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The first time Emma Wren completed the Cross Canyon race as a high school camper at Steens Mountain Running Camp in Oregon, it was the worst. “I had no idea of what to expect. [But] each year I gained more and more confidence in myself and how to be competitive in the event,” she says.
Unlike most races, at Cross Canyon, every competitor must finish with their team, holding hands. Each team is only as fast as its slowest runner. And very unlike most races, there’s no marked course and no support offered beyond one’s own teammates.
The start line is a rock in the middle of a gently sloping field of sagebrush, where competitors have 60 seconds to memorize a quote. On their way, runners find degrees of ups and downs, rocks, rivers, thick stands of aspens, ever-unyielding barbed wire, and the occasional snow field, cliff, or stinging bee. The finish line is a bus or truck parked across the canyon, roughly three miles away depending on your route. Once there, a random teammate is selected to recite the quote. Any errors? Time is added to the team’s finish.
Naturally, it took Wren time to get her bearings, especially because the racers do an intensive warm-up (several miles of uphill 60-60s, aka power hike 60 seconds then run 60 seconds, plus a few miles of hiking into the start line) before the race even gets started.
“I was challenged to be fearless and trust, despite being tired just to get to the start, that I could actually make it across the canyon. What’s so special about Cross Canyon is that there’s nothing like it, and you just have to roll with the punches, and the best teams realize that they need to support each other to be successful, [but] this doesn’t always happen. There is a sense of urgency which forces the fears away because the focus becomes solely on sticking with the team,” she says.
First as a high school camper from Portland, Oregon, then an All-American collegiate runner at Adams State University and Kansas State University, and now a collegiate cross-country/track and field assistant coach, Wren learned valuable lessons from Cross Canyon. “There is so much joy in a shared effort no matter the outcome. We are capable of a lot more than we might think, so it’s important to believe in ourselves,” she says.
This decades-old tradition at Steens Mountain Running Camp, founded by Harland Yriarte in the 1970s, has introduced hundreds of high school runners each summer to the concept of being stronger, together, in variable, challenging conditions.
Abi Swain, cross-country and track athlete at Portland State University, recalls stubbing her toe during her first Cross Canyon. “I was crying, exhausted, and just wanted it to be over,” she says. But her team leader called to others. “[They] started encouraging me, carried my pack, and helped me along. I don’t remember what place we finished, but I do remember the fierce sense of accomplishment I felt when we all touched the bus at the end. And the sense of gratitude to my team for pushing me to accomplish an incredibly difficult adventure. “
Borrowing the “Leave No Human Behind” inspiration from this event, we adult runners can recreate bonding, camaraderie, and sisterhood in our own running and communities. We might just surprise ourselves, even in the face of tremendous adversity, as we pursue our untapped potential.
Here are five ways to practice team-building with a no-drop run:
Test Your Own Mettle (And Ego)
Melody Fairchild, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors and coach of a women’s running group in Boulder, Colorado, 22-year Steens staffer, and co-author of Girls Running, loves contemplating campers’ pre-Cross Canyon thoughts.
“How do we get the top group to open up their minds and hearts to see their ability is a responsibility to reach back and lift up the others? And then the B group, so to speak, [how] to get them to take a leap of faith in a workout or race and say, ‘I can bridge that gap’?” Fairchild says.
There’s a time and a place to hammer, drop people, or even one-step. (See: a key workout or big race.) But that’s not all the time, in particular for endurance runners.
Runners who quickly charge ahead in search of the pain cave: Are you open to trying a different approach? If you’re feeling faster or fresher than most, how can you channel that energy towards the group? Emphasize this as aerobic training, an easy, recovery, or double run. Or strength work if you need to push someone up a hill.
Runners feeling slower, sorer, or insecure about being DFL: Can you suspend disbelief and self-judgment? Do you want to make friends? To lower the walk-to-run ratio? To push yourself, try keeping up with someone for a minute. Then maybe another—a wonderful opportunity for a higher intensity workout. Let your squad pull you along. Speak up when you need a break.
Look for Local Opportunities
You needn’t go remote. In Seattle, for example, Banshee Running hosts monthly no-drop, “party pace” trail runs from popular trailheads. Or try volunteering as a road race pacer—people who run specific paces so groups of racers have reliable help hitting their time goals in, say, a half or full marathon; encourage your group to stick together as long as possible. Trail and ultra-marathoners call for pacers to help them through the later stages of 100 miles, 100 kilometers, or beyond.
If you join a group run and everyone hammers, it’s OK to opt out! As trail runner and marine biologist Peyton Thomas said in a Running Industry Diversity Coalition panel about increasing diversity in trail running, “Some groups will leave you behind and that’s not good for anyone.”
If you’re feeling adventurous, create your own fatass (aka low-key, self-supported, unofficial) group adventure run, such as a point-to-point or challenging route, with teams that must finish together.
Ignore Your Splits
Young runners are so dialed into paces, such as what they need to hit to run the fast 5K, says Robyn McGillis, head girls’ cross-country and co-head track and field coach at Central Catholic High School in Portland. Sound familiar? Beyond numbers, “Cross Canyon embodies the fact that it’s about navigating something as a team…Long-term, that’s going to provide a better foundation, more for the kids to look back on,” she says. “Obviously kids want to win, but just finishing is a triumph.”
That’s why McGillis encourages focusing on the process and the fun of it, while celebrating “failure”—so athletes know it’s safe to try new things, like trail-less terrain. Or, for adults: running without GPS.
Communicate Clearly and Set Expectations
Fairchild’s women’s group is motivated by connecting; that’s why they start every session by checking in with each other. For groups, it’s imperative to set and articulate clear goals and expectations for a day or objective. For example, Club Seattle Runners Division welcomes “all faces, all paces” and explicitly states routes and details before each group run so everyone’s on the same page.
Remember the big picture, too. As a camp assistant, Swain had a runner drop out just before Cross Canyon, due to altitude sickness. “She had tried her hardest to make it. Before separating from the group though, I made sure to reassure her that it was OK. I told her that I was proud of her for continuing to push forward. And after I talked to her the rest of my campers all crowded around her and comforted her and gave her hugs,” Swain says.
“Help Your Teammates”
As a coach, Wren says, “You do your best to encourage [runners] during the event because you want them to be successful. I used to tell campers ‘help your teammates,’ which often reminded them to look around and find opportunities to support each other. Sometimes they get so focused on the terrain that they lose sight of the needs of the team.”
Work strategically to fill a range of roles: sweeper (bring up the rear), leader (open to collaboration), aid station (carry water and fuel), inspiration/motivation (remember an inspirational quote), or ask what does your crew actually want and need.
Running and racing is not simply about how fast you are. It’s who you are when you do it.
Elizabeth Carey is a writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington. Her first book, Girls Running, is available now.