GREENFIELD — Start with a scenic tour of the vastness and distinct terrain of the American West.
Add some training runs in the mountains, and four days of camp instruction from a head coach in the Pac-12 Conference.
It all made for an adventure of a lifetime for six Nodaway Valley cross country runners and their coach, Darrell Burmeister.
Burmeister drove all of the nearly 3,000 miles logged on the rented Suburban for the eight-day excursion that began July 26.
The “hook” in this unusually long trip just to attend a college camp is University of Utah cross country coach Kyle Kepler, a Webster City native who formerly coached the University of Northern Iowa Panthers.
That’s where Burmeister met Kepler.
“When I took Megan Winkelmann and Connie Eshelman to the UNI camp in the 2001 to 2003 time period, I met coach Kepler and we kept in touch over the years,” Burmeister said.
Last fall, after a talented Nodaway Valley team sent individuals to the state meet — including all-stater Destiny Scar — and nearly sent the boys team to state from a rugged qualifying meet, Burmeister saw Kepler’s camp brochure online.
The wheels started turning, figuratively, for a trip that could be both educational and beneficial to his top athletes.
“Last fall we talked about it,” Burmeister said, “and I wanted to help them out (financially) with it. Well, my tax returns didn’t come back the way I had hoped, and I kind of decided we couldn’t do it.”
Steve and Karen Downing, parents of Wolverine runner Heath Downing, stepped up to make it happen.
“Heath said, ‘we’re going.’ The Downing family approached me and helped out tremendously in covering expenses,” Burmeister said. “They were very generous.”
The participants were responsible only for their food and any souvenirs purchased along the way. No worries about lodging or transportation costs.
Burmeister rented a Suburban and negotiated overnight stays that never exceeded $100 per person, per night.
“I have a teacher discount card. And, I spoke very friendly on the telephone,” he said, chuckling.
Joining Burmeister were junior Nathan Venteicher, sophomore Brayten Funke, sophomore Shane Breheny, freshman Brycen Wallace, Downing and Scar.
The instruction at a Division I camp would not be wasted. These are all accomplished runners.
Breheny was second at the state qualifying meet and placed 31st in the state cross country meet. Funke was eighth at the state qualifier and ran 24th at state. Scar was a medal winner, taking eighth in the girls state meet.
Downing was fourth at the state qualifying meet and ran 51st at state. Venteicher, the team’s number four runner, placed 19th at the state qualifying meet. Wallace went to the state meet to watch as an eighth-grader, and immediately upon returning to Greenfield started running and training for this season.
“He’s been running ever since,” Burmeister joked. “He’s our — Run Forest, Run! — guy.”
So, it was no surprise to the Wolverine head coach that his runners claimed many of the top positions in camp time trials at the invitational camp.
“Of the 47 kids, I had five of the top seven kids there,” Burmeister said. “I was impressed with our kids, but I knew what I was bringing out there, too.”
The camp was a mix of runners from western states and Iowans from Webster City and Nodaway Valley. Webster City’s longtime coach, Tony Bussan, was Kepler’s high school coach and annually sends runners to Kepler’s camp.
“Elko, Nevada has a really good team and they had kids there,” Burmeister said. “There was a Utah kid who ran 15:55. The competition was good, but our kids represented themselves, and Nodaway Valley, really well.”
Not bad for a bunch of Midwest prairie runners whose bodies were not accustomed to the rarefied air of altitude running, which ranged from 5,500 feet to 7,000 feet along the Wasatch Range of the Salt Lake City area. The campers toured some of the Olympic venues from the 2002 Winter Games, and stayed in housing developed in preparation for that event.
“They ran 1,000s the day they were at Park City,” Burmeister said, “and the Pipeline Trail run was challenging. It’s a nine-mile trail at the highest altitude they ran.”
Along that run, Venteicher found another gear when he and a runner from Webster City encountered a rattlesnake.
“We ran right over the top of it after we heard it rattling!” Venteicher said. “Your ears would pop on the way up. In a workout, you could breathe, but it was harder to get air in your lungs. But there was no humidity at all. It was nice weather, except for when it rained, when it was freezing.”
The Pipeline trail was unlike any training run they’re going to encounter in rural Adair County.
“On your right is a giant mountain,” Venteicher said, “and on your left is like a 1,500-foot drop. It’s a single lane trail.”
All of the participants said they improved as runners through participation in the camp, but that was just a small part of what they gained from the experience.
Burmeister had a detailed, day-by-day itinerary (see related story) for the trip, which included historic stops such as the Mitchell Corn Palace, Wall Drug, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Black Hills National Forest and Sturgis.
And that’s just the South Dakota part!
There was also plenty to see in Wyoming, including the scenic byway from Saratoga to Centennial in the Snowy Range of Medicine Bow National Forest. For one thing, the coal mines and oil fields made it apparent Wyoming is the energy hub of the United States, Burmeister said.
“When you have a history teacher with you, you’ll tour around a lot at those things,” Funke said, smiling.
“The landscape changed pretty dramatically on the way out there,” Breheny said. “Devil’s Tower was real neat. You could go hiking up to Mount Rushmore and get really close.”
“I thought there were going to be towns along the way like Iowa,” Scar said. “But you’d drive miles and miles. You’d see signs saying 200 miles to the next town!”
Scar also had another unique experience.
“I got kicked by a wild donkey at Custer State Park,” she said.
Bound and determined to see wild buffalo, Burmeister drove 90 miles through the park until finally getting some photographed far across an open prairie.
On the University of Utah campus, they also enjoyed the scenery.
“It was walking distance from the campus, so we sat on the top of the hills watching Carlos Santana give an outdoor concert,” Burmeister related. “Then on our way back on the (mass transit train) from the Salt Lake City minor league baseball game, we were on the subway with fans coming back from the Ted Nugent concert. That was interesting.”
“One night when we were coming back down the hill the city lights went on, and that was pretty cool,” Scar said.
Four of the participants who met with the News Advertiser Wednesday afternoon gave their personal highlights from the trip.
Scar — “I think finding out that I’m pretty good, and meeting new people and actually getting to go to a national camp.”
Funke — “Just the camp and meeting all of those different people and running with them.”
Breheny — “Being together with my teammates on vacation.”
Venteicher — “Just the experience you’ll never forget, to take that trip with a second family.”
And, as for Burmeister, there wasn’t a singular highlight.
“I enjoyed every second of it,” he said.