Professional ultrarunner Max King stood before his group of protégés, somewhere east of the Menagerie Wilderness Area in Central Oregon. It was day four of The Max King Trail Running Camp, and the group of campers had already run and hiked 17 miles since their 7 a.m. call time.

Before dusk they would cover almost 25 miles and gain more than 7,000 feet along the Crescent Mountain Trail ridge line toward Three Pyramids. The last few miles would wind off trail, requiring runners to lift tired legs through an underbrush of manzanita and snowbrush.

They strapped on running vests holding water bladders and plenty of snacks. Their shoes featured a thick midsole and grippy tread. King, who wore an all-black ensemble that included a GoPro, satellite radio and a sheriff’s badge, looked like a trail-running superhero.

“Onward, through the woods, to death-defying cliffs!” King said, raising a fist in the air.

The camp, now in its second year, is a four-night, five-day ultrarunning camp that covers 55 miles and helps runners hone compass-and-map orienteering, learn about trail maintenance and now, on this penultimate day, push themselves to their physical limits.

“The true adventure starts with the off-trail bushwhack!” King declared. The nine campers laughed and shook out their legs — this was exactly what they had signed up for.

The Max King Trail Running Camp is one of a handful of multi-day trail running camps in the Pacific Northwest, which includes the two-night Mazama Ultra Running Camp, co-led by Bend pro ultrarunner Jeff Browning, near Mt. Hood. King partially modeled his camp after the Steens Mountain High Altitude Running Camp, which is geared toward teens. King attended the camp as a high school athlete and later as an adult counselor.

King has compiled an impressive race résumé as a professional runner. He has won both the International Association of Ultrarunners 100K World Championships in 2014 and the USA Track and Field 50K men’s Trail Championships this year. He also holds a camp for teens at Mount Hood. King’s annual trail running camps are in their second year.

The adult camp is situated at Suttle Lake Camp United Methodist, where attendees bunk in cabins, enjoy catered meals and sit in on local experts’ seminars dedicated to trail maintenance and etiquette, dietary planning, wilderness preparation and map-and-compass orienteering. Admission ranges from $1,100 for early birds to $1,400. King, 37, said he wanted to create a camp for adults to help them spend more time outdoors and in the wilderness.

“I want people to feel comfortable without the fear of being lost or being all alone without the right gear,” he said. He also wanted to inspire the trail stewardship that is common among the mountain biking community.

“We wanted to instill (that stewardship) to the trail running crowd so they know they’re aware people work to maintain these trials,” King said. “It’s important we chip in and do our part as well.”

Chasing insight

Roughly half of the campers, whose ages ranged from early 20s to late 50s, were women. Nationally, nearly one third of ultramarathon runners are women, a population that has doubled in the past 25 years, according to The New York Times. At King’s camp, the runners brought ample running experience — all have run marathons or longer — yet each sought to address an ailment or deficiency that had nagged his or her previous efforts — or might hamper future ones.

Sarah Davidson, 23, of Alexandra, New Zealand, incorporated King’s camp into a monthlong adventure through the West Coast. The farthest-flung camper, Davidson said she got into ultrarunning a year ago as a way to break up many sedentary study hours she spent while finishing up college. Davidson’s ultrarunning efforts, which have included a couple 50K races this year, have inflamed her iliotibial band — the connective tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh, from the pelvis to the tibia, crossing the hip and knee joints. She battled its pain throughout the camp, particularly while running downhill. King showed Davidson how to work out her hips by using her elbows as massage tools.

“If you stay in the sport you get (every ailment), and you learn to work through them with things like self-massage. Runners’ bodies always take a lot of maintenance to stay healthy,” King said.

Davidson also hoped to fine tune her technique while running down technical, uneven terrain such as rocks and roots. King instructed campers to keep their form and body aligned, and that strength training is a great way to retain form, which optimizes the efficiency of joints and muscles during exhausting descents. Nice short strides and keeping feet underneath one’s body weight are key. It is also important to land on the balls of one’s feet and not put all of one’s weight on an object that appears slippery or in a layer of snow that may conceal potentially ankle-rolling rocks.

“It’s a bit like downhill mountain biking,” Davidson said.

For Leif Evensen, 28, of Madison, Wisconsin, who finished each of the camp’s trail runs well ahead of the others, his takeaway was simply learning how to stretch after runs.

“You strike me as the run-and-sit kind of runner,” said Kari Strang, the camp co-director, after Evensen trotted up to the van shuttle, deep in the woods. He had just completed King’s prescribed near-marathonlong hike and trail run. The single track was woven with roots and, along the ridge of Crescent Mountain, already dusted in snow. Evensen, who travels to Bend once a month for work, winced and nodded. As King had shown him, he settled into a crouching stretch that worked his calves and hamstrings as he twisted his torso. Evensen wants to ensure he can race well, not only in a 50K race later this month but well into the future. Strang, 45, toiled behind the scenes at the camp while wearing a plastic foot brace, the result of a trail running injury while logging 55- to 75-mile weeks.

“I told my 12-year-old that spending the week at the trail running camp was like standing in a candy store while talking about candy but not being able to eat any. He said, ‘Oh, Mom that’s terrible,’” she said with a laugh.

During downtime between driving a vehicle between the runners’ various checkpoints and communicating with King via radio, Strang set up a new road bicycle on a trainer and spun.

“Watching the campers have these experiences and adventures every week was really rewarding,” she said. “Growth happens outside the comfort zone. They realize they’re capable of more than they thought. It’s really exciting to see.”

Youthful adventure

John Swenson, 59, of Bend, has attended King’s camp both years. A Ridgeview High School track coach, Swenson swears he is not an ultrarunner, although he did ring in his 50th birthday by running 50 miles. Nonetheless, the 25-mile day — in which campers “power hiked” up inclines and ran on flats and descents — “loomed large” on Swenson’s horizon.

“What I took away was how great our local trails are if you’re willing to explore a little further than Phil’s Trail network or those along the Cascade Lakes Highway. There are so many great trails out there,” he said, rattling off Pyramid Peak and the Metolius and McKenzie River trails, whose trailheads are a little more than an hour’s drive from Bend.

“The camp was like the trail running version of what mountain bike guide companies do,” he said. “The daily runs and the bushwhacking were the best part. I felt like I was a high school cross-country runner all over again, out on an adventure with my friends.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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