Rural Missouri Magazine

Wilderness Running Camp
Joe Bill Dixon shares his secrets for success
at unique summertime retreat

by Jim McCarty

A 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 mile run.

Heat and humidity drive most kids inside by the time July rolls around. But the 200 or so teenagers at Joe Bill Dixon’s Wilderness Running Camp near West Plains aren’t 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 state champions.

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 Dixon’s West Plains Zizzers, 2A champs Licking and 3A winners Potosi.

There was a time when someone might have asked the coach, “What’s a Zizzer?” For the record, it’s 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 High School.

Since 1979 when coach Dixon’s 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.

West 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 with others.

“People thought 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 school’s distance running program that the 2003 seniors haven’t 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 Missouri’s most unique summer camp.

If these aren’t 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 don’t 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 Dixon’s 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.

“He’s helped the Liberty team develop into his main competition,” says Potosi High School coach Steve Davis. “But at the same time he’s got that push too.”

Besides distance running the athletes do exercises designed to build strength and teamwork.

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 meaning here.”

Located in the middle of nowhere about 45 miles west of West Plains, the camp is held at Pettit’s Campground on the banks of the spring-fed North Fork River. Runners sleep in tents and eat meals on picnic tables.

“It’s 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 camp’s 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 and humidity.

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.”

Adds Potosi’s 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 it’s an eye-opening experience.”

Boys cheer on the girl runners during a relay that involves filling a jug with water from the river.

Clearly these athletes are on a mission, and are willing to deal with whatever coach Dixon and his assistants throw at them.

“We wanted 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. It’s like holding your hand over a candle — the person who holds out the longest is often the winner.”

Workouts start 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 the evening.

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, it’s 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 better citizens.”

The camp isn’t 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 Dixon’s 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.

“If everyone 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 Dixon’s runners.

While this indoctrination might seem alien to some of those attending the camp, it’s 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 Dixon’s rules.

A squad of female athletes run as a group.

Group discipline is enforced, so if one person is late for an assembly everyone pays. “It’s supposed to be old-fashioned to have group discipline,” Dixon says. “But someone in this group won’t cut it in life. The rest of you will have to pay for their mistakes. So if one of my group doesn’t cut it the rest will get disciplined.”

Teamwork is emphasized, with runners encouraged to run as a group instead of trying to be the first back.

Those who make it through the camp say they leave re-energized. “My mental attitude is just sky high,” says Raytown’s Schmidt, who this year attended his second Wilderness Running Camp. “My times are getting better. I think of things he’s said and try to keep that with me when I am training during the season.”

Champions will 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

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