The Summer Training Stint That Forged A Lifelong Fraternity

"Having nine guys in one house who were the best in the country was just unreal." -- Robert DiDonato

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By Cory Mull - MileSplit

For the last half year, a dizzying array of familiar names have dominated headlines in high school and collegiate running, though seemingly not in any connective sort of way.

Colorado teenager Parker Wolfe was the most dominant high school runner in the United States over the cross country season. Alabama prep Ethan Strand was arguably the most impressive indoor runner of 2021.

In recent months, there have been signature moments for Justin Wachtel and Sully Shelton in Georgia, a state championship for Noah Ward in South Carolina, fast times for Robert DiDonato and Colin Peattie in Pennsylvania and California, too.

In the NCAA, Cole Sprout claimed his first All-American placement at Stanford in cross country, while his teammate, former Utah prep Thomas Boyden, was a critical scorer in his first college season, too. 

Naturally, it was par for the course. 

Each athlete's successes over the fall and winter seasons were products of their hard labor, the engineering of hundreds miles on the roads and meticulous care off of them. 

But what if I told you that all that success began somewhere very distinct, up in the mountains where time stood still for a few weeks, where this group of young men built that confidence between the cameraderie of one another. 

Sometimes, to explain one moment you have to go back to another. 

And for this group of nine who created a bond that they say will live on for years to come -- for these nine current- and future-NCAA Division I runners, eight of which will eventually become teammates between North Carolina, Stanford and Virginia -- you might point to that central moment in July when it all came together during a two-week training stint at altitude in Colorado.

The Origins

Playstation -- 2 hours of Fortnite

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It was April, just a month into a lockdown, when Sully Shelton found himself playing Fortnite with Colin Peattie.

The pair hadn't met in any official sort of way; Peattie had run the previous fall at Foot Locker Nationals, while Shelton had performed at Nike Cross Nationals. 

But in elite-distance running circles, sometimes you just find ways to meet one another. And so here the pair were, battling it out on this open world video game loop. 

First, though, let's rewind a bit.

You have to consider the moment. COVID-19 had forced schools to empty their hallways. Track seasons were canceled. Races were off. The times felt like they were apocalyptic. In microscopic ways, video gaming was like racing, a chance to one-up your opponent in a virtual battle royale. It was the only constant that remained in some teenage boys' lifestyles. 

But then again, What on earth were they going to do for the next year? Was this it

While training solo for the foreseeable future for these elite-level future NCAA Division I athletes was all but assured, there had to be some other way, too. So on a whim, Shelton offered a few wild ideas. But one, in particular, seemed to have some legs.

A summer training camp at altitude.

Maybe it seemed like a joke at first. A bunch of like-minded athletes running a few 70-mile weeks at altitude. That was usually a high school team thing. A program-orchestrated function.

But Peattie sunk his teeth into the idea.

Two-thousand miles west, he didn't need to be convinced twice. 

"Yoo, let's do it," he said.

Forming The Crew

A Selection Of The Nation's Best Runners

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In theory, the idea seemed easy enough: Gather a handful of the country's top distance runners and train for a few weeks in the mountains at altitude.

But logistically, there were issues. 

Where would they go, let alone stay? Who would go? When exactly? 

Shelton had deep ties to the Southeast, so he opened his contact list and found Wachtel, a rising senior from Mary Persons High School in Forsyth, Georgia. 

Then came Ward, one of South Carolina's best athletes, located just south in Charleston. That Southern-based crew also knew Strand, who was a native of Alabama. 

Peattie, meanwhile, had met DiDonato and Boyden at Foot Locker Nationals. All three were located all over the United States. A text group was created and titled, 'Boulder/Flagstaff.' 

No one had ever put something like this together. And so the significance was also this: It would mark the first time in many of their lives when they were training with athletes of the same talent and reputation. 

Naturally, it did not take much persuasion to get buy-in from each athlete; most of them had traveled for out-of-state competition before. Each had trusting parental figures. All of them were itching for -- some safe -- adventure.

But ultimately, two important additions would save the trip. First came Parker Wolfe. He had run at Foot Locker Nationals the previous fall, and largely knew Peattie, DiDonato and Boyden. On top of that, he was one of the country's top returning runners. 

A few weeks after being added to the text exchange, he offered a very convenient solution for their problems. 

"I was like, 'Wait, guys, I have a house up in Silverthorne (at 7,000 feet in Colorado),'" he said. 

After a little coaxing from his parents -- who advised him that they would have to be in the house during the group's stay -- Wolfe got the go-ahead. He and the boys settled on a mid-date in July, during the thick of the summer training season.

The training stint, the time in the Silverhorne house, all these new brothers, it captured this elusive window in their lives, during an unprecedented time when everything was changing. 

While everyone had to manage their own flights to Colorado, accommodations, food and everything else was pretty much covered. 

And yet, one more addition felt like it was necessary. 

Then Boyden had an idea. In May, he ran with Sprout at the Quarantine Clasico. Both were aiming for sub-4 miles; each of them came close, with Sprout hitting 4:02 on the clock and Boyden at 4:04.

Beforehand, Boyden sprinkled the idea into Sprout's ear. The Colorado native was intrigued.

Not only did the former Valor Christian athlete -- a three-time Nike Cross Nationals All-American who was among the country's top recruits -- present an incredible training partner, but he also lived only an hour from the Denver airport and had a car

Maybe a day went by, maybe less. 

Sprout was in.  

Day 4: The First Long Run

 Keystone to Silverthorne -- 12 miles

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The group mapped out a long run from Keystone back to the home base in Silverthorne. Their first run would be at nearly 10,000 feet. The route presented some soft-packed roads, pavement and twisting curves through the mountains. It wasn't going to be a walk in the park.

But this being the first crucial run, the consenting runners seemed to agree on one point ... let's take it easy to start.

For most, it was going to be an adjustment at altitude.

Then it started. Some light conversation went along with some easy 6-plus minute miles. One mile led to two, and then three. It felt easy. 

Eventually, though, one runner went aggro. Boyden didn't say a word before he made the move.

"This kid," Wolfe said. "We were all kind of together for the first four miles, which were pretty chill. But then Thomas decides to put down a 5:20 mile out of nowhere. 

"That run was definitely an eye-opener in terms of how good those guys were," Wolfe said of The Reservoir. "I never wanted to be in no man's land, so I tried to keep up with them." 

"It was either, 'Keep up with him, or fall off with everyone else.'"

Wolfe hung on. 

So did Sprout and Strand. A few others -- Ward and DiDonato -- weren't as lucky. 

"The training experience was definitely a lot different from Charleston," Ward said. "That first run was a wake up." 

Earlier in the week, DiDonato had felt a false sense of security. Having been in Boulder prior to his time in the mountains, he felt confident. "I was like, 'I can hang with them,'" he said. 

"But then that long run day, I just got hit by like a wall of just everything coming back to me at altitude ... that was one of the hardest runs I've probably ever had." 

By the time everyone returned to home base, new respect was given to the environment. And to their training partners

Back at the house, Strand offered perspective. 

"Throughout quarantine you were training by yourself the entire time, so coming off a 4-5 month period of being alone, it was definitely good to get with some of the guys for sure," he said. 

Day 7: The Reservoir

Green Mountain -- 8 miles

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One valuable lesson the group learned was that for every incredible feeling you had on a run -- endorphins! -- it was met by an equally uncomfortable one. The sooner you understood the difference, the better chance you had in not getting dropped.

Fleeting moments sometimes changed on a dime.

While the un-obstructed views of Colorado were beautiful, they were also deceiving: On almost every run, the group covered distance at insane altitude while combating impressive ascents.

Nearly a week into the journey, the training run at Green Mountain was a firm reminder.

"That was definitely one of the days when I knew these guys could kick my butt," Wolfe said. "We went out and it was mostly downhill on the way out and then on the way back it was a lot of uphill."

And yet, it was in these runs where each athlete formed their strength. 

That could have been especially true for Wolfe. For two weeks straight, he hardly ever showed weakness, managing to stick with the front pack even when runs got especially rough. 

"That run was definitely an eye-opener in terms of how good those guys were," Wolfe said of The Reservoir. "I never wanted to be in no man's land, so I tried to keep up with them." 

For both Thomas and Sprout, who were headed toward NCAA training with Stanford, their pacing was with purpose. They knew the intensity would notch up soon enough with the Cardinal. 

Meanwhile, other athletes settled into rhythms. Strand mostly adapted to the demands. 

The Alabama runner was a bit of mystery heading into the trip. He didn't know many of his peers, and they weren't too familiar with him, either. He was tall, somewhat quiet. But by the end of the run at the Reservoir, they got a sense of who he was.

As the group finished up the day, they pulled up to a 45-foot cliff overlooking the Reservoir. Strand, who had gone a few miles longer with Shelton, took off his shirt and headed for a piece of rock that poked out toward the water.

Then, out of nowhere, he jumped ... Backwards.

Rotating in the air. 

A group of girls were nearby. One shrieked. 

"A little backflip for the boys," Wolfe later recalled. 

Strand landed perfectly, straight into the water. 

"I was scared for him and I wasn't even doing it," Shelton said. 

Ultimately, it said something about this group, the rather unique skill-set each athlete had in their arsenal on this training stint. Every day, you had to expect something different. And for those wondering about Strand, well, he answered any doubts. 

How in the hell did he just do that? "I've never really trained to cliff jump," Strand later said.

Maybe he was just a gamer, someone who didn't let fear prevent opportunity. Maybe that same instinct shaped him as a racer. 

Recruiting Time

Length -- Inescapable

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Many times over the two-week training stint, this situation would play out in real time:

A phone call would come from an area code in Palo Alto or Raleigh or Charlottesville. The caller might begin by talking to one athlete, but then it would go to another in a short time.

Another athlete might listen in. Another athlete may actually take over the phone and say 'What's up, coach?' 

"Colin (Peattie) might talk to (Stanford coach Ricardo) Santos and I would ask him what he said," Wolfe said. "and then I would figure out what to say when I called him next.

"It wasn't exactly musical chairs as much with the phone, but it was kind of finding out what to say next and getting some info on how each is faring in the recruiting process." 

Almost every athlete on this trip was being recruited by the same colleges. 

At times, it almost felt like the Silverhorne house was housing a USA Junior team, full of runners with A-list resumes. All of them displayed the kind of attributes that NCAA coaches coveted. 

While Sprout and Boyden were already signed with Stanford, the pair knew a handful of their peers were also considering the men's program, too. A few were closing in on the Tar Heels. A couple more were interested in the Cavaliers. 

"It was really cool to have all of us there and share that experience together," Sprout said. "It was a ton of fun." 

Of course, it could also be nerve-wracking. At times, North Carolina head coach Chris Miltenberg would call. Then came another from Virginia's Vin Lananna. Then Santos at Stanford. 

These men were decision-makers of powerhouse programs. 

The runners were just hopeful they could get opportunities to compete for their teams in the future. Having the opportunity to talk with Miltenberg, Santos or Lananna was simply an honor.

"My decision was made," DiDonato said. "But obviously I had to get in." 

"I think some of the relationships were built a lot better with some of those coaches than if we would have been alone," Strand said. "It definitely sped things up a bit."

By November, a theme started to emerge. The relationship-building had proved to be useful: Strand, Wolfe and Shelton all signed with North Carolina. Wachtel and Peattie, meanwhile, inked with Virginia. 

"I don't know about any of those guys," Wolfe said. "But being with these guys, it made me want to go and run with them in college. It definitely had an influence on my decision."

Ward became the only outlier, signing with Harvard, though he considered both the Tar Heels and Cavaliers. He later said that having seen everyone in top-gear that July with their own futures made him dial in on his own recruiting. 

Perhaps the most endearing moment of the trip came when DiDonato realized he was all-in on Stanford. 

By July, all that was left was applying. He had his scholarship offer. The Cardinal wanted him.

"They (my friends back home) don't understand what we do," Strand said. "So definitely hanging out with some guys that go through the same thing as me was super cool. It was hard to say goodbye."

"My decision was made," DiDonato said. "But obviously I had to get in." 

Obviously, that was not an easy matter. And so DiDonato was constantly on the phone, either with his parents or with his college counselor. He tinkered with the admissions essay, reading it over endlessly. "It felt like I read over it 30 times to make sure there weren't typos," he said. 

As others observed, they sensed some worry. "Rob was literally on a Zoom call almost the entire week," Shelton said.

Nevertheless, though, Stanford was his top school. Sometimes, worrying is what you do.

Eventually, in one of those made-for-tv moments, there was a huddle of boys, a hush of words and then a click. 

"I did it," DiDonato said. "I just sent in the application." 

"THATTA BOY," the chorus echoed. 

A few weeks later, his acceptance letter came. 

Day 10: An Iconic Moment

Meeting NCAA Legends -- 7 miles

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It was impossible to add up the best moments. There were simply too many.

Like this one from Shelton. 

His father was from Wisconsin. Growing up, his family had always been die-hard Badger fans.Two years previous to the Colorado trip, he had met one of his idols, Morgan McDonald, at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, the same year the Badger pulled the double in the 3K and 5K. The Georgia teenager made a t-shirt specifically for him, sloganed with the words, 'Stop Morgan,' an ode to a famous shirt honoring Steve Prefontaine.

Now here he was. Shelton knew McDonald and his former teammate, Oliver Hoare, were training in Boulder, so he sent the Australian a message over Instagram. Figured why not. Amazingly, McDonald responded, gave Shelton his phone number and said if he could get to Boulder by 7 a.m., he could do an easy run with him and Hoare. 

Shelton couldn't believe it. A few days before the training stint was to end in Colorado, he gathered Wachtel, Strand and Peattie and made the trip -- at 5:30 a.m., mind you -- to Boulder, where the foursome got in an easy run with two NCAA Champions. 

On its face, it was a purely immeasurable moment, an experience you simply couldn't forget. 

"The big thing for me. You see them on TV and the NCAA Championships. They're kind of like Gods to you," Shelton said. "But then when you finally go for an easy 6-7 run with them, they're just normal people."

"I thought it was sick, they were so cool and from Australia," Peattie said. "They both have these cool accents. I started talking to Ollie about surfing cause I'm near the beach in California. I related to him on that."

That day also summarized what this experience meant to everyone. They just couldn't calculate the value of this experience in 1s and 0s. 

Naturally, though, all things come to an end. 

Day 14: The Final Goodbye

Lasting Memories -- Timeframe: 2 weeks

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Fourteen days in, the boys felt like a tribe.

It was sort of incredible, honestly, how much was packed into these two weeks. One night, Wolfe nearly got everyone stuck on a mountain at dusk with his Toyota 4-Runner because he wanted to drift on a snowbank.

"I remember Colin yelling at me, 'Don't go in!' And I thought it would be the greatest idea to just drift right in there (anyway)," Wolfe said. A stranger in a Jeep eventually towed them out 90 minutes later. 

A few other training runs saw them meet up with college runners on break. 

There were late nights playing Super Smash Bros, and others where they simply spent time talking to one another about what they'd face in ensuing years. It felt like a small fraternity. 

Eventually, everyone had to bottle up those memories and store them away. 

The training stint, the time in the Silverhorne house, all these new brothers, it captured this elusive window in their lives, during an unprecedented time when everything was changing. 

"This was a whole new experience," Wolfe said. "I got to run with a bunch of guys who could keep up and run with me. So that was definitely the part I missed the most."

"Getting to know these other guys who are runners," Strand added. "Most of my really, really good friends at home don't run." 

"They don't understand what we do. So definitely hanging out with some guys that go through the same thing as me was super cool. It was hard to say goodbye."

The night before, in the basement of Wolfe's parent's house with the bunk beds, the group huddled up one last time.

"I remember the last night, we just had a huge group hug with everybody as we were ready to go to bed," Peattie said. "We were going to leave at 7 a.m. the next day."

Then, like that, everyone was off to their separate lives. 

Off to new seasons, off to PRs, off toward incredible performances and indelible moments in the fall, winter and spring.

"Having nine guys in one house who were the best in the country was just unreal," DiDonato said.  

The Resumes Since:

Parker Wolfe, Cherry Creek HS, CO: Held an undefeated 2019 cross country campaign, culminating in a U.S. No. 1 performance of 14:26.94 in the 5K, earning him a national-cross country win ... He ran a top 25 performance in the 5K outdoors in March, securing a time of 14:06.48, which was a new meet record.

Cole Sprout, Stanford U, CA: He finished fourth at the PAC-12 Cross Country Championships in March, running 22:57.9 for 8K. He followed with an All-American performance at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, clocking 30:21.4 for 10K. ...on April 3, he won the 5K at the Stanford Invitational in 13:43.92, which was a new PR and the ninth-best time in the NCAA.

Thomas Boyden, Stanford U, CA: He was 26th at the PAC-12 XC Championships in March .. He was third in the 5K at the Stanford Invitational in a 5K best of 13:45.38, which is now No. 13 in the NCAA.

Ethan Strand, Vestavia Hills HS, AL: He finished 14th at the RunningLane XC National Championships in November in 14:47.22 ...He posted a phenomenal indoor season, registering personal record times of 50.49 for 400m, 1:51.08 for 800m and 4:10.31 for the mile, earning a national championship in the latter. He also ran 9:15.39 for 3,200m.

Noah Ward, Charleston Philip Simmons, SC: Won seven out of eight races in South Carolina over the cross country season, culminating in his third-straight state championship. ...has run 4:14.30 for 1,600m over the outdoor season.

Colin Peattie, Bellarmine Prep HS, CA: Posted a time of 15:32.76 at the Desert Twilight Festival in October.

Robert DiDonato, Germantown Academy HS, PA: Ran 14:25.40 for 5K outdoors in October on the track, which was second all-time in Pennsylvania history. 

Justin Wachtel, Mary Persons HS, GA: Won seven of 10 races over the cross country season and captured his second straight Georgia Class 3A championship before finishing fourth at the RunningLane National XC Championships in a time of 14:36.08 ...He ran 14:15.35 for 5K outdoors in December, posting a top 25 performance all-time. 

Sully Shelton, Harrison HS, GA: He finished 18th at the RunningLane National XC Championships in a PR of 14:48.83 for 5K ...He ran 4:14.63 for a mile indoors ...He has run 4:07.42 and 8:52.72 for 1,600m and 3,200m, respectively, outdoors.