What Will Cross Country Look Like In The Fall?

As the title to the article suggests, this article runs deep on speculation. Thus far CHSAA has said very little about what cross country will look like in the fall. In fact, the governing body for Colorado high school athletics has made no guarantee that we will even have cross country in the fall.

But, there are certain things we can count on. Number one is the fact that COVID-19 will still be around at some level. Two, CHSAA and its member schools will be highly motivated to minimize risks associated with COVID-19, preferring to err on the side of caution than to err on the side of being perceived as being too permissive.

It's not an easy sweet spot to hit. There are multiple sides pushing for their viewpoints to become official policy and often not much common ground between the sides. Trying to locate where CHSAA will land on any of several different issues involves a lot of guesswork at this point, though by the end of this month some positions, at least, are going to have to be staked out.

Until then, we might talk profitably about what has been discussed in the cross country community and which ideas have gained traction there.

First and foremost, it seems highly unlikely that we will be starting the season with the same kind of cross country start we've all grown accustomed to. It's too many people in too small of a space when you really don't have to have that many people in that small of a space.

To date, the most frequently discussed alternative is wave starts. As an example, a wave start might proceed by releasing each team's #1 runner. Then, say, 30 seconds later, the #2 runners would be released, and so on until all runners are released. Clearly, this model works better for varsity races than sub-varsity races, but at some point you probably have a general release of all remaining runners for some varsity races and all sub-varsity races.

That's a method of spreading out the crowd that should work--at least at some level. When you stop to think about it, though, it doesn't spread things out all that much. The first group of runners released will tend to run together, much as they would in a standard start. Same with the second, the third, and so on.

The first 1000 meters or so of the race would be a lot less congested, but the remaining 4000 meters would likely be not very different in terms of congestion from what they would be if you started everyone together--and especially so if it's a fairly evenly balanced field in terms of teams.

Necessary to making wave timing work is letting the timer know beforehand which runners will be released in which waves. Which brings us rather quickly to an observation that there will be no meet-day adding of runners this year. We just made the timer's job more difficult--don't expect to be able to add runners you forgot to register earlier in the week.

An alternate method of spreading things out (and I'm in debt to Lyons coach Mark Roberts for this suggestion), is to rank order--as best you can by seed times--the field and release runners one at a time at one or two second intervals, top-ranked runner first. Some clumping will ensue out on the course, but--generally speaking--the gaps will tend to grow. When runners are released, they cross a timing mat. When they finish, they cross a second timing mat. The difference between times, often called chip time, is their time for the course. These times can then be sorted and scored by the timing computer. There will be the occasional tie that cannot be resolved.

I've heard some proposals of starting in waves by team, but that destroys any element of direct competition between teams (or at least most teams) on the course.

Some folks have talked about changing cross country scoring this fall along with changing the method of starting. I don't think it will happen. It's never a great idea to go crazy with changes. Make whatever changes you need to make in order for the sport to happen, but otherwise keep the sport as much like we've grown accustomed to as possible. Don't create unnecessary problems.

The size of meets has also come up for discussion. Size of meets creates two problems--the size of the cluster(s) of competitors on the course and the size of the crowd watching the race. One method for reducing the size of meets is reducing the count of teams. With teams already registered for meets by now, that's going to be difficult to do. Difficult is not impossible, but it is, well, difficult. A second method of reducing the size of a meet is to run varsity only, or junior varsity only. Under the assumption that having meets this year that are as large as they were last year will create certain problems, expect to see a little of both strategies in use.

Even very small meets, though, can find spectators congregating at certain points along the course in rather high densities. We already know the finish line is one of those points. For some meets, it's simply the case that the finish line is going to have to be off-limits for spectators. For other meets, and especially those with good vantage points on the finish line at some distance from that all-important point, spectators might reasonably be corralled to certain areas-and perhaps required to wear a mask in that area. It's almost a given that spectators will be asked not to crowd the course, no matter where they are on the course, as tightly as they have in years past.

The number one crowding issue to be resolved concerns the area around the finish chute. Get used to the idea that there will be not finish chutes, per se, this year and that the area where runners finish will be a no-go zone for all spectators. There isn't any other way to do this.

It's not a bad assumption that there will be a need for more smaller, mostly local, meets this year geared toward JV kind of runners. There may not, however, be a lot in the way of official timing and scoring going on at these meets.

All of this assumes that the behavior of cross country fans can be managed and modified by instructions. If it can't, that certainly increases the probability that a season might start and then end abruptly before a culminating event.

Speaking of culminating events, that brings us directly to state. CHSAA could try to hold the state meet, as scheduled, at the Norris Penrose Event Center. And I have no doubt that is Plan A so far as the folks at CHSAA are concerned. Theoretically, though, it's possible to split state up between venues to help control crowding.

If state isn't split up across venues, we can reasonably expect a regular clearing of spectators from the arena at the Norris Penrose Event Center. Forget about the idea of hanging out in the shade in the bleachers and watching all eight races cross. It's much more likely to be an affair of be-there-when-your-team-is-running-and-leave-when-they're done. Don't figure on finding any hard copy results at state (or at any meet during the season, for that matter).

It could happen that races in the same classification go back-to-back this year. While not maximally convenient for coaches, it would help resolve a number of crowding issues.

The number one unintended consequence of posting hard copy results is the crush of humanity around the results board. That's not something we can have this year. Hopefully, there's a decent signal at any meets you're attending this year and the timer and meet director are adept at spreading the needed URL and posting results quickly. Expect everyone's phone to be out as soon as each race wraps up. Pro tip: set your browser on the results website before the results start coming in.

With mandatory quarantine periods in place now for people who travel between any of several states, expect that cross-state competition during the regular season dries up (or at least very nearly so) this year. Desert Twilight figures to be an Arizona-only affair this fall. Joe Vigil will likely not have any New Mexico schools. And the list goes on.

Honestly, I'm optimistic about a lot of things, but I'm not optimistic at all that NXR-SW (Team Regionals), NXN (Team Nationals), or Foot Locker will be happening this year. People (still) won't be anxious to hop on a plane and travel, and there may not even be plane space for a couple thousand Colorado runners and their traveling companions to make the trip to Arizona. Also, Nike, which has already suffered some financial setbacks this year, isn't likely to want to put their name on the exposure that Team Regionals would be.

I could be wrong about the big Nike meets, but I'll be surprised if I am. In any case, lots of things are going to have to get markedly better in the next three months for there to be any post-season cross country options this fall.

And now a final thought--one mostly for coaches. A large number of the changes coming into view for cross country this fall are labor-intensive. Host schools don't have the manpower to cover all the needs on their own. Expect expectations to come with meet participation this year. Meet hosts are absolutely going to need volunteer help from the coaching staffs of teams attending meets. Plan on that now, and it won't be a bitter pill to swallow when the meets roll around.

There will be help needed for, minimally, crowd control and getting runners started in an orderly fashion. It's reasonable to expect that we'll have to wear masks while doing those jobs. Once again, plan on that now, and it won't be a bitter pill to swallow when the meet rolls around.