STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Tradition starts before the sun is fully awake. It starts on a dirt road and far away from the comforts of home.
Every summer for the past five years, the Rock Canyon High School cross country team has nearly doubled its altitude. Head coach Dan Davies and former assistant coach Alan Lind plan a weekend retreat, where the team hikes, bonds -- and runs.
"Every year, we pick about 25 of our top kids, and kids who work real hard during the summer, and we do a three day camp," Davies said. "Kids work really hard in cross country, so this is kind of our reward to get them up to some beautiful runs in the mountains, and do some team bonding and some training."
"Summer training can get really hard," junior Derek Fearon said. "Coming to this camp gives a lot of motivation. You have a lot of team building activities, there's a lot of team bonding that happens that makes it much more worthwhile to keep training through the rest of the summer."
The team convenes in the high school parking lot at 6 a.m. -- a dark and early wake up call when you consider it's summer break. Even still, Davies tries to keep summer practices around 7 a.m., so the alarms on this Thursday morning felt more like sleeping in.
"You know in the morning, the kids are kind of half-asleep," Davies said with laugh. "They're teenagers."
But they are quickly to wake up when the mountains come into view. Day one kicks off with a hike up Berthoud Pass -- a four hour excursion to get the blood flowing.
"You don't get to see [the views] a lot when you're down in Highlands Ranch, so when you come up here, it's really pretty," senior Brooke Washburn said.
"Right when we break the tree line on the way up, that's when you really get to get a good view of all of the mountains," runner Carson Timmons said. "It's kind of the first time during the hike when everything is open and it's open air, and you can see everything."
A run in Steamboat Springs is looming next, and it's there on the downhill drive that the bigger picture is starting to take shape. That's because for just over 50 hours, the only company the Jags will have -- is each other. The team makes camp at Coach Lind's retirement home in Steamboat Springs, and over the span of the next three days, the group will put in more than 30 miles of high altitude running. That's in addition to down time, team cookouts and activities in the mountain town. The phones are put away, and the student-athletes are left with each other -- the perfect recipe for bonding.
"We have to talk, we have to play games," Fearon said. "[Friday] we have five hours to do whatever we want in the town, to hang out as a team."
That team bond has become more and more prominent over time. Last fall, Rock Canyon placed in the top three at the state meet, for both the boys' and girls' teams. For the boys, it was their second straight top three finish.
"Cross country may seem like an individual sport, but really you depend on those six other guys," Fearon said. "The only way we were able to finish top three these past two years, we needed those other guys to step up. The only way we can really rely on each other is to get those bonds early. We want to be friends here."
"They become a really tight group [on the trip]," Davies added. "I always tell parents who are new to the sport, these are the greatest kids to coach. They really take care of each other, they support each other and push each other. And this is another way of just spending some time together and once again, bonding with each other."
The bond that eventually carries Rock Canyon over the finish line at the state meet in October is the same one that's solidified on these mountain trails in July. The three day camps concludes with a goal-setting session, where the Jags share their individual and team hopes for the upcoming season.
"Physically, we do some hard runs, but most definitely, the mental part about thinking of that state meet, thinking about the big competitions, starts right here," Fearon said.
Just as this camp has become a custom, so too, has the culture of winning. The Jags are using their past achievements to propel them to future successes.
"We're going to continue to do this, the bar is set high now thanks to the kids before you the last few years. So there is tradition here," Davies said.