it all year long, calling it the “best three weeks of summer.”
Team Prep founder Trent Sanderson started the camp in 2004 in Crested Butte before moving the headquarters to Gunnison to accommodate the group’s growing footprint. Today, Team Prep athletes live in the dorms at Western Colorado University for three weeks every summer. A typical day begins at 8:30 a.m. on Western’s track where runners “sprint and stride” in several heats before moving to the infield for strength training, core conditioning and stretching led by Sanderson’s staff, a team of mostly collegiate runners and many Team Prep alumni. Notable local alumni include Olympian Emma Coburn and collegiate runners Jack Linehan and Erin Kelly.
“The morning is all preventive and injury prevention and rehab,” says Sanderson, a former collegiate coach with decades of experience.
Following lunch, the runners retreat to their rooms for what Sanderson calls a “controlled nap,” with doors propped open and staff checking in to enforce the “no screens” policy.
“We are teaching them how to shut off from electronics,” Sanderson says. “If kids get busted on their phones or electronics, the staff will make them come into the halls and do push-ups and sit-ups for the rest of the nap time so they don’t make that mistake again.
Former participants have told me later that they use that controlled nap idea as part of their study for MCATS [Medical College Admission Test] and other exams.”
The afternoons are devoted to exploring the trails in the valley, from Hartman Rocks to Gothic. Runners divide according to ability (kids range in age from 12 to 18) and head out to run the trails in small packs. The culmination of the afternoon comes when every runner takes a mandatory post-run dip into the icy waters of local streams and lakes.
“My favorites are definitely Lower Loop and Gothic,” says 18-year-old Indiana native Caleb Futter. “The road going down through the trees is so beautiful, especially with the snow on the peaks this year.” A four-year Team Prep veteran, Futter says he learned about the camp from a teammate and once he came to Colorado for the first time as a high school freshman, he was hooked.
“This place has had a huge impact on my life. I have made some of the best friends of my life here at camp,” Futter says. “We all bond really well and we share a passion for running. Everyone has different strengths and we encourage each other while also competing and pushing each other. It’s always nicer to train with more people, especially faster runners.”
“This is the best running camp I have ever been to, and yes, it’s the location for sure, but there is more to it than that,” says Philadelphia native and Team Prep athlete Caitlin Jorgensen. “Everyone here is really dedicated. Being in this environment pushes you. It is kind of competitive. Everyone wants to get better. Pain brings people together. It gets competitive on the runs and you want to push each other. But it’s also so supportive. I’ve been to other running camps and they are not as good. They are bigger, less collegial. This one feels more like a family. And of course, jumping into Emerald Lake is a highlight. I’ve never felt such cold water!”
That family feel is no accident, according to Sanderson, whose staff puts together team-building activities every evening. Kids get into groups and perform improv skits, complete scavenger hunts or attend campfires on Blue Mesa Lake where they listen to discussions from athletes about personal goal setting and how to maintain resilience through failures.
“We really emphasize a positive environment here and I try to teach them that their perception of reality is their reality,” says Sanderson, “that whatever they see or perceive is under their control and can alter their framework.”
According to Sanderson, many of the participants are Type-A personalities with perfect grades and perfect test scores and are sometimes labeled in their schools. “When they come here, they are an individual and they can drop that ‘stereotype’ that’s been following them. We try to teach them how to network and reach out to people, because many of these kids are not naturally extroverted. Those team-building activities are a safe way for them to break out of their shells,” Sanderson says.
Sanderson credits running as fundamental to his own personal growth and esteem. “I am dyslexic and was a C-student,” he says. “School was not a fun place for me until I found running and a coach who taught me resilience and had a big impact on me at the right time in my life. Each year at camp we center on a theme and this year it is resilience—the capacity to recover from difficulty. And some of these kids have had difficulty already in their lives, which we address. For others, their lives have been smooth sailing so far, but we force them into difficult situations to train them to learn resilience, because no one is exempt from difficulty at some point.”
Whether it’s the location, the altitude, the staff or the coaches, Team Prep has a “secret sauce” that builds loyalty and commitment from its athletes.
“Team Prep Is amazing,” says Jorgenson. “Some of my best memories have come from here and I would love to work here someday, but I think it’s getting more competitive to get a job here.”
Many of the staff are former participants who now run at the collegiate level, including Skylar Stidam, who runs for Indiana University. “Trent likes to run a pretty tight ship here. We treat the kids with respect and we treat them as adults but we enforce deadlines and curfews,” says Stidam. “One of the things we emphasize is that it’s okay to take risks and push yourself. If kids take risks here, they are not punished. It is a safe environment and they are not going to be made fun of. But we try to teach them the difference between taking risks and being reckless. We encourage calculated, not impulsive, risks.”
Stidam emphasizes that the staff work with all of the runners, regardless of ability. “You don’t have to be an elite athlete to run here—we will work with you. You just have to be willing to work hard and stay positive,” he says.
“Our staff is what makes this camp work,” adds Sanderson. “I learned early in my career, you become as good as the staff you are surrounded by. These staff members are really strong in the areas where I am weak. And we all emphasize that the ultimate competitor is yourself, but you become only as good as the environment around you, which is why this environment is critical to their success.”