By David Rogers. July 23, 2014. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Like the Energizer bunny, they keep going and going and going. Such is the fate of the long distance, cross country runner — and Blowing Rock hosts an increasing number of aspiring cross country champions every year.
On any particular mid-summer day, dozens and sometimes scores of high school and college athletes can be found zipping around Bass Lake or pounding up and down the carriage trails of the Cone Manor Estate — sometimes to the consternation of local residents who use the trails for their daily exercise regimens.
A common complaint is that the high school runners, especially, are rude, unfriendly, even arrogant in their disrespect of other people using the trails and the fact that Cone Manor and the Parkway are protected environments.
One local resident speaking on condition of anonymity observed to Blowing Rock News, "They're probably good kids, but most have very little respect for the people who live here and the fact that this is a national park, not their own private training facility. Most don't even say 'hi' or smile at you. Some have even gone so far as to paint marks on the trees to indicate their distance intervals! They don't seem to understand the concept of 'share the road' and that Bass Lake and Cone Manor are parts of a publicly-owned, taxpayer-supported national park, the Blue Ridge Parkway."
"There is one group, though," the resident continued, "that seems to go out of its way to be nice, to say 'hi', and the kids understand that this is a national park. They understand that it is a privilege for them to run here. I have never spoken with them except to say 'hi' on the trails, but I have seen their van and seen them wearing T-shirts that read, 'Blowing Rock Trails Camp.' Compared to so many of the others, they are a blessing."
Blowing Rock News caught up with Peter Mirones, the head coach and owner of Blowing Rock Trails Camp this week, to learn more about this special group of runners and his program. Most are from where he lives and coaches in Tampa, Florida.
After all the hill work, running in the flatlands is a piece of cake.
"I love Blowing Rock," Mirones said in an interview at Bass Lake, smiling. "We don't want to be one of those groups that the locals hate to see invade these hallowed grounds," Mirones told Blowing Rock News on Tuesday. "This is a special place and that is something that shouldn't be taken for granted."
Mirones first started bringing cross country runners to train in the High Country as early as 1983, when then University of South Florida coach Bob Raymond would hold a high school camp in the High Country. Sometimes it would be at least loosely affiliated with the AppState camp run by Director of Track & Field and Cross Country, John Weaver, and Head Coach of the Mountaineer cross country team, Michael Curcio.
"Over the years, I have kept bringing athletes back to Blowing Rock because it is such an ideal preseason training venue," Mirones said. "For many years we stayed in a trailer over in Spruce Pine, and then would come over here to train."
Times change. Four years ago, Mirones formalized his program as the "Blowing Rock Trails Camp", and secured major sponsorship from two former runners, Dr. Jim Evans, now a surgeon in Arlington, Virginia, and Santosh Govindaraju, of the Tampa Investment Group.
For each of the last four years, Mirones has been bringing a group of Tampa area cross country runners to stay at the Blowing Rock Conference Center. The 2014 group is his smallest yet, only six making the approximately 11 hour trip up the mountain from "The Sunshine State".
This year his charges include two young women and four young men. Most are from the same high school, Armwood High, in the northeast quadrant of Tampa. One, a football and baseball convert, has already graduated with plans to be running as a "Warrior" next year, competing for Southern Wesleyan University in Central, South Carolina.
"There is an incentive," Mirones noted, "for these student athletes to come to Blowing Rock to train. In making this commitment, they are demonstrating that they are taking their sport seriously.
"If they are not running through the summer," he added, "they aren't building what we call the distance base that is required to take their running to another level. You have to get the miles in before the season if you want to continually improve your times. The obvious reasons for coming to Blowing Rock are to run longer distances in cooler weather and in a safer environment. From a coaching standpoint, though, there are these nice long hills. Until you get used to them, they are brutal, but after a while they get easier and are a welcome challenge because the students know they are getting better. When you go up, you know you are going to have to come back down and probably go back up again!
I love Blowing Rock.
"Running here allows us to teach the runners how to change gears," Mirones observed. "They learn to go at different paces. They learn to let their legs go on downhills and drive up on the inclines. When all is said and done, it is base training for preseason cross country, for total strength (objectives)..
"The results obviously vary from runner to runner," the longtime coach and former runner admitted, "but they can be dramatic. After the second year I came up here — with the same kids as the first year — our high school's cross country team won the district championships for the first time in school history. The athletes run stronger. Their personal records definitely improve. For a high school runner, it takes 2-3 years to develop consistently with a coach and consistently with a program. The good ones learn that they'll be putting in massive amounts of miles for the distance base during the summer. That's a part of the whole formula. You have to run during the summer. If you don't run during the summer, your season goals may not be met."
Mirones confided that the elevation of Blowing Rock was one factor in his choice of summer training venues, as well as the trails and the accessibility to the trails. "That's an incentive part of the training. They are able to run in cooler weather and do a little bit longer runs instead of worrying about the heat and humidity (in Florida), which will definitely wear down your body. As for the elevation, anything above 3,000 feet helps. When you get to 5,000 feet, that's when you begin to see the benefits of training in our 8-day sessions. The main part of coming to camp here, though, is that you are able to run on some hills. The hills are long and steady and gradual. (Smiling) And there are miles and miles of hills."
The Tampa-based coach reported that his training regimen is about more than just the mileage. "You have to start with building a foundation. You have to build your base first and that is what this camp is about. Sometime in August they'll start doing what we call their 'strength miles', their mile repeats. You have to do those strength miles before going into speed work. We do a sort of speed work (within) the season, where we will do strides in the middle of a distance run."
Mirones noted that both as a competitor in his younger years and as a coach he has studied the art and science of running. "I spent some time with Peter Thompson (the world renowned British-born running coach who has directed many world-class running events, such as the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, and the UK-South Africa Sports Initiative) from Oregon for a week in Daytona Beach this past winter. He showed me that distance runners need to keep their speed training up. In the middle of their distance runs, he'll have them do five to eight, 150 yard strides — just to keep their speed fibers in check, so that they are using something with speed. We'll do a variation of that here today. After their run, we'll have them do 10 strides, looking at their form, making sure they are brushing their shorts, elbows coming close to their hips, driving up with their arms."
Before their long distance run, Mirones also had his athletes doing what he called "A skips" and "B skips." "It is the agility and flexibility portion of our training, before they run," he explained. "It makes them better athletes. It makes them better, more complete runners."
Jacob Rivera, the just-graduated senior (from Armwood) on his way to Southern Wesleyan, is in his third consecutive year of coming to Blowing Rock Trails Camp. He was quick to agree that training in the High Country paid big dividends. "With all the hill work, when we go back down to the flatlands, running is a piece of cake."
Even in an age of text messaging, computer games and X-boxes, it seems that a young person's will to compete, whether against himself or against others is still a mainstay of emerging from adolescence to adulthood. Asked what drives him to run, Rivera didn't hesitate to say, "It's sport. It's competitive. You have to run against all of these other good kids and you never know who is going to be there. Some who you think may not be quite as good come out of nowhere and end up running alongside you. And you never thought for a moment that they would be there. But just like you they are striving. They are pushing hard.
"A lot of it, of course," Rivera added, "is competing against yourself. There's the mental aspect of it, not just the physical. You can have a breakdown mentally where you just don't feel like getting up, but you have to keep pushing forward."
That guy next to you? Just like you they are striving. They are pushing hard.
Rivera shared that he accidently developed a love for running. He was playing football and baseball at a pretty high level, he said, when he was in a car accident. "Some of the injuries were to my shoulders," he said, "and I couldn't throw any more. My baseball coach recommended that I try cross country, where I met Pete (Mirones), who ended up helping me out. I went through a period of real depression because I didn't know what to do. Baseball and football were my passions, and I went through a lot of physical therapy, but the doctors said (my throwing) would never be the same. Because I was good runner in football and baseball, my coaches thankfully guided me to cross country."
A senior at Armwood High in Tampa, Bethine May is hoping that running cross country will lead to a college scholarship. She has her sights on University of South Florida or Florida State University. This is her second consecutive year participating in Blowing Rock Trails Camp. "After running in the mountains, it is a lot easier to run in the flatter terrain of Florida," she admitted.
Asked what got her into running, May explained that she wanted to do a sport, but didn't particularly like softball. "My friend drug me out to cross country. He ended up quitting, but I said, 'You know, I'm pretty good at this. I'm going to keep doing it. You beat your time and that is a sense of accomplishment. I try not to worry about other people. I am mostly competing against myself. I want to improve MY times."
Nicholas Donaghy is also in his second year coming to Blowing Rock. "It's beautiful up here and we have a great coach. After I came up here last year, I definitely got stronger. My first day last year I was struggling on our first run, but this year I felt much better.
"I started running in the 8th grade to lose weight," Donaghy confessed. "I got pretty good at it so I kept going. Running is a great stress reliever. Plus, being on a team is pretty special, tool. We are all pretty close.
"When it comes to racing," Donaghy shared, "I first always try to beat my times. Obviously I want to place and (contribute) to our team's performance, but that first comes with improving on my individual performances. Running is an individual sport, but as a team we all push each other. We are like a family. It is an individual sport, but on another level it is a group effort that makes the individual just that much better."
It's beautiful up here and we have a great coach.
This is Alex Colon's first time at Blowing Rock Trails Camp, "So I've had to adjust to the thinner air. Coming from Florida, which is all pretty much flat, this is a lot different because of the incline. My freshman year I ran track and field, but I didn't know about cross country until my sophomore year. I really enjoy running across different terrain in cross country compared to running around and around and around a track. You get to see stuff in cross country. Your view changes with every step. I'll be a junior this year, but I am definitely coming back to Blowing Rock Trails Camp next year.
"I like the competitive aspect of running," Colon reflected on what drives him to run. Chuckling, he said, "It may be surprising, but I like the way my nerves get before a race."
Keeping it in the family, Pete Mirones' daughter Kristen admits to having a passion for running. "Some people are just run to run, to lose weight, or to exercise. I run because — well, it something you can't really describe. I have a real passion for it.
"I first thought of doing volleyball when I started high school," she reported. "but instead started cross country in 9th grade. That's when I started running. I'll be a senior, so this is my fourth year running in my Dad's Blowing Rock Trails Camp.
"Running is very much a mental sport," she added, "as well as physical. Half the time you are running against yourself, pushing yourself to get through personal challenges. You might not know the course. Sometimes there might be mostly mud or rocks. Then again, you are competing against other people. If you are running in regionals, you have to beat other people if you want to run at the state meet."
Ms. Mirones is already living the popular NCAA advertisement that says 500 student athletes this year will go pro in something other than sports. "I hope to go to college by running cross country," she said, "but I also do culinary. If I could find a college that has both, that would be great. I've looked at Johnson & Wales, but they only have both cross country and culinary in Rhode Island, I think. I don't think I want to go all the way up there. It's too cold in the winter!"
Running is a mental sport.
Brandon Tran will be a senior and 2014 is his first Blowing Rock Trails Camp. "I'm looking to improve my breathing technique with the elevation running, as well as put in the mileage needed to build that distance base. This is actually my first year of running cross country. When I was younger I always enjoyed racing, but I didn't start track until my junior year. After I got into distance running for track, the natural thing was to do cross country, too. (Laughing) I run in the mountains any day over running in circles on a track! Sometimes running track it can feel like you are running faster than on the trails, but there are so many more things to look at, especially up here.
Impressions of Blowing Rock
"Oh man, the people in Blowing Rock are so nice," said Rivera, "and the town is really quiet. This is really relaxing. You can actually just 'chill' and focus on what you are here for."
"I love it," agreed Ms. May. "Blowing Rock is amazing. It is definitely different than what we are used to. You come out here and you see everybody working out or running or walking. In Florida, you don't see that as much."
Blowing Rock is really a very special place.
"This is so different from Florida," the young Mr. Colon added. "I love it, too. In Florida, there is always traffic, so running isn't always safe. Coming here, (Cone Manor Estate) is huge. We haven't run all of the 25-something miles of carriage trails — YET!"
"I've always loved the mountains," said Kristen Mirones. "We used to go to Georgia, and I loved the mountains there. We came here a few years ago, loved it, and that's what got my Dad to want to do a camp here. It is so pretty, with so many trails. It can be very hard because of the altitude and it gets pretty cold sometimes, but what a gift it is to train here in the summer."
"Blowing Rock is amazing," Tran piped in, enthusiastically. "Even the last couple of days when it was 'Foggyland'. We spend at least an hour and a half a day running and training, but that also leaves us with some time to see other parts of the area — and it is really a very special place."