Updated: Sep 18, 2020
This isn't going to be a normal article for you all to read, if in fact you actually read it. The point of this piece is to be informative, but also opinionated, because this is something that needs to be shared. So sit back, relax, have some snacks too, and dive right into what cross country is like in the world of COVID-19.
Most of you saw the big news, or announcement I should say, that I have decided to start covering high school cross country in Idaho because there are sports currently going on this fall over there. Since there won't be cross country happening in Washington until March, at least we think that's the case, I really don't have any content to produce.
Which then led to many questions being asked specifically this one: Why Idaho? First of all, I think you should ask me "Why not Idaho?". It's the only state that is within a decent amount of distance from where I am currently living.
Another reason why I am going to Idaho to cover their cross country season is similar to the reason I started to cover cross country in Washington...lack of coverage. You all know how passionate I am about this sport, and want to give as much attention to it like all the other sports get.
Last Friday, I woke up early in the morning, 6:40 a.m. if you were really curious, to a make 90 minute trip to Sandpoint, Idaho, a town I have never been to, for a quad-meet at a local park. When it comes to covering high school sports, yes, I will wake up that early to watch you all run fast.
Like any great journalist should do, I did some research on the park I was going to see how big it was because my concern for social distancing and if it was big enough to hold such a large gathering, like a cross country meet. Rest assured, it was large enough, not only to hold a quad-meet, but a big invite such as Nike Twilight in Marysville, or the Bellarmine Invite in Tacoma.
My first thought when I showed up to Travers Park was "Will I be the only one with a mask?" because I didn't really know Idaho's protocols with COVID, especially since they are allowing kids to compete in sporting events. Coming from Washington, our guidelines are a little more strict than Idaho's.
As soon as I got out of the car, I instantly saw numerous people wearing masks, which is was an instant sign of relief knowing that other states are taking this matter very seriously. But I'd also be lying to you if I said I didn't see anyone not wearing a mask. I would say it was about 50/50 when it came to those wearing masks and those who weren't. Families, who came to watch their athlete run, were in groups together and did not engage with others unless they were wearing masks.
This was a pretty massive park than I had expected, so the amount of space the teams had was plenty enough for them all to be socially distant to where they wouldn't come in contact with each other. Teams had their own "camp-sites" for tents set up and the athletes and coaches were all wearing masks. I was pretty confident each school and their district have taken the safety pre-cautions to allow these kids to participate because each team made sure they did not leave their tents until warm-up or when it was race time.
It will be hard to describe this next part going into what pre-race was like, but hopefully I can give you somewhat of a mental image you can draw in your mind.
Idaho isn't the only state allowing their kids to compete in sports this fall, but there are different methods as how everyone runs a meet. There was a video from a high school cross country race in Michigan where the athletes were required to wear masks at the start of the race, or perhaps they were required to wear them the entire race. I'm positive they didn't have to wear them the entire race and they were allowed to throw their masks off at some point at the beginning of the race. But because the kids were all staggered right next to each other at this Michigan race, it makes sense as to why they wore masks.
Sandpoint High School, who was the host of this meet, didn't require the athletes who were competing to wear masks at the start line. You're in an open environment so it makes total sense not to wear a mask, if you are a competitor of a sport at least. Instead, the four teams, with roughly about 20 kids per team, were separated six-feet from each other with cones and flags.
You would think with this amount of kids in this race, the officials would send the kids off in multiple waves making it seem like they weren't all piled on each other at the start. Everyone did start at the same time and each team had their own "running-chute" that lasted for roughly 200 meters and eventually merged with the other teams to form the race.
For both the boys' and girls' race, it took about a mile in until the athletes were fully separated from each other and were not within a foot or two of each other. This is a concern I can see with the beginning of the race being so tight and everyone is breathing on each other, but a large group in a small race won't last for more than 5-6 minutes.
Perhaps the major concern of the day, at least my concern, was how the finish line area would look because that is where the biggest congestion always exists at a cross country meet. When everyone gets done running and cross the finish line, they start to high five each other, hug each other, or celebrate with each other, which is what the CDC has told us all not to do. And again, I'd be lying to you if that didn't happen but the athletes did all that and it was only with their teammates.
Just like the start line, when an athlete crossed the finish line, they had to go to a designated chute to exit the area. The way this was set up was there were large sprayed painted team initials for each school. For example, if you ran for Sandpoint, you had to exit out the shoot with the large "S" initial painted in the grass. This couldn't be more emphasized enough by just about every volunteer, coach, or official that were helping out at the finish line, and I think the kids were able to follow through on these requirements in a safe way.
When it came to interviewing the winners of the race, I did wear my mask and kept a safe six-feet distance from them. Luckily my recording device can pick-up sound from a longer distance so it wasn't a burden when I had to listen to the interviews when I was writing the recaps for both races.
At the end of all this, I want everyone to know what cross country is like now. This is not an attempt to convince anyone to move cross country back into the fall rather than hold it in March. This is not an attack at the WIAA or our government and saying, "Why aren't we able to accomplish what Idaho is doing?" This is simply an observation of what I saw at a cross country race in Idaho.
I will say the WIAA should pick up on these ideas of running a cross country meet. It doesn't necessarily have to be the same exact way, but it gives them a building block of a potential future set-up of meets and invites that can be run while following social distance guidelines.
I can honestly say I was thoroughly impressed with Sandpoint High School for running a great meet, as well as Coeur D'Alene High School, Post Falls High School, and Lake City High School for doing their part in keeping their kids accountable and safe through this new normal.
Cross country will be back in Washington soon enough, but in the mean time, we can only keep doing our part to make sure there is a season for all our kids.
Good on you Idaho, I hope you continue your season.
- The Runner WA