Joe Bill Dixon shares
his secrets for success
at unique summertime retreat
by Jim McCarty
group of boys heads out for an early morning run at Joe Bill Dixon's
Wilderness Running Camp near West Plains. Athletes are grouped according
to the amount of training they have been doing and their time in the
Heat and humidity
drive most kids inside by the time July rolls around. But the 200 or so
teenagers at Joe Bill Dixons Wilderness Running Camp near West Plains
arent your typical high school kids.
Many came to the
five-day camp deep in the Ozarks running more than 70 miles a week. A
few were logging 100 or more miles in a determined quest to be cross country
In fact, the odds
are good you will find in attendance not only the Missouri state champion
in all classes and both genders but also the top distance runners from
other states, too. Several state champion teams were here, including most
of coach Dixons West Plains Zizzers, 2A champs Licking and 3A winners
There was a time
when someone might have asked the coach, Whats a Zizzer?
For the record, its the sound a bolt of lightning makes. It also
can be defined as a speedy distance runner wearing candy-cane striped
shorts running at the head of the pack or the mascot for West Plains
Since 1979 when
coach Dixons squad upset favored Lindberg for West Plains
first modern-day cross country state title anyone involved in Missouri
cross country knows first-hand what a Zizzer is. Both the boys and girls
teams won the large-school state title last year, with the boys ranking
second in the nation and adding the track title as well.
Plains coach Joe Bill Dixon visits with his assistants after the
participants have all gone to bed. Dixon, a member of the Missouri
Sports Hall of Fame, started the running camp to share his knowledge
we had revolutionized cross country, Dixon, 57, says of that 1979
championship season. This was big because it took the center away
from St. Louis. Folks realized anyone could win it.
So good is the
schools distance running program that the 2003 seniors havent
lost a single meet since their freshman year. All this makes Dixon, a
member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, overqualified to lead what
might be Missouris most unique summer camp.
If these arent
your typical kids, this is not your typical running camp either. The camp
started 15 years ago as a Zizzer-only camp. But early on Dixon wanted
to invite other schools.
It might seem
odd to help your competition become better runners. But the West Plains
coach believes you dont get ahead by holding others back. As other
schools improve, they provide the push that keeps the Zizzers at the top
of their form as well, he says.
One of those who
accepted Dixons invitation was Liberty High School coach Tim Nixon.
For the past 10 years the Dixon-Nixon connection has livened up the camp,
with coach Nixon bringing his disc jockey equipment to entertain the runners.
He opens the camp with an honest discussion of how the relationship has
helped his team last year Liberty was ranked fifth in the nation
and a Liberty runner took first place in the state 4A cross country meet.
helped the Liberty team develop into his main competition, says
Potosi High School coach Steve Davis. But at the same time hes
got that push too.
distance running the athletes do exercises designed to build strength
Coach Dixon set
out from the start to make this a challenging camp. I picked the
name before I picked the site, he says. Wilderness has real
Located in the
middle of nowhere about 45 miles west of West Plains, the camp is held
at Pettits Campground on the banks of the spring-fed North Fork
River. Runners sleep in tents and eat meals on picnic tables.
in a valley, so there are only two ways out, says Raytown runner
Micah Schmidt. Up a hill or up a hill.
To say the routes
taken in the camps twice-a-day runs are grueling would be an understatement.
In one direction the course goes uphill for a solid mile before even hinting
at level ground. To make things even more difficult, most of the routes
are on rough gravel roads. Runners have to deal with large rocks, potholes
and heavy dust kicked up by the infrequent cars plus the July heat
Still few complain.
I came here because I heard how intense it was, says Mark
Buiha, a senior from Chaminade High School in St. Louis County. I
wanted to improve and I knew so many of the best runners in the state
would be here.
Davis, They get plenty of conditioning. But this is more to do with
the mental conditioning. They will remember the week here when they are
doing that 10-miler during the season. For some its an eye-opening
cheer on the girl runners during a relay that involves filling a
jug with water from the river.
athletes are on a mission, and are willing to deal with whatever coach
Dixon and his assistants throw at them.
a tougher camp than the typical running camps I had observed, Dixon
says. The person who wants to participate in distance running has
got to deal with discomfort. Its like holding your hand over a candle
the person who holds out the longest is often the winner.
early in the morning, with the boys and girls placed in groups based on
their level of training and times in the mile run. The groups are assigned
a length of time to run instead of a set distance.
When they return
stretching exercises, wind sprints and other activities take place. Only
when all this is done do they eat breakfast. The routine is repeated in
During the daytime
campers float the North Fork or head into West Plains to ride go-carts.
There are also open-air classroom discussions on topics ranging from shoe
selection to avoiding injuries.
While Dixon designed
the camp to get these athletes ready for the coming cross country season,
its clear this camp is about more than running. Really this
is a laboratory for life, Dixon says. I like to think the
justification for high school sports goes broader than just teaching baseball
or football skills. Athletes from a sound program hopefully will become
camp isnt all hard work. The runners get a chance to cool off
in the North Fork River during the heat of the day. Distance runs
are held during the cooler morning and evening hours.
From the beginning,
campers are immersed in Dixons philosophies, which can be applied
equally well to life or distance running. He has three principles he lives
by, and requires anyone taking part in his teams to adopt. The first is
trust. Next comes commitment. Finally he demands runners lose their individual
identity and become part of a team.
cared about the team before themselves there would be no team problems.
You think about the world if everyone was that way it would end
all forms of world conflict, he says.
These ideals and
others are pounded into the campers from the time they get up 6
a.m. for boys and 6:30 for girls until the time they are finally
sent to their tents near midnight following a group lecture from Dixon
or one of the speakers he has lined up. Often the speakers are college
athletes or coaches from other winning programs who started out as one
of Dixons runners.
While this indoctrination
might seem alien to some of those attending the camp, its nothing
new to the 30 or so West Plains runners. They will hear these same points
again and again during the regular season. Dixon points out that the rest
will live the life of a Zizzer for the duration of the camp. And that
means living under coach Dixons rules.
squad of female athletes run as a group.
is enforced, so if one person is late for an assembly everyone pays. Its
supposed to be old-fashioned to have group discipline, Dixon says.
But someone in this group wont cut it in life. The rest of
you will have to pay for their mistakes. So if one of my group doesnt
cut it the rest will get disciplined.
Teamwork is emphasized,
with runners encouraged to run as a group instead of trying to be the
Those who make
it through the camp say they leave re-energized. My mental attitude
is just sky high, says Raytowns Schmidt, who this year attended
his second Wilderness Running Camp. My times are getting better.
I think of things hes said and try to keep that with me when I am
training during the season.
be born here but Dixon will be content if they only become better citizens.
We are in the kid business, he says. Winning is not
our ultimate goal.
The camp is
held each year in mid-July. It costs $150 per person. For more information
write to Joe Bill Dixon, 7359 County Road 9180, West Plains, MO 65775
or send e-mail to