This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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CRESTED BUTTE — Katelynne Hart, the country’s fastest high school distance runner, is giddily shivering in icy Coal Creek in the middle of this mountain community’s historic downtown.
Hart, along with her best-in-the-U.S. teammates, has just finished a morning run at 8,900 feet and a complicated series of stretches and exercises at Team Prep USA’s renowned summer running camp.
“I think the biggest thing about this camp is we all have the same values, common goals,” said Hart, of Chicago. “We all really want to be great runners — that makes us bond. We push each other to be better, and we’re good friends — that combination is what makes this camp.”
In the past 15 years, Crested Butte’s Team Prep USA camps have hosted more than 140 state champion racers like Hart and groomed the country’s top runners, including eight-time national champion and Olympic medalist Emma Coburn. The Rocky Mountain Cross Country Camp, founded and directed by collegiate running coach Trent Sanderson, pushes the country’s top high-school runners to their breaking points while teaching lessons that linger well beyond athletics.
Sanderson “wants you to be the best you can be … I definitely would not be where I am without him,” said Indiana standout runner Caleb Futter, who will run at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, this fall. “It’s more like a life camp, really.”
Hart, a senior at Glenbard West High School in suburban Glen Ellyn, Illinois, earlier this year posted a fastest-in-the-country time of 4 minutes, 38 seconds in the 1,600-meter run. She’s also within 5 seconds of the fastest U.S. high school mark in the 3,200-meter with her personal record of 9:52.
Last spring, Hart completed a triple crown at the Illinois State Track and Field Championships, winning titles in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200-meter races. She’s never lost in the finals at the Illinois state championships.
Add state cross country titles and Hart ranks as the No. 1 girls prep distance recruit yet to sign with a college. With multiple offers awaiting, she credits Crested Butte-based Team Prep USA and Sanderson, with her running successes.
“One of the things I love about Trent is that I’m super-super enthusiastic about running and I have really big goals; I feel the same energy from him,” she said after icing her legs in the stream. “He wants me to succeed as well.”
She said she first heard of the Crested Butte running camps at a national race three years ago.
“I connected with … Brie Oakley, a super-good high school runner who’s now in college. She told me about (Sanderson and Team Prep USA),” Hart said. “So I thought I’d come to Colorado. This is my third year in Crested Butte, and I love it.”
Oakley, a record-setting runner at Grandview High School in Aurora, now is running at the University of California, Berkeley. Oakley was the first high school girl to break 10 minutes in the 3,200-meter run.
“Coming here helped me mature as a runner and a person,” said Hart, who is on the verge of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials ahead of the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Athletes must meet fitness requirements and there’s a waiting list for all the camps, which run anywhere from $715 for four-nights to more than $2,700 for the full 20-night training camp in Gunnison and even more for the Crested Butte camp. Sanderson says his campers learn much more than running strategies.
“We’re teaching them how to be independent,” said Sanderson, noting that Team Prep USA rents houses for the campers in Mount Crested Butte and Crested Butte, where, guided by counselors, they learn how to live with roommates, shop for healthy meals, cook, clean and do laundry. “They learn how to be away from home — parents love that.”
Time management is paramount with a packed schedule that includes running on roads, trails and treadmills as well as hiking, mountain climbing, swimming, circuit training and cycling. Campers attend daily lectures from visiting experts on nutrition, motivation, sleep, recovery and physical therapy.
And there are the grueling hill repeats, a staple of Sanderson’s training program for two decades.
Sanderson takes center stage when the campers gather for a day of circuit training inside Mountaineer Field House at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, 30 miles from Crested Butte.
Sanderson and his assistants shepherd the student-athletes through a nonstop series of exercises in small groups. While one group spends 20 minutes power stretching, another group lifts light weights while balancing on exercise balls. One group sweats through core-specific exercises — lots of planks. Another group spends 20 minutes running intervals on treadmills with Sanderson and each runner jointly setting the base tempo and their accelerated pace.
Whoop, holler and bounce
When the energy level starts to wane, counselors crank up the music on the reverberating boom box and Sanderson begins to whoop, holler and bounce around the room, encouraging each tiring runner. His assistants, college runners or former collegiate athletes, join in with more cheerleading.
As soon as the treadmills slow to a stop, the group is off to a 20-minute spin class on stationary bikes. With those training circuits finally complete, the campers dive in for a swimming session — breaststroke, sidestroke, freestyle — designed to elevate heart rates without running.
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Sanderson, a self-described dyslexic C-student who struggled to get through high school and college, continues with his enthusiastic commentary in the pool.
He quotes Malcolm Gladwell, Steve Jobs and Vince Lombardi, among others.
• “Invest in yourself.”
• “Focus on the process and the destination will take care of itself.”
• “You’re living in the most incredible country in the world; don’t take it for granted.”
• “Your life just changed because you did something you didn’t think you could do.”
Sanderson, a former college running coach at Florida State and the University of Maryland who ran for the University of New Orleans, built Team Prep USA from a one-man operation with a handful of clients. It was associated with the now defunct-Crested Butte Academy before sprouting as an independent training program.
Fifteen years later, Team Prep USA summer camps are filled to capacity with a waiting list. The larger, early summer camps (140 runners) are housed in the dormitories at Western Colorado University. The smaller, midsummer elite camp (33) operates out of an assortment of homes around Crested Butte.
This season campers came to Crested Butte and Gunnison from 44 states and three countries.
“All these kids are not just good in their home counties, they’re above and beyond good,” Sanderson said. “My (task) is how do I motivate them?”
He relies on a no-nonsense training approach along with off-the-charts enthusiasm.
Learning to tolerate the intolerable
“If you can teach them how to raise the tolerability level, to take what was intolerable before to make it tolerable, that’s going to give them a huge edge,” Sanderson said. “If they can tolerate things other people are unwilling to tolerate, they’re going to lead a beautiful life.”
Most importantly, Sanderson said, he teaches the campers how to fail.
“These are type-A kids. They’re used to getting what they want,” said Sanderson, 47. “They’re used to succeeding, not failing.”
But by pushing thresholds, he said they might “fail” in a workout and not meet their projected goals.
“We’ve had some of the best athletes in the United States fail here,” Sanderson said.
The process of discovery from failure helps them learn how to cope with the same situation in the future, Sanderson said. Next time, he said, they can push through and succeed.
“Trent is the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever met; that’s why I keep coming out here. It inspires me,” said Skylar Stidam a Team Prep USA camper from Floyds Knobs, Indiana, who returned as a camp counselor/coach. He now runs for Indiana University.
“Trent … helped me reach my full potential,” said Stidam, one of 140 individual state champions who have come through Team Prep USA in the past 15 years. “He takes (training) to a level where it’s almost unbearable. And he keeps you there.”
What comes after an epic athletic career?
Guest speakers at a recent camp included:
• Robert Jackson, former associate admissions director at Yale;
• Bill Fabrocini of Aspen, a trend-setter in orthopedic physical therapy and sports performance;
• Dr. Gloria Beim of Crested Butte, orthopedic surgeon and chief medical officer for the U.S. Olympic Team at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
• Skiing legend Wendy Fisher, a longtime Crested Butte resident, who annually speaks to the campers about fear and anxiety related to competition.
“I talk to the kids about my story, my experiences,” said Fisher, a former U.S. Ski Team alpine racer who became one of the best big mountain extreme skiers in the world. “I also talk about eating disorders because I went through that. And I went through issues with coaches.”
She said the campers appreciate hearing another athlete’s perspective, especially when it comes to uncertainty and trepidation.
“I tell them that running is the foundation of almost every sport. You don’t have to be the best miler or whatever. But this could be a foundation for another sport,” Fisher said. “Take your running and transition to something else — maybe it’s American Ninja Warrior or mountain biking.”
Fisher transitioned from an Olympic-caliber ski racer to a pioneer in women’s big-mountain skiing.
“I was lucky to find a second (skiing) career,” she said. “I was able to transition my skills and my love of the sport into a different avenue — that’s what I tell these kids.”
Fisher, who was named to the U.S. Ski Team at age 15, qualified for the 1992 Winter Olympics. A versatile racer, she scored World Cup points in all five alpine disciplines before entering the realm of extreme skiing.
Twice she was the World Extreme Skiing champion, leading to a long career as a featured skier for Warren Miller films and Matchstick Productions.
Fisher said the high school runners contribute to the go-big culture in Crested Butte.
“No one looks at these kids funny because they totally blend in,” Fisher said. “People come to Crested Butte and see these aggro-kids running all over the place. I definitely think it adds value to the town and the energy here.”
The prep runners dress up and participate as a group in Crested Butte’s annual Fourth of July parade.
Following in the footsteps of an idol
Hart, the prep prodigy, said the parade is part of the history and tradition of the camps — a history that includes Emma Coburn, Team Prep USA’s most decorated alumna.
Coburn, who grew up in Crested Butte, won the 2017 World Championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at London Olympic Stadium, breaking the U.S. record. She also was the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the event, earning bronze at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
A three-time NCAA champion at the University of Colorado, Coburn won her eighth U.S. national championship last weekend.
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The track shoes Coburn wore when she won the world title in London sit on a table in a corner of Sanderson’s office in Mount Crested Butte — cherished memorabilia for every camper to see.
Coburn, who now lives and trains in Boulder, returns to Crested Butte each year to speak to the spellbound campers of Team Prep USA.
“It’s so cool, I idolize her,” Hart said. “I idolize both of them (Emma Coburn and Brie Oakley). To get to run the same places they ran is special.”
Not to mention the opportunity to cool down in the same ice-cold mountain stream.