It’s 4:30 PM in Ocean City, New Jersey.
The afternoon sun stains the clear sky like a broken egg yolk, engulfing the horizon in an orange hue. A 15-passenger van careens down East Atlantic Boulevard towards the northern edge of the island, eventually stopping under Longport Bridge. Like sardines bursting from a can, over twenty shirtless runners spill out of the van before treading toward the beach.
Welcome to the jetty run.
Twenty minutes later, I’m jogging along the shoreline in a tight, two-by-two formation of teammates that snakes its way down the island. Shouting military cadences as we run and sporting a massive flag that bares the Wyomissing logo, we capture the curiosity of an emptying beach as we run past.
But the real fun begins at each jetty.
Push-ups, planks, scissor kicks and squats — my teammates and I strain during each exercise performed in the crashing surf. After a few miles, we wearily meander back to Delancey Manor for dinner.
Under the helm of head coach Tim Hetrich, the Wyomissing Cross Country program has embarked on a weeklong beach camp each summer in what has become a program tradition lasting over twenty years. Beach camp is both the reward for building summer base mileage and an advertisement that attracts newcomers to the team, but more than anything else, this blissful week stresses one overlooked aspect of running: team bonding.
What results is an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts; an experience that transforms teammates into family.
It’s 9:30 AM in Atlantic City.
After the thirty-minute van ride to Gardner’s Basin, our sluggish bodies warm up by the bay before peeling off by skill group. The first half of the week leaves us feeling tired, but there’s excitement nonetheless about the five miles to come. Even in the haze of the overcast morning, the Atlantic City boardwalk pops with vibrant storefronts and towering casinos.
We can’t help but marvel at the amusement park that juts out onto a massive pier, the architecture of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum, or the hungover gamblers that occupy several benches. While we stretch by the beach post-run, our coach tells us about an alum who snuck into the Tropicana and won the jackpot during this same run fifteen years ago.
In a sport dominated by individual times and awards, it’s easy to forget the importance of team culture.
“You’ll quit on yourself before you quit on your teammates” is a phrase often repeated by our coach, but this notion only holds true in a tight-knit team built upon a foundation of trust and friendship.
Over the five years that I’ve attended beach camp, I’ve strengthened my bonds with my closest friends and befriended teammates that I otherwise wouldn’t have familiarized myself with. Spending a week living with your team forges relationships that individual summer miles cannot, making beach camp a cornerstone of Wyomissing’s preseason program.
It’s 3:30 PM at Corson’s Inlet State Park.
I’m stumbling over my words as I try to convince the judges that the massive mound of sand before me looks exactly like Darth Vader’s helmet. After splitting into teams of five, we’ve spent the last hour toiling away with shovels and buckets under the intense afternoon sun in an attempt to win this year’s sandcastle building competition. After each team is done presenting their masterpiece, we cool off in the shallow bay while coaches and visiting alumni make their final judgements. The sting of a second place finish was fortunately quelled by the delectable Manco & Manco pizza for dinner that night.
In a small town in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Wyomissing is nestled in a runner’s paradise. In our own backyard, a gorgeous recipe of grassy rolling hills, crushed stone pathways and lofty pinewood forests comprise of a park system seemingly designed for distance running. A nearby array of interconnected trails weaving along Blue Marsh, Gring’s Mill and the Schuylkill River also provide an accessible variety of ideal training routes.
But it begs the question — why would we flock to the roads and boardwalks of Ocean City, New Jersey for a preseason camp?
It’s 11:00 PM in the living room of Delancey Manor.
Tired from the thrilling week we shared together, my teammates and I congregate for our last meeting before we leave tomorrow morning. As is tradition, our coach produces a ball of yarn and begins to unravel it while explaining the rules: each of us must toss the yarn to someone else after sharing some reflective words about the week. The shrinking ball of yarn slowly makes its way around the room, accompanied by kind words and memories formed by old and new friends alike. When the yarn’s voyage finally ends in the hands of our coach, it leaves behind an intricate web of connections that weaves through the fingers of each of my teammates.
It’s nearly impossible to do beach camp justice from just a few memories splashed onto a page, but each morsel of this experience reminds me of just how lucky Wyomissing cross country is to have this opportunity.
Our coach is correct in saying that the running quality in New Jersey is a notch lower than what we’re used to back home, but that’s not what makes this experience worth it. Because when we toe the line in championship season, our nerves are calmed by a solidarity that can’t be faked. Trust radiates from one teammate to the next within the confines of a crammed starting box, and belief trumps anxiety.
We’re held together as one by an imaginary web of yarn, and we have beach camp to thank for that.