More Than I Expected

Bill Barth attended Dream Run Camp in May 2023--one of the first Dream Runners. He had a hard time giving himself permission to come to Flagstaff, but Coach Matt was able to persuade him that he deserved the experience. It is a decision he won't regret, as Bill himself explains in this recap of his week of "running the dream."

By Bill Barth

A funny thing happened on the eve of a funeral. I answered the invitation to fill out an online questionnaire that kept popping up every time I lurked the Dream Run Camp site. I started with “This is silly” and ended, I believe, with “Thanks for letting me vent.” Feeling in a dark place, I guess I needed to unload.

A couple of days later I received an email from Matt asking if I’d like to discuss my concerns. Sure, Matt, I’m not coming but I’d love to talk, was my first thought. I’d discovered Matt Fitzgerald while searching for a use for my ever-increasing stash of Audible credits. I selected Life Is A Marathon. Holy cow, Matt opens a vein and invites you into his life, warts and all. I found myself blurting out expletives of amazement through each twist and turn of his life. Then I read Running The Dream.  I thought, I know Matt; really know him. Will I talk to him on the phone? Damn right I will.

I talked. Matt listened. My concerns? I can’t afford it. I’m a hack of a runner. It’s just a selfish thing to do. Matt told me why he thought I was a perfect candidate for Dream Run Camp. Then he read a passage from Running the Dream—the part where Stephanie Bruce talks him out of his own feelings of selfishness while dealing with his mom’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. (Personal note: My dad has recently been diagnosed.) I was sold. Sign me up. I’ll figure it out. I didn’t just sign up. I signed up for the following week.

Top-ten decision in my life. I don’t actually remember what I expected from Dream Run Camp. I guess I wanted to regain the joy that has been missing in my running ever since training for my first of two California International Marathon attempts. I finished but sucked, vowing to never attempt 26.2 again. I despised the training, developing a terror long-run days, and a dread of schedule. You don’t know me, Hal Higdon! You can’t tell me what I’m capable of. No off days and add a mile or two to your short days. I’ll do the long run another day. I missed it? I’ll make up for it next week. I’m a disciplined person, but my training is a mess and I didn’t know it until I reviewed my training logs upon returning home from Camp.

I want to run better. I want to run with joy. I want to be better.

Leaving Las Vegas

Driving up to Flagstaff from the Vegas area, I could feel my soul willing to heal as the elevation increased. I’m making a bet on me. Make the most of it, Bill. You’ve allowed yourself this with full support of family. You need to leave with growth. I’m excited, nervous, and a little intimidated.

I’m greeted by Matt, who helps me with my overpacked truck. I appear to have enough gear for a full 12-week stay. Looking back, I wonder if Matt worried that I thought I was staying for 12 weeks while paying a one-week price. Now comes one of the unexpected gifts of Dream Run Camp: the team. Nataki and Lauren were also waiting for me.

I don’t think it possible to overstate the importance of the team. Lauren is Matt’s assistant and spent a lot of time running and talking with me even though she’s training for her own race in Eugene. Slightly older than my oldest son, Lauren is the person you’d like to stow in your luggage and sneak home. She is my Guru of Positivity. Nataki, Matt’s wife, is a constant, vital presence. She attends all the happenings of the week but is uninvolved in the running aspect. She’s part of the life aspect. To get to share the life of Nataki and Matt is a gift within itself. I went to running camp but got so much more from the dynamic of the team. It’s special and I hope future Dream Runners get as much out of it as I did. I don’t know how they can possibly deal with all the future check-ins. The energy and excitement are insane.

A couple of days into Camp, Lisa and Kevin check in. Lisa is the runner and Kevin is her fully supportive husband who also runs with her but doesn’t consider himself a runner. He’s actually a better runner than I am. Their dynamic raised the experience to an even higher level for me. I saw Lisa with a similar unbridled joy to be there with a million questions. The now-experienced Dream Runner me wonders if this is how I was when I arrived in Flag. They are special people with a deep history of running together, telling amazing stories that can only be told as a couple. We ate as a family, around the kitchen island, telling tales and never wanting to go to bed. Luckily, Coach Matt has a good sense of bedtime or we would have never gotten any sleep.

NAZ Elite

I got to be around the NAZ Elite team three times. My day-two workout was on the same course that Ben Rosario put together for a Matt Baxter workout. Matt Fitzgerald coached me through warmups and explained the workout. It was here that Matt discovered how little I actually knew. Just because a fancy Garmin is on my wrist doesn’t mean I know how to use all the functions.

I struggled all week with pacing. Day two is a perfect example. I’m set up for 5 x 1K repeats. I can’t hit my pace and Matt knocks me down to four reps. Matt Baxter, meanwhile, is gliding through 15 on the same course and it isn’t intimidating at all because we are not working together, just at the same location. It was beautiful to watch him run. Ben rides a mountain bike alongside and he gives me a rolling low-five while crossing paths. I know it was gratuitous, but I’d like to think Ben respected the work.

Thursday afternoon brings another unexpected gift: “Live from Dream Run Camp” with NAZ Elite member Lauren Hagans. I had never heard of Lauren but I’m now a super fan. She exudes an infectious energy that you immediately recognize as special. I was hesitant to ask her a question while taping the event (is taping still a thing?) but asked her a question after the event stopped recording. She remained on her stool, answering question after question. It couldn’t have been comfortable. Lauren Hagans is entering the final stages of her career, ready to put it all on the line and ready for the future. She is an 11 on a scale of 1-10.

On Friday, Matt takes us to the new NAZ Elite headquarters and we get a tour before the team’s Friday group run, where they invite the community to run with team members. There had been rain during the day and the run was doubtful for a bit due to lightning but I was going to run if there was a run. I’m sure glad I did. It might have been my second-favorite run. Jen Rosario kindly ran the 4-mile total out-and-back with me. She answered questions about the history of NAZ Elite and shared how she and Ben met. It was like running with an old friend, making the miles meaningless. I could have run forever.

Sunday is long-run day with the pros. My long run is 12 miles. I think the pros did 18 in an out-and-back. I saw them start and I saw them coming back as I was still chugging out my last mile. Encouragement from a pro who is getting his own work on is pretty awesome. They were all still around when I finished and graciously took a pic with me. That baby is getting framed and placed in a place of prominence. It was, without a doubt, my favorite run of camp, which is amazing considering my self-inflicted long-run anxiety. Matt guided me through strategies and drove ahead for water stations. He and Nataki were there to greet me every 3 miles. Lauren was getting her long day in. She stayed with me during her warmup mile. I got scolded for not drinking enough water after 3 miles and told when to fuel with the gels I had purchased the day before at Run Flagstaff.

What’s your fueling plan on long runs, Bill?
Um, there is no plan.
Well, there is now.

Monday morning was my final run. I got to bookend my week, starting at Buffalo Park and ending at Buffalo Park. It’s a beautiful (every run in Flag is beautiful) 2-mile loop with lots of active runners, walkers, and dog walkers. There I got to prove to Matt I could run at his prescribed 10-minute pace. Well, close enough: 9:56.

You made the choice to run faster than your pace.
But I’m so much better?
That’s not 80/20.
Yes, but I’m better.
It’s a choice.
Yes, Coach.

I have to mention the Recovery Lounge. I took full advantage. Every day in the hyperbaric chamber and compression boots. I wasn’t sure it worked until I finished my first session back home. There’s some soreness I didn’t experience in Flagstaff. Sadly, my wife is a no on purchasing a hyperbaric chamber.

I have physical issues caused by a shoulder replacement about 20 years ago. It still causes me pain and the arm has limited range of motion. Three times Matt took me into the gym to plan a specific workout for me, experimenting to see what I can and can’t do. I’ve lost strength and balance that I’m going to try to regain. I know just a little would help my running. This is one area I felt Matt went above and beyond. Another unexpected gift.

I Needed This

There’s so much more I could say about Dream Run Camp. I grew to look forward to the Coach’s Office Hour. There was something new and specific each afternoon. I think the first session I was told that I would greatly benefit from a coach. As the week went on, I knew I could benefit from a coach. Each session I wondered if Matt was ever going to talk about getting me a coach. During my final session, we talked about a potential coach that Matt and Lauren thought would be perfect for me. I met with Coach Jess via online video (or whatever it’s called). I clicked on the link at my appointment time and there she was. One hour later and I’m fired up to get started. I texted Matt that I’d met with Jess and she’s taking me on. Matt’s reply was that I would never run alone again; I’m part of a team.

There it was. Running had become lonely. I have family support but nobody really knows what I’m going through. All the books I read seemed to confuse me more. I needed this more than I ever realized. I can’t tell you what the scientific reason is for a happy heart and soul but I was gifted that at Dream Run Camp. Multiply by 100 my expectations and hopes for a week of Running the Dream and you may come close.

I shall return, but next time with my wife. You don’t have to run to get something out of a week at Matt’s home. What he has meticulously constructed at his brand-new residence in Flagstaff doesn’t have to be just a running retreat. There are many things I could have done while there but I ran. It was the most fun I’ve had running since Covid. Another unexpected gift: receiving something you didn’t know you needed.

I’m sure everybody will arrive at and leave from Dream Run Camp with different experiences. I challenge you to get as much out of your stay as I did. I’m a stronger, more knowledgeable, more confident runner supported by a team. I’m a better, happier person. I can’t wait to put my shoes on in the morning. I made what I believe will be lifelong friends.

Maybe you need to occasionally do something selfish. I think I made that one selfish week count. Now to be released back into the wild, hopefully a better husband, father, son, friend, and runner.

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Have you ever dreamed of being a professional runner, or at least living like one for a period of time? Stop dreaming and come to Dream Run Camp!

Inspired by Matt Fitzgerald’s book Running the Dream, which chronicles his experience as a “fake professional runner” with Flagstaff, Arizona-based HOKA Northern Arizona Elite team, Dream Run Camp is the first and only pro-style training camp that welcomes runners of all abilities.

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