Running Camp Goes The Distance During COVID, Raising Funds For Two Wilton Organizations

Dhruv Rokkam (pictured above) is a Wilton High School rising junior, varsity cross country and track runner, and now, successful camp organizer.

Rokkam was the student leader of a running camp for middle-school students that kicked off June 29 and just concluded last week (albeit prematurely, thanks to Tropical Storm Isaias).

The avid long-distance runner was inspired to share his love and knowledge of running with younger students and provide them with an opportunity for fitness. He hopes more people will begin to view track and cross country running as the sport it truly is, and not merely as off-season training for athletes playing other sports.

Rokkam found the ideal partner for the camp in Wilton’s Trackside Teen Center. Though he also approached other organizations with his running camp concept, Rokkam said, “Trackside responded first. They really believed in the idea.”

Dr. John Priest, a Middlebrook School teacher and Trackside’s director of programming, explained that the running camp was a good addition to other offerings already in the works at Trackside.

“We [Trackside] spent a good part of June coordinating with the state and town health departments to put together three [summer] camps… We then added the running and fitness camp that [Dhruv] wanted to run for younger kids to get them interested [in running].”

The program was a win/win for both Trackside, which has recently faced serious budget issues, and Back The Track, a campaign to raise the funds to replace the deteriorating track at Wilton High School. Of the profits from the camp, 75% will benefit Trackside, while 25% will support Back The Track.

Priest noted it was the students who were instrumental in supporting Back The Track. “The high school students asked not to be paid, but to have some of the money go towards Back The Track. We thought that was wonderful and will be making sure 25% of collected fees go to [that] cause.”

Running A Running Camp

Running outdoors is considered a low-risk activity during the coronavirus pandemic.  According to the CIAC, which classified sports and activities according to the potential risk of infection, cross country running is in the “lower risk” category, because it “can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment.”

Still, to operate the camp safely, Rokkam and Trackside had to meet strict safety protocols. Although the camp was exempt from licensing requirements by the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, Trackside’s website offered the following assurance at signup: “Camps will follow and in some cases exceed the OEC Youth Camp and Child Care Center COVID-19 guidelines and requirements.”

Rokkam designed the workouts with less experienced runners in mind, modifying some of the training plans he had previously followed himself under the guidance of seasoned coaches.

In addition to teaching the importance of proper stretching and warmups, workouts were varied to include long runs, hill sprints, and track workouts. Rokkam mentioned that workouts were individually tailored to runners after an assessment of their ability on the first day of camp.

Each day of camp also included a team-building activity and a non-running activity, such as strength training, to complement the running regimen, often in a fun way. Campers were rewarded at the end of each week with a visit to Scoops.

Success Factors

Upfront planning was the first key to success.

“Trackside was really helpful,” said Rokkam. “A week before the camp, all volunteers were trained on safety protocols. The only time we could take off masks was [when we were] outside and running.”

In addition to good planning, Rokkam credited the camp’s success to a group of enthusiastic volunteers and community members.

Wilton High School student volunteers included J.B. Russo, Rubin Jha, Johan Prince, Vishnu Duriseti, Edwin Gregory and Matt Whitman. These student-athletes, representing a number of different sports, participated in the safety training day before camp began, and served as “mentors” to younger campers, leading warmups, pacing them, offering support and encouragement, and ensuring their safety during the camp.

The camp also featured a number of adult volunteers who were guest speakers on subjects such as injury prevention, nutrition, sportsmanship, and other topics. These adult volunteers included Monica Jain, Ashok Jha, Balraj Suneja, Tanu Suneja, Jung Soo Kim, Deepak Yinti and Sirisha Yalamanchili.

Runners could sign up for the program on a weekly basis; Rokkam pointed to the number of returning campers as one measure of the camp’s success. “We had a lot of repeat campers,” said Rokkam. “We had friend groups that kept coming back or someone who came back with a friend the next week.”

Unexpected Obstacles

While the threat of COVID-19 proved to be manageable during the camp, Mother Nature decided to throw a few more obstacles into the runners’ path.

Week four of the camp brought brutally high temperatures, even in the morning hours. Rokkam was advised by Trackside to keep campers home to avoid dehydration, heat exhaustion, or other issues related to exertion in high heat.

Camp resumed as soon as temperatures moderated, but Mother Nature still had one more trick up her sleeve, and it was a doozy. Tropical Storm Isaias struck Wilton on Tuesday, Aug. 4, during the final week of camp, forcing it to close for the remainder of the week.

The premature closing was a disappointment but did not detract from the overall success of the camp. In fact, Rokkam expects the camp to be offered again next summer, and possibly sooner, hinting that a program might be offered this winter “if indoor sports don’t work out [due to COVID-19]”.

Personal Best

Rokkam reflected on the sense of accomplishment that came through the experience.  “Every kid left [camp] knowing they improved. And it boosted my confidence too. I know I can make a difference in my community.”