Davis: A trip to Tollgate includes a visit with regional prep athletes

More than 100 high school athletes participate in a summer cross country camp at Tollgate hosted by Wa-Hi.

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Nora joins some campers seeking solitude at the camp.

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Runners can complete with paddles on the water, as well as trails, at the recent Tollgate Distance Runner's Camp.

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Puddles remain on some trails, although Nora the Schnauzer isn't able to join the runners.

As a rule, four-footed critter tracks indent the dusty back roads in the Tollgate area: squirrels and deer, a scattering of opossums, raccoons, skunks and turkeys.

The occasional cluster of elk. The rare black bear.

And so on.

During the fourth annual Tollgate Distance Runners Camp, however, 100-plus area high-school track and cross-country bipeds left running-shoe imprints on the mountain.

Nora the Schnauzer and I observed the runners line up for camp's initial roadwork on June 23.

Camp founder, director and Wa-Hi cross country coach Mike Locati cautioned the athletes about the thin air at "6,000 feet altitude," about 5,000 feet higher than Walla Walla.

"Run out for a distance you feel comfortable with and back," Locati said. "If you make the loop, it's about seven miles."

Then 105 campers and a dozen coaches and volunteers scampered along a spur road near Bald Mountain.

They started with a surge. I followed in the rig and parked near a mud puddle. A few runners eventually returned, casting reflections on the brown water.

Some stopped to rub Nora's ears.

After the run, Nora and I visited the TDRC's first-day meeting at the Meadowood Speech and Hearing Camp off of Oregon Highway 204.

We waited as campers grouped for a welcoming presentation by co-director Jake Puzey. Two stopped to meet Nora because one had a Schnauzer at home.

Stephanie Rexus and Michelle Fletcher run successfully at Kamiakin High in Kennewick. They compete in events ranging from the 400 meters to the 3,200. Both have competed at district and regional.

Rexus will be a senior next fall. Fletcher will be a junior.

They attended the camp develop their skills, try new runs and meet new people.

I also spoke briefly with Walla Walla runners Ruben Avalos, Samuel Callan, Michael Anderson and Tyler Morrison.

Then Puzey explained the camp rules: including the Big No. 1: No boys in the girls' cabins and vice-versa.

He also explained how the campers should handle the temporary absence of water at the camp, including in latrines (a broken pump motor would be repaired soon).

After the meeting, campers loaded a bus, vans and cars and rode to the running site near Mount Baldy.

They returned to Meadowood for lunch and free time before the afternoon clinic session and camp challenge.

Nora and I wandered to the pond, near the boathouse, to watch campers relax.

Nora made quick friends, and I spoke with Wa-Hi's Kayla Leinweber and her new acquaintance, Summer Flowers, the team captain at Pasco.

Leinweber, a senior, has played volleyball for five years and wants to get in shape and run next year.

"It should be fun," she said about the camp.

Flowers, who has competed sixth grade, aimed to learn new workouts to pass on to her teammates.

We also watched runners paddle canoes, dangle feet in the water and ponder nature. One picked up a garter snake but blost it in the water.

Runners from area schools including Wa-Hi, Waitsburg, Kamiakin, Southridge, Hanford, Hermiston and La Grande participated in the camp.

The 2011 camp consisted of two sessions. One from Monday until Thursday. The other, a more intense experience initiated this year, ran Thursday through Sunday.

Locati said the camp helps runners develop more than their running skills.

The website www.tollgaterun.com explains, "TDRC is designed to be a motivating experience."

Locati described this year as another success.

"We have had very positive feedback form parents and athletes," he said. "It was our fourth year, and it has grown. We started with 30 athletes, then 65, then 95 and 105 this year."

This camp's second, more intense session featured 25 highly self-motivated runners.

"It‘s not based on a runner‘s speed but on his or her dedication to personal goals. You don't have to push these athletes," Locati said. "They take the initiative."

Locati said the TDRC concepts developed from a close relationship between a group of area coaches and athletes, and they plan for the program to continue as long as it meets the needs of area athletes.

"We have (Meadowood) booked for the next five years," Locati said. "We are at our maximum capacity, however, since the speech and hearing camp takes up most of July. Also, we try to cater to the teams that have been in the program," he added.

Locati said that within a few weeks the TDRC website will be updated with photos from this years camp and information about next year.

And, if all goes well, running shoes will be tracking the dusty Tollgate area trails for years to come.

For more information about the distance runners' camp at Meadowood, go to www.tollgaterun.com. For information about the Meadowood Speech and Hearing Camp, including how to rent the facility, Google: Meadowood Speech and Hearing Camp.

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