BIGHORN MOUNTAINS — The weather shaped up, the path stayed clear and dry and the oxygen, as always, remained low. The Sheridan High School cross-country team held its annual mountain camp Wednesday through Friday, and even though lungs burned and faces reddened with exhaustion, smiles prevailed.
“I always look forward to it. It’s the best part of the season,” Josie Fettig said. “Just getting to hang out with all the teammates is the best part.”
Sheridan head coach Art Baures started the yearly mountain camp in the late 1990s, bringing the idea over from Rock Springs where the Tigers traveled to Pinedale for their mountain escape.
Sheridan has frequented the 4-H campground every year since 1999. The Broncs have the entire campground and the shelter to themselves for all of their team-building activities.
“I’m very grateful to the 4-H that they allow us to come up,” Baures said. “This has been phenomenal, and just a great asset for the program.”
The team went up the mountain Wednesday night and did a short run to help acclimate their bodies and get familiar with the surroundings. They also did some goal setting and had discussions about different training methods.
Thursday marked the big day for the runners. The morning included the longest and most difficult run of the camp — some having to traverse 9.5 miles across rugged mountain topography.
Baures’ team has tackled the same course nearly every year, but recently, he’s split the team into groups, having some run 6 and 8 miles instead of the full 9.5. When the camp was still in its infancy, Baures elected to have the entire team run the full loop, but that requirement proved a tad unpleasant.
“It was kind of like a badge of honor to run the whole thing back then,” Baures said. “Everyone made the 9.5 miles, but it was kind of like a death march.”
While the majority of the team could and can finish the full loop, running at over 9,000 feet of elevation takes a toll on each individual.
Sheridan sits at about 3,700 feet, which marks one of the lowest points in the state. The 4-H campground is located above 8,000 feet and the course the runners tackle Thursday climbs to 9,200 feet.
And this slows down even Sheridan’s most accomplished runners.
For example, Sheridan’s quickest trio — Garett Avery, Alex Garber and David Standish — will finish a 9-mile run, clocking in anywhere from 6 minutes to 6 minutes and 30 seconds per mile. At the heightened altitude, that same group will run anywhere from 7 to 7.5 minute miles.
“It’s really tough for us,” Avery said. “You have to be ready to do this run. We just gradually build into it. We do not take it super fast. We use the milage to help out our lungs.”
Baures encourages his team, as a general rule of thumb, to listen to their respective bodies and not, “Be a hero,” on Thursday. He tells the runners that they should be able to talk with their partners or groups. If they can’t communicate in short sentences, they’re likely overexerting themselves and will feel the effects the upcoming week.
“You can be a hero up here, and it will cost you,” Baures said. “Running too fast just means that next week you will be trying to recover, and it would show up in the race. Long term there are some benefits there. A while back, we used throw caution to the wind, and we would just let her rip, but we don’t do that anymore.”
Most of the runners don’t overdo it, but the soreness will still rear its head over the weekend and the benefits will bless the runners during the first meet. Sheridan begins the season Friday at the Kelly Walsh Beartrap Invite, and the course certainly won’t come as a shock to any of the Broncs.
“We really feel like this mountain camp is beneficial in that first meet,” Baures said. “It’s up on Casper Mountain, and that’s about 8,000 feet. When they run up there it’s nice for them mentally, if not psychologically, to know that they’ve already run at that altitude.”
The remainder of Thursday’s mountain camp involved a trip to Paradise Falls for some swimming while the captains addressed the team in the evening hours. Friday incorporated an easier run, mostly downhill.
While the spectacular running views and beneficial altitude training highlight the yearly mountain camp, it’s much more than that. Baures believes the team-bonding aspect remains one of the most essential parts of the trip.
“It’s a two for one. It really is,” Baures said. “The team-building things we do at night I think are really important.”
The mountain camp isn’t just important but something eagerly anticipated each and every year. Star Valley will host next season’s state meet and as a result, Sheridan will travel to the western reaches of the state during the summer to become familiar with the course.
Baures broke that news to his team and worries that it might interfere with the mountain camp. That’s something the team simply won’t allow.
“We were talking and I told them we may have to nix the mountain camp next year,” Baures said. “They all quickly said, ‘No. We are coming up for a night at least.’”
Baures loves the enthusiasm and how his team has embraced the mountain camp each and every year, and the 2018 edition was no different.