Some of the country’s best adult running camps—and the reasons behind the running camp craze
Why should kids get to have all the fun? If you question anyone in the adult summer running camp scene about the existence of such camps, that’s the answer you’ll get. Sure, most people wouldn’t exactly call a week of nonstop running “fun,” but trail runners aren’t most people.
Adult running camps have existed in the U.S. since the 1970s, but they’ve exploded in the past decade.
“The idea of adult camps just didn’t exist in [most] people’s minds seven or eight years ago,” says Geoff Roes, who founded his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp in 2011. “When I started, no one who came to camp had ever been to one before.”
Good habits are easier to kick start when you step out of your daily routine.
Now, most campers have been to at least one camp and researched dozens of others. The reason for the popularity surge? Pete Rea, the head coach at North Carolina’s ZAP Fitness camp, says it’s because people are starting to look for a vacation beyond the traditional beach-and-booze getaway. “It’s not just runners. Generation Xers are getting into middle age, and most folks are looking for a healthy outdoor vacation,” says Rea.
There’s also a fact of critical mass. As more running camps spring up, more people hear about them, and word of the benefits is spreading faster and faster. One of the most obvious benefits is education—camps stack their speaker lists with nutritionists, physical therapists, physiologists, coaches, and pros. Another benefit: Good habits are easier to kick start when you step out of your daily routine, an act that also pushes the boundaries of campers’ comfort zones, says Roes.
“People come to Alaska with a certain amount of anxiety about going to run somewhere so different. They show up intimidated, but after realizing it’s not so scary, they unlock this mental block and then they feel like they can run anywhere. Suddenly that race in Europe doesn’t seem so daunting anymore,” he says.
“Camp is just one week of the year, but the people you meet there, you keep in touch with forever.”
Now, runners are using camps as crash courses on technique and nutrition, motivation rechargers, and training season kick-offs. Many of them have also become reunions.
Bill Fitzgerald has been going to Vermont’s Craftsbury Running Camp for 23 years. When he first started, camp registration was completed by snail mail and magazines and pamphlets were the only way to get training information. Back then, camps served a unique educational role for many runners. Thanks to the internet, that’s no longer the case, but it hasn’t made camp any less valuable for Fitzgerald.
For him, camp has been a source of deep friendships, and returning each year is a way to reconnect. “Camp is just one week of the year, but the people you meet there, you keep in touch with forever,” he says.
Looking for a similar experience? Sign up for one of these:
McMillan Running Camps, Arizona
McMillan Running is one of the better-known coaching services in the West, but you don’t have to have a year-round McMillan coach to get the benefits of their expertise. Throughout the summer and fall, McMillan puts on four-day to week-long camps for folks of all abilities. Set at altitude in Flagstaff (6,900 feet) and Sedona (4,300 feet), Arizona, the camps balance education, running, and forays into town for a taste of local food, drinks, and culture.
Campers go home with a thorough knowledge of training, racing, injury prevention, biomechanics, mental performance, and nutrition, as well as personal relationship with coaches and experts they can reach out to in the future. Camp sessions range from 10 to 20 in size, but a 4-to-1 coach-to-camper ratio makes sure everyone gets the attention they need.
ZAP Fitness, North Carolina
ZAP camps have been around since 2002. Are they fun? You don’t even have to ask the alumni—just look at the retention rate. According to head coach Pete Rea, about half of all campers are returnees. Plenty of newcomers are lifelong runners, but the camp doesn’t discriminate:
“We have people interested in everything from knocking a minute of their marathon time to running their first 5K,” says Rea. Based in the mountains of western North Carolina, ZAP does five camps a year and has four full-time coaches who work with campers to send everyone home with an individualized training program.
Tim Francis has been going to ZAP for 14 years now, and it’s the people—the mix of newcomers and old faces—that always bring him back. “I’m amazed by the support of the other campers every time I go. You spend four or five days with these people, and you’re friends for life,” he says. “I can’t see going a year without ZAP. I just have too good of a time when I go.”
The Cool Impossible, Wyoming
It’s not often you get to spend a week in a fairytale. Eric Orton, the coach from Born to Run and author of The Cool Impossible, used the fictional setting of the latter novel as his blueprint when designing his camp. You could call this the Harry Potter World of trail running.
Thanks to the camp’s partnership with Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, ski lifts drop campers right in the heart of alpine terrain that would normally take hours to access. “No matter your ability level, you can have a true big mountain experience,” he says.
This is one of three, three-day camps Orton runs each summer. Sessions typically consist of 10 to 12 people.
Craftsbury Running Camps, Vermont
Based out of a cross-country ski center where Olympians train, Craftsbury Running Camps offer one unique workout few other camps can: biathlon practice. When they’re not busting out miles, strength training, swimming, or mountain biking, Craftsbury campers are running and shooting.
Work up an appetite? The campus dining hall is committed to making sure 50 percent of its ingredients are local—not hard in the green patchwork that is Vermont—and Bill Fitzgerald, a patron for 25 years running, maintains it’s some of the freshest food he’s ever had, but that’s not the only reason he keeps coming back. “Vermont is a beautiful state, and even in July, you’re catching cool mornings and cool evenings. It’s this perfect environment for running,” he says.
Run Wild Retreats, International
The idea of summer camp giving you a been-there-done-that yawn? Try this on for size: Run Wild takes women on running retreats in five different countries, including the Spanish Mediterranean and the Swiss Alps. Elinor Fish founded Run Wild in 2010 while she was an editor at Trail Runner Magazine. Her retreats offer guided scenic runs and local tours, and they emphasize building community, experiencing the local culture, and running mindfully. Fish says crossing the border facilitates those goals.
“Leaving the country often means leaving your comfort zone. You’re suddenly hyper-aware of everything in your surroundings. When you leave home, you’re also leaving behind your past achievements and failures,” she says. In that way, running in a new country forces you to live in the moment, jumpstarting a mindful running practice.
Sindy Smith, who attended a camp in Moab, Utah, says the mindfulness lessons were the ones that have stuck with her most. “I’m a mom. There are a thousand things going on at home, and I get frustrated sometimes. But when I go out for a run and use it as meditation, I come back with more patience. It makes me a better mom,” she says.
Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp, Alaska
“It’s not on an island, but it might as well be,” Geoff Roes says of Juneau, the location of his camp which can only be reached by boat or plane. That means true wilderness, steep trails, and a tight-knit local running community. Isolation from competition also means it’s hard for Juneau runners to take themselves too seriously.
“We have a more laid-back perspective on running here, which is what we try to bring to our camps. The goal is to become a better runner by learning how to really enjoy running and take off the self-imposed pressure,” says Roes. Camp involves education and personalized tips on hard technical skills, as well as guided runs through rainforest, coastline, and alpine terrain that accumulate up to 20,000 feet of gain over 5 days. He currently offers two camps every year, each with 12 to 16 spots.
Active at Altitude, Colorado
Terry Chiplin knew what he was doing when he moved from England to Colorado to start a running camp. Located just beyond the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park, Active at Altitude offers a high-elevation running camp few others in the U.S. can match—some runs take place as high as 12,000 feet, letting runners get a feel for true mountain running and start to develop some of the physiological benefits of altitude training at the same time.
Trained as a sports psychologist, Chiplin builds mental training and techniques like guided imagery into his camps alongside the physical training. “It’s important to realize that we’re physical beings, but we don’t leave our minds behind when we go out and run. Endurance running is 100 percent mental,” he says.
And there’s no better place to find peace of mind than in the breath-snatching landscape of the Rockies.
Mirabelle Tinio has been to several Active at Altitude Camps, but she came to her first with a dream of one day running on the Canadian Mountain Running Team (CMR).
“Being surrounded by other runners like me and working towards our running goals together for a week helped me build belief in myself,” she said. “I left camp feeling like a bigger person, more whole, stronger and more capable than when I arrived.” Shortly after camp, she attained her goal and has now spent three years running for CMR.
Max King Trail Running Camp, Oregon
Navigate for a man, and he’ll run for a day. Teach a man to navigate, and he’ll run for a lifetime. That’s the reasoning behind Max King’s Trail Running Camp, which works campers up to spending a full, 30-mile day in the mountains.
“We teach campers to use a map and a compass, pace themselves on long days, and feel comfortable spending a full day in the wilderness,” says King. The result? More runners feeling empowered to run farther, longer, and in more remote places.
The camp also has a strong stewardship focus, and campers spend the last day doing trail work and giving back to the community.
“We want runners to leave with a holistic appreciation for trail running—why we run, why we love it, and how to do it properly,” King said. He currently offers one adult camp each year, which typically hosts 10 to 20 campers.
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