Can Kalamazoo’s highly successful Borgess Run Camp be duplicated?
If Grand Rapids is an indication, the answer is an emphatic yes.
In 2014, 200 runners signed up for Grand Rapids’ Priority Health Run Camp – an all-but-exact replica of Borgess Run Camp. The health insurer attracted more than 300 participants for its first session on Feb. 14, part of a 12-week training program to prepare participants to run a 5K or 10K race at the Fifth Third River Bank Run in May.
The Borgess Run Camp now has roughly 1,200 runners, built up over more than a decade.
The keys to success?
Officials in both Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids note three ingredients to the secret sauce:
Borgess Run Camp has expanded the number of leaders to match growth of the camp since its first year in 2002, when just 100 runners turned out. It now has about 125 team leaders matched to 1,200 runners. (About a 10-to-1 ratio) Priority Health Run Camp has 60 team leaders (a 5-to-1 ratio), a number expected to grow with the event. It offers training routes in both Grand Rapids and Holland.
Blaine Lam, founder of Borgess Run Camp, considers volunteer leaders the backbone of the enterprise. [Lam is also a member of the Center for Michigan’s Board of Advisors] He noted that in a typical organized group run, runners are pretty much on their own.
Team leaders at Run Camp try to make sure no one in their group runs alone. They are responsible for leading both a Saturday morning run and a second run during the week.
Before they are accepted, prospective team leaders agree to a list of expectations, including their willingness to chart attendance and work a weekly agenda. On the first day of camp, they attend a 90-minute session to go over final details.
Amy Miller, manager of Public Relations for Priority Health, considers team leaders the heart of Priority Health Run Camp. “They are so important,” Miller said.
Borgess Run Camp team leaders and camp participants alike often seem like full-time cheerleaders, not only for their own group but members of other teams as well. Claps and cheers, even hugs, can be expected at the finish of training sessions.
Lam said this was never structured into the program. It simply grew on its own.
But Lam considers this aspect of Run Camp a huge part of its success. He said the goal of camp is to be “welcoming, informative and nurturing.”
He added: “I believe I’m on record as saying that nurturing may be the most important of the three.”
Borgess Run Camp can’t work without it. That means places to park, food, aid stations along the training routes, name tags, and making sure gyms are open on Saturday at 6:30 a.m. for runners to change.
The camp is backed by Borgess Health & Fitness Center and Borgess Medical Center, which provides eight of the 11 volunteer coaches with medical or fitness backgrounds that are crucial to the program. It has two photographers, one a professional who volunteers his time and the other a college graduate in photography who works as a paid intern. Dozens of photographs are uploaded each Saturday to the Run Camp Photoblog.
Overall, Lam said, “There are about 140 volunteers who make this work.”
Miller said Priority Health is tapping executives to help run its program as well.
“We have leadership involved,” she said.