I recently completed my fifth season and 15th session of Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp. When I started, I had no real plan of how long I would do these camps, and I am currently in negotiations with US Forest Service personnel pertaining to trail-use permits, limitations, and regulations which will largely determine if and for how long I will continue to lead these camps. Sadly, there is a very real chance that the session that just finished last week will be the last one I’ll ever do.
As much as I would love to continue to do these camps for another five years, I have thought a lot this past week about just how fortunate I have been to do the sessions that I have, and just how much I have learned from the 150 or so runners who have participated. If I am unable to work things out with the forest service, and I decide to discontinue these camps, I will have a grieving process to go through, but like any grieving process much of my focus will be on the countless positive experiences that I have had as a part of directing these camps. There will be a prominent feeling of loss, but a much stronger feeling of gratitude for the time I’ve been able to spend with each of these 150 people.
Unlike, say, a race with 150 runners, I get to spend six very intimate days with everyone who comes to camp. In this sense, I feel like I have made 150 new friends in this process, and gotten to know a whole lot about nearly all of these people. Through this intimate process I feel like I have learned so much about running and so much about people in general. I thought it’d be fun to share here some of the most significant and memorable things I feel like I have learned in this process.
The first thing that comes to mind anytime I think about what I’ve learned at camp is just how different and unique people are, both as runners and as people. A certain challenge on a trail will affect 150 different people in 150 different ways. I thought I understood this before I started these camps, but after five years I have such a deeper understanding of it. I have seen runners who can run a 2:40 marathon reduced to a walk because of mud and roots, while runners who have never broke 4:00 in a marathon run past them with little challenge whatsoever. Other runners are unstoppable going uphill, but fall quickly to the back of the pack as soon as we start to go down. Again, this is all something I thought I already knew, but had no idea just how pronounced these differences really are.
Another thing I’ve learned is that, if put in the position to be good people, the vast majority of people are good people. I have always believed this to be true, but I never really had anything specific to base it on. I often even doubted whether this was a case of wishful thinking because I have certainly had all kinds of interactions with people in which they weren’t what I would call good people.
Furthermore, before I started camp I assumed that I would have difficult people to deal with in every session. I knew camp would be fun when I had the right mix of people, but I figured there would almost always be one or two ‘rotten apples’ who would greatly diminish the dynamic of a particular group.
I couldn’t have been more wrong in these assumptions. Of 15 sessions, there have been 15 wonderful group dynamics and zero people who I would not welcome back to camp at any time. For the first couple years, I kept attributing this to luck, but I have come to realize that my wife and I structure these camps in a way that almost forces people to be respectful, low-stress, kind, fun people; even if they aren’t this way all the time in their daily life. What avid runner wouldn’t be a good person on a running vacation in Alaska with about 20 hours of daylight, unlimited tasty food, the company of a dozen or so other like-minded runners, and a location with seemingly endless trails, mountains, and wilderness? I am proud of this experience we have created for people, but more importantly, I have been touched and inspired by how positively people have responded to it. 100% of the people who have shared this experience with us are what I would call good people.
Another prominent thing I’ve learned at camp is just how much people are affected by caloric consumption on long runs. Nearly 100% of the times that I’ve had participants who are noticeably struggling (either physically or mentally) on a given run, they quickly feel significantly better if I can convince them to eat something. This is another one that might seem very obvious, but again, it’s the degree to which this seems to the case that has been eye opening to me. If things aren’t going well during a run, eat! Trust me. It almost always makes things better. Usually very quickly.
A final thing that has really stood out to me from experiencing these camps is just how much empathy people have for each other, and how much people are willing to help take care of each other. I have had countless situations in camp in which a specific person needed extra care and attention, and in nearly every case other campers have stepped up to help. As compassionate and empathetic humans, we all seem to have such a strong ability and desire to help those around us who are in need. I have seen this to be true time and time again these past five years, and this observation has made me appreciate humanity in a much deeper way than I ever did previously.
It makes me very sad to think of the possibility of not doing these camps in the future, but I feel so fortunate that I did them in the fashion that I did for these five years. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to work things out with the forest service and keep doing them for five more years to come, but if not I couldn’t think of anything that could have been more rewarding, educational, and worthwhile as these 15 incredible sessions of camp with so many great people.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you attended one of Geoff’s camps? If so, can you describe your experience?
- What other running-based experiences have you been a part of that have brought out the best in people?