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Blue Jays continuing the tradition of running at 8,000 feet

Members of the Jamestown High School cross-country team are participating in the program's annual summer running camp this week.

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The Jamestown High School cross-country team has been going to running camp in Buffalo, Wyoming, for more than 30 years.
Contributed / Ken Gardner
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A flock of Blue Jays are flying high this week.

Jamestown High School head cross-country coach Ken Gardner and 13 Blue Jay runners made the nine hour, 7,000-foot elevation climb to Buffalo, Wyoming last Saturday to kick off the Jays' annual summer running camp.

The Jays along with two other cross-country teams from Minnesota will be running the mountain trails for an entire week in order to better their endurance and overall cardiovascular health.

"When you are training at up elevation, you are really dealing with your blood and the creation of red blood cells, making it more efficient for your body to get oxygen to your muscles through the blood," Gardner said. "Even a week has been shown to be a kick-start to the development of those blood cells, to help improve your endurance.

"It takes time for those cells to develop, it's not immediate but you can see the effects of it for up to three months afterward. At the end of the cross-country season we're still in that three-month window."

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Former Blue Jay cross-country coach Russ Schmeichel began the running camp as a way to introduce the Blue Jays to elevation training. First Schmiechel partnered with a cross-country coach out of Rapid City, South Dakota, then later teamed up with Bowman's Jerry Popp to produce two of the toughest cross-country teams in the Midwest at the time.

Schmeichel coached track and field and cross-country in Jamestown for 32 years from 1974 to 2006. He was named state high school coach of the year in 1977. In 1982 he was named District Cross-Country Coach of the Year and was a nominee for the national honor.

Schmeichel was inducted into the North Dakota High School Track and Field Coaches Association's Hall of Fame in 2010. Schmeichel, who led the Blue Jays to 20 cross-country state championships, already is also a member of the North Dakota High School Coaches Hall of Fame and the University of Jamestown Hall of Fame.

Popp started the cross-country program in Bowman in 1975 and went on to win 24 of the 26 state championships in girls cross-country and won 15 state championships with the boys program, including eight runner-up finishes. He earned National Coach of the Year Honors 27 times and in 2005 was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame. He is also an inductee of the North Dakota Coaches Hall of Fame.

Popp moved on to a coaching position in Willmar High School (Minn.) but he continued to bus the kids out to the Big Horn Mountains every summer. Eventually Mike Harris, a former assistant Jimmie and Blue Jay coach, joined the mix with his team out of Hopkins, Minnesota.

After the State track and field meet Gardner said the Jays typically take two weeks off to let bodies recover and injuries heal before jumping into the summer running program. The Jays have groups set to run at 8 a.m. or 7 p.m. and as the summer progresses, the mileage count rises. By the time the Jays set out for Buffalo, Gardner said most runners will be accustomed to running 6 to 7 miles at a time.

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Runners who participate in the annual Buffalo, Wyoming running camp go on hikes as a group.
Contributed / Ken Gardner

Running camp is not for the faint of heart.

Gardner said the group of athletes who are doing the least amount of running, are still covering at least 4 miles during the morning workout session then will double back with 3 to 4 more miles in the evenings. Some of the upper-level athletes cover 60 to 70 miles during the course of the week.

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Most of the runs follow an out-and-back format, as it makes it easier on Gardner and the other coaches to keep track of the nearly 90 runners. The crew does run one point-to-point run on a remote 10.8-mile road to cap off the time spent in the Big Horn Mountains.

"The expectation is that they are training ahead of time but the nice thing is is that we are dividing it out and not doing 10-mile runs seven days a week," Gardner said. "Usually we'll do two runs per day and then in the afternoon we'll try to get a pool workout in."

Buffalo has the largest community pool in the region, measuring the size of three Olympic-sized swimming pools. The pool has let the group of 100 runners and coaches in for just $50 for the entire week. When they are not testing their limits, the group still likes to stay active so Gardner said the coaches and runners have banded together and hiked different parts of the mountains.

"The community is great," Gardner said. "We camp outside the Buffalo YMCA (and) we've made connections even in grocery stores and restaurants."

Some of the benefits of the camp certainly lie in the physical aspects but Gardner said one part of the story that is often overlooked is that of the mental toughness that comes from the experiences had out in Buffalo.

"If we run a hard workout, I will look at them and say, 'You ran the 11 miles on Bull Creek Road, you can handle this,'" Gardner said. "Then they think back and are like, 'Oh yeah, I can do this.'

"It's not something that we as coaches run as a for-profit camp. If we break even, that's great — that's our goal. It's probably the best value of any running camp that I have seen. It's nice to have some really experienced and successful coaches down there as well — we've got a pretty good, proven track record."

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During the course of the annual running camp in Buffalo, Wyoming nearly 100 athletes participate in pool workouts.
Contributed / Ken Gardner

Katie Ringer is a sports reporter for the Jamestown Sun. Katie joined the Sun staff in the summer of 2019 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire with a degree in journalism. She can be reached by email at kringer@jamestownsun.com or by phone at 701-952-8460.
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