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Bound by adversity

Steens Mountain Camp leaves runners with lasting impressions and lessons from high-altitude Oregon

August 13, 2005

The Steens Mountain Running Camp started 30 years ago when Harland Yriarte took a group of runners from Brookings-Harbor High School into mountains of Southeast Oregon for high-altitude training. That year the runners won the 1975 state cross-country title and the Steens Camp was born.

Last week, 30 years after the first batch of young runners seared their lungs in the summer sun and 7,600-plus foot elevation, Hood River Valley cross-country runners Anthony Walden, Leo Castillo and Alex VanSlyke tested themselves under the same outrageous running conditions. Coach Kristin Uhler joined the boys for the week.

“The main goal for the Steens Camp is to prepare runners for the upcoming cross-country season and for life’s difficulties in general,” Uhler said. “The idea is that after they experience Steens, the season won’t seem as difficult.”

Cross-country is a grueling sport. A camp that can make a 3-month season of strenuous and exhausting running seem “not so bad” must truly test and push beyond the perceived limits individual runners have for themselves.

On day two of the camp, runners experience “The Big Day”, which starts at 7 a.m. and ends after 21 miles of hiking, climbing, and running in steep, hot, dusty conditions to a peak altitude of 9,100 feet. At one point in the day, campers run 60-second run/60-second walk increments for eight miles up Blitzen Gorge.

“Cross-country is not an easy sport,” said Uhler. “Every time an athlete jumps on the starting line to race, an internal battle begins. It’s easy to just “give up” when it’s hot, hilly, or there is tough competition.”

Yriarte, the camp director and owner, comes from a long line of Basque sheepherders. His father and grandfather worked the Steens in the late 1800s and into the 1930s.

“Harland draws parallels between life and running,” Uhler commented. “He explains that there will always be challenges in life (job, marriage, death) and how one handles these challenges parallels how an athlete will compete in a race. He believes that high school runners should be prepared and confident as runners and as young people. He draws many parallels between running and life. ”

A major emphasis in the camp is teaching appreciation for nature and the value of experiencing it firsthand. This year’s group of 150 kids camped in large tents next to Fish Lake.

“Humans illicit an emotional response to nature and wilderness,” Uhler said. “The idea is to have young people experience nature in order to appreciate it. The athletes are educated on “leave no trace” camping ethics and respect for nature is instilled.”

One of Uhler’s fondest memories of her 15-or-so years of attending the camp is the 1992 girls’ cross-country team that went on that year to win the 3-A state title. The girls were Laura Murphy, Katie Brumbaugh, Rhonda Harder, Katie Donahue, Kerry Perkins, Lena Brainard, Heather Laurance, Carey Nelson and Tara Brown.

“When difficulty is experienced together a team bonds forever … I know their competitive running experience affected them deeply in a positive way,” Uhler said.

Walden, Castillo and VanSlyke will test their Steens effect during the upcoming cross-country season, which officially starts practice on August 22.

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