Conquering the mountain

Washougal runners embrace the adventure at Steens Mountain

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The Washougal cross country runners arrive at the Steens Mountain Running Camp. Pictured (left to right): Darian Tierney, Danny Riat, Sean Eustis, Isaac Stinchfield, Brooke Croeni, Kendall Utter and Dylan McNeil. Not pictured: Collin Manning.

Far away from civilization, six Washougal Panthers and two Canyon Creek Cougars spent the week of July 17 to 23 conquering the eye-opening challenges of the Steens Mountain Running Camp, in Burns, Ore.

“You are out there for six days without a cell phone or electricity,” said senior Kendall Utter. At first, I didn’t think I could go without those things for so long, but eventually I just forgot all about it.

“It was good because you got the chance to meet new people,” she added. “It was actually kind of peaceful without the every day distractions.”

The camp is designed to give trail blazers, ages 13 to 19, a realistic wilderness running and camping experience. All elements of training and racing are focused on improving performance through self reliance, personal accountability and teamwork strategies.

“It was like nothing I have ever experienced before,” Utter said. “When you’re out there on the mountain like that, there’s no turning back. You have to find a way to push through the pain and keep going.

“You really learn a lot about yourself, and how to deal with different situations in the wilderness,” she added. “For Cross Canyon, you’re out there with 20 girls you don’t know and you all have to hold hands and cross the finish line together. You all have to work as a team to make it to the end, and that teaches you a lot of life lessons.”

Fellow Washougal cross country runners Sean Eustis, Danny Riat, Isaac Stinchfield and Darian Tierney joined Utter at the camp, along with Collin Manning and Dylan McNeil of Canyon Creek. Eustis was the only one of the eight who had been to the camp before. He knew his job was to encourage his teammates every step of the way.

“On Cross Canyon, a couple of guys had a hard time at the beginning. It was my job to push them up the mountain,” Eustis said. “I hate to be the one to do that, but I knew it would make these guys better because of it. When we all got to the top, they thanked me.”

The way back down was twice as fun.

“We’re running through all of this sagebrush, and our legs are getting all scratched up,” Eustis said. “The only thing keeping us going is that adrenaline rush.”

It took even more adrenaline to complete the “Big Day” hike, but Eustis was up to it.

“After Big Day, I have to say that no obstacle will ever be too big for me,” he said. “I ran 33 miles in below 33-degree weather. I had never been so miserable and so cold. I came back from that thinking ‘what now world, what next?'”

Utter, Croeni and their Tent 9 teammates from Idaho, Oregon and Washington finished first in the Steens Mountain Olympic Games. The girls were awarded with Nike backpacks and hats.

Utter threw herself into the tug of war with a big smile on her face. She also enjoyed the scenery during her 28-mile run on “Big Day.”

“About 12 miles into the hike, there was all of this snow and glaciers,” Utter said. “It didn’t even look like Oregon. It was almost like being in another country.”

Last week, the Panthers were back to running in the friendly confines of Fishback Stadium and the streets of Washougal. Eustis hopes they can sink their teeth into more hardware this fall. Conquering Steens Mountain is just the beginning.

“A week up there is long enough, but I already want to go back,” he said. “So what if I have to sleep on the ground instead of in my bed. It’s so comfortable being away from the city and the lights with your teammates in complete wilderness.”

View the camp photo gallery: