In late June, 11 members of the Hickman cross country team found themselves standing in the middle of Michigan’s Manistee National Forest with a trip home more than a week away.
They were dumped off in Manistee minutes earlier, after a 12-hour trip, with nothing more than a stool to sit on, running clothes for the week, a flashlight, a sleeping bag and a three-ring notebook.
During the week they slept in tents, attended daily motivational meetings and cooked their meals. Oh yeah, they also ran up to 15 miles a day across the varied Michigan landscape.
“Once they get back (to Columbia) they have a newfound perspective on what it means to work hard,” Steve Kissane, Hickman’s coach, said. “After they get back they are set up for more continual running and higher-level training.”
The catch? Each athlete shelled out $480 for the chance to take part.
Welcome to the Paavos, summer cross country camps held throughout the nation, named for Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish distance runner who dominated world distance running in the 1920s. Nurmi was known for his intense and dedicated training methods and the Paavo camps instill these methods in its campers.
“(Training) methods in the past were by and large tougher,” Kissane said. “Consequently, the kids were more prepared to race faster and with a tougher mindset.”
The Kewpies begin practice today, but they have been working towards the season all summer long. Their week in the Michigan forest was only part of their off-season regime.
The Paavo camps do not try to revolutionize distance running; instead, they serve as a reminder to American high school distance runners of methods that worked in the past and produced great runners such as Jim Ryun.
Ryun, an American distance runner during the 1960s and 70s, set the male high-school mile record (3:55.3) that stood for 36 years.
“There were fewer distractions (during the 1960s and ’70s) and there was much less of a tendency to question the training,” Kissane said. “The kids who are running well today are succeeding for the same reasons they always have: They outwork their opponents by doing what their rivals can’t or won’t do.”
The Paavo camps aim to help their campers with this determination.
For starters, the camp has one central requirement: running, and lots of it.
Each athlete ran two or three times a day with each run’s length being one-to-nine miles.
Morning runs, and afternoon “prediction runs,” where the runners would guess their finish time, were used as practice tools
“I’ve never seen the girls look so dead,” senior Katie McInvale said. “Everyone would run awesome while we were out there, but when we would get back to camp we would just sit there. They gave us time for (rest and relaxation) and it was definitely something they stressed.”
Competitive runs then capped each day and allowed the runners to traverse the different Michigan surfaces. Sand runs, wooded trail runs, beach runs and dirt road runs were included.
“A great thing about the entire camp is that (the students) are allowed to run in environments that are very different than what they are used to,’’ Kissane said. “It’s a lot different than constantly running on Providence.”
Kissane attended his first Paavo coaching clinic in Chicago about 10 years ago after a disappointing season. He took his team to one of the camps the next summer and has been involved since.
“My brother lives in Chicago, and I thought if nothing else I would be able to see him,’’ Kissane said. “To make a long story short, I ended up not seeing him at all. (The program) was so motivating.
“I’ve been involved with these camps for a number of years now, and each year if (the students) can arrange to attend a camp, we recommend they do that. They get to run with runners from around the region and it’s a great experience.”
Kissane and his runners know the camp improves them.
“We finished eighth in the state last year,” McInvale said. “We really wanted to improve on that and maybe break into the top four this year. Six girls went, and this is a major step towards reaching that goal.”
Kissane knows the camp works. His team has excelled since their involvement and have even reached the pinnacle.
“In 1998, we had 12 runners go (to a Paavo camp),” Kissane said. “The next year we won the 4A cross country state championship.
“It’s great for (the team) to be around such a competitive environment. There is a good program in Indiana (Columbus North) that goes to the camp and I think it’s a good example for our athletes every year to see other successful programs and how they go about things.”
The camp also helps athletes overcome adversity, deal with discomfort and improve their self-reliance — essential qualities for all cross country runners.
“The camp doesn’t make champions,” Kissane said. “It provides an environment where motivated runners can go to become better. It tries to get the athletes to change their minds from ‘Having to run,’ to ‘Getting to run.’
“The perception that distance runners are self-motivated is, at times, not true. This camp really helps them with that.”
The camp’s namesake, Nurmi, strove for self-motivation in his training, and the Paavos aim to surround runners with situations that push them toward this goal.
“Everyone I talk to (in Columbia) is like, ‘Why are you doing this?” McInvale said. “Nobody is like that there. Being in an environment where everyone is positive and competitive about running really helps out. Everyone understands why you run and why you’re there.”