Youth run to new heights

Lynn Canal camp teaches teens more than how to tie their running shoes

On the peak of Mount Juneau, 37 yoga students rested after what was, for most, a first time up the roughly 3,576 foot massif.


Also sweating up the steep incline were 37 nutritionists, 37 sports psychology students and 37 youth trained in wilderness first aid and safety.

Yes, the 37 were all one and the same, attendees at the fourth annual Lynn Canal Running Camp. The venue that began as a dream five years ago when Juneau-Douglas High School coaches Merry Ellefson and Tristan Knutson-Lombardo began formulating ideas for a holistic running camp for teens in Southeast.

“We both appreciated the many gifts running has given us,” Ellefson said. “From new friendships to exploring Juneau’s amazing trails to setting goals and reaching them.”

That initial camp was talked about among local high school runners as they competed with their peers across the state and grew from 16 to the present capacity of 40. The number allows the camp counselors and coaches to keep the running adventures safe, builds support systems and allows everyone to get to know and encourage each other.

“We also wanted to develop a holistic camp that explored more about how the mind and body relate to sport and encourage healthy lifestyles,” Ellefson said.

JDHS junior Maddy Handley was attending her third LCRC. Handley brings miniature toy rabbit Sarah along, as she does during the high school season, snapping selfies of the two at various points on the runs.

“The camp is cool because we go on different runs each time,” Handley said as she stood with a 360-degree view of mountain ranges and water passages that attract many ultra runners to the capital city. “I get to meet new people that weren’t there last year and it is really fun. I get to work on different techniques and it is always really great to be with teammates and new people.”

Youth from other Southeast communities, who may have the same type of surroundings in their hometowns, sometimes do not have the support group they find at the camp.

“I wish I could move to Juneau,” Ketchikan High School senior Sylvan Blankenship, attending his second LCRC, said. “There are just so many more running opportunities and the people. It is hard in Ketchikan because I don’t have as many running partners. Here everybody is so nice and involved. It is just beautiful here. The camp is awesome. Last year was super and this year is even better. I love it. I am learning how to push myself. It is hard but it is so worth it.”

Ethan Goebel will be a sophomore at Skagway High School and won the small schools cross-country running Region V title last season.

“I really like this camp just because there is no one to run with in Skagway really,” Goebel said. “A lot of my summer is just working, so just coming here I get to meet a lot of great people and run with them. The camp has shown me how to run together, I am not really used to that.”

The camp also teaches youth to interact respectfully among their peers.

All camp activities, under supervision of Ellefson, Knutson-Lombardo, and Hilary Young, are done with the aid of counselors who have some experience with youth.

“I look forward to our camp each summer,” Knutson-Lombardo said. “It is my opportunity to showcase Juneau’s amazing trail system to a group of adventurous teenagers and we just plain have a ton of fun.”

Counselors included former high school runners, current college runners and local established runners. Among them were Andre Bunton, Rosie Milligan, Jesse Miller, Nathan Ord, Young, and David Francis.

“I got so much out of cross country in general and the camp when I was in high school,” Francis said. “So I wanted to continue to be involved in some way even though I am not interested in running competitively any more.”

Francis, a former elite athlete for JDHS, drifted back and forth among the line of runners atop the Juneau ridge during the week.

“I think what was valuable about attending the camp as a camper, as it relates to a counselor, is realizing the kids need free time away from counselors to socialize and do their own thing and create an experience for themselves,” Francis said. “As a counselor I tried to give them time to be on their own, but supervised, give them their space. At the same time I wanted to be available to answer any questions they had and to motivate them and run with them. I tried to float among the different skill levels and groups. In high school I was always wanting to be up front and competing with everybody; it was refreshing to float throughout the spectrum of runners in line on the trails and talk with everybody.”

Thunder Mountain High School’s Erin Wallace was the only freshman at the camp.

“My classmates haven’t really heard about this camp,” Wallace said during a mountain run break. Goats moved to the right of the runners, Ptarmigan to the left, and various wildflowers dotted the landscape of rock and snow. “I have really picked up a lot of fun times. I am glad I came as I am learning and seeing so many new things. This is my first time up on the ridge (Mount Juneau), but I always love hiking into Granite Creek Basin, that is one of my favorite spots to hike. This hike today will stay with me. Getting up high is what I love, and hiking and running and being with friends and getting to know people more.”

Campers ate together and camp cooks Linda Mancuso, Christy Wallace and Dawn Walsh represented a kitchen staff that provided over 50 meals, three times a day, plus snacks. All campers, through an assigned number matrix, participate in meal prep and clean up.

JDHS sophomore swimmer Gabi Kito attended because of friends.

“My friend convinced me to come,” Kito said from atop a mountain knoll, looking down at an eagle that floated lazily in valley winds below the runners. “She hiked back down. I am learning how to run, I didn’t know how to do that before.”

Kito said she is using some of the training tips to use in her main sport.

“It is definitely a good cross-training workout,” Kito said. “I am learning to have fun, and nutrition tips and that I should probably drink a lot more water.”

The campers and staff stay roughly 30 miles out of Juneau in the main lodge and cabins of the Eagle River United Methodist Camp. A series of trail systems nestled in the wilderness surrounding the camp help disconnect, to some extent, the modern world from the wonders of the overlooked pristine environment. Cell phones and similar devices are kept off unless needed. Instead, campers are taught to be more in touch with how they feel, how the environment feels and how running can be a part of their lives.

“Camp consists of morning jogs at 8 a.m. followed by yoga,” Ellefson said. “After breakfast we have workshops and then head out for adventures.”

This year’s camp began on Sunday, June 22, with a get-to-know-each-other, easy jog along the Eagle River State Park trails of the camp. On day one campers are divided into teams and begin designing Olympic flags, team songs, and other bonding materials for daily competitions among cabins.

Counselors hold Olympics, starting the first evening when teams develop their name, song, dance, and history. Events range from Quidditch matches to marshmallow eating contests.

On Monday the camp traveled the Peterson Lake Trail and Tuesday was morning relays and joining in the evening’s community Boy Scout Camp 6K race.

Wednesday featured a morning predict a mile/guess a mile run and in the evening a jaunt along the Point Bridget State Park trail.

On Thursday the camp did the Mount Juneau trail, along the Juneau ridge, down into Granite Creek Basin and onto Perseverance Trail.

JDHS senior athlete Alicia Norton attended for her second year.

“I love the mountain part although I really dislike doing it,” Norton said as the runners sat dispersed atop a mountain ridge meadow enjoying a lunch.

In another hour or so the group would be sliding down snowfields towards Granite Basin, an offshoot of the famous Perseverance Trail.

“I try to stay in the ‘now’ and then after I am like ‘whoa, I can’t believe I just did that! That is really cool.’ That is what I like,” Norton said. “If there wasn’t a camp I definitely wouldn’t be out here in the mountains, I would be working or something or home in bed. I meet a lot of people I don’t know from the other school and my school and then we end up meeting up and running together so I get running buddies from the camp.”

Friday was a West Glacier Trail jog and walk to the Mendenhall Glacier ice caves overlook.

Evenings included campfire chats and singing, a movie night and amenities at the camp, such as foosball and a rope swing.

High school seniors Riley Moser, a JDHS cross-country and track region champion, and Reilly Walsh, a JDHS record-breaking swimmer, received special awards for attending all four years of the Lynn Canal.

“The runs that Merry and Tristan put on for the camp, like having the kids on a mountain, really change their perspective about how running isn’t only just about your times,” Moser said. “It is also about where you are going in life. It is like an analogy for that. I think that the mountain running has helped a lot of the high school runners mature in their running ability as far as their love for running and not just times and competition.”

Saturday was the “What I learned at running camp” cabin skits and cleaning before departure.

“Camp has been really fun,” JDHS junior Brian Holst, a cross country and soccer player, said during an outing. “Without these people to run with I wouldn’t be up here because the pace I run at is faster than most of my friends so I can never get out here and do this. With these guys they are all faster than me so I have to struggle to keep up, so it is a lot of fun because of that. What will stick with me are the counselors. They are really awesome people and I learn a lot from them, especially Jesse (Miller) he teaches me a lot about running. This is great training for soccer as well. I am missing all the world cup games, which is disappointing, but the next round is the most important.”

While the camp originally started with local runners in mind, it has gained a wider presence. Last year a runner from Washington State attended. This year East Anchorage junior Aden Haywood and Wasilla junior Fuller laced up along side their southeast peers.

“I didn’t realize how many other things you could do to improve your running,” Fuller, who ran at the state championships last season for Kenai, said. “The camp told me so much more than I would have thought to improve. My favorite part was all the mud on our runs; that was new because it is so dry here. It also really helped to have the people coming in to talk to us. It definitely answered a lot of questions I was thinking about. The camp was fun.”

During the week, local adults conduct camp classes and breakout sessions.

This year included knowledge on injury prevention and physical therapy (Annie Albrecht); first aid and safety in the wilderness (ultra runner Houston Laws); sports psychology (TMHS coach Scott May); core strengthening (former JDHS coach and current world athlete Guy Thibodeau); yoga (Steve Wolfe); power yoga (Lindsey Kirchhoff); sports nutrition (Kari Natwik); running in college (Shannon Gress, Abby Lowell, Breea Mearig, and Gregg Frank) plus visits from extreme ultra distance champion Geoff Roes, runner and nurse Rachel Phelps, and medical personnel Dennis and Heidi Hall.

“When these adults join us as mentors and support on the runs the teens experience first hand the connectedness of the running community,” Ellefson said. “All of our counselors and teachers participated in or were inspired by running in high school.”

Next year’s Lynn Canal Running Camp will take place from July 5-11, 2015. Coaches and camps directors from the lower 48 have requested information.

“It was remarkable to have so many youth up on the Juneau ridge this year,” Ellefson said. “That was a highlight, giving kids something new and different and something they will talk about forever. The funding basket for this camp is diverse. We can dream right now about being bigger because we are really supported in the community. The generosity also allows us to offer scholarships if someone cannot afford to attend.”

On Thursday, 37 future presidents of the United States, 37 future Olympic Quidditch champions and 37 sons and daughters stood on a ridge next to Observation Peak and Mount Olds, amazed at their surroundings and what they had just accomplished.

“My most memorable moment of the camp was hiking to the top of Mount Juneau with my best friends,” Thunder Mountain runner Masen Smith said. “It was a tough hike, but in the end it was well worth it. The camp was an incredible experience. I got to meet new people, get myself ready for the cross country season, play a ton of fun games, run on all sorts of trails and go on insane hikes.”


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