On Wednesday, the Lowell High boys' cross-country team continued its dominant dual-meet run in the Merrimack Valley Conference, legging out an impressive 15-50 home victory over visiting Andover at Shedd Park.
But for the Red Raiders, this 2-0 start feels nothing like seasons past.
Spectators, limited in number and socially distanced, watched as a cluster of Lowell varsity runners breezed across the finish line before officials ushered them into a designated cool-down area. A couple minutes later, Andover’s varsity squad rounded the final corner and migrated to its own post-race huddle. Soon after came a trail of Lowell runners, followed by more Andover junior varsity members.
These clumps of high school kids epitomize cross-country in 2020 under the MIAA’s new COVID-19 guidelines. Instead of running together, Lowell instead raced 10 athletes at once, followed by 10 students from Andover, with three minutes of wait time in between.
Under the new conditions, according to Lowell head coach Scott Ouellet, the feeling of competition evaporates, especially with staggered dual meets serving as the only events on the calendar.
“Certainly, we’re thankful that we have what we have,” he said after the race. “But to compare this to a regular season . . . it’s apples and oranges.”
During a traditional fall, cross-country programs across Massachusetts spend the regular season building up to peak performance at invitationals, conference meets, and divisional and state championships.
But the MIAA’s fall restrictions, catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have erased the culminating mass meets that crown a successful year. Now, runners and coaches throughout the state are adapting to the heavily-altered fall slate — one that only allows for meets between two teams.
St. John’s Prep enters the fall as the defending boys' Division 1 champion, but the school’s season currently consists of just five contests. This weekend, instead of attending the Manhattan College Invitational as they have for decades, the Eagles have no race to run.
Prep coach John Boyle says that without the ability to compete at invitational events and championships, his team will have fewer chances to test themselves.
“For the upper-level kids, they are motivated, but they’re very frustrated that there’s not some end-of-season competition to aim for,” he said. “There’s nothing like preparing for a championship meet.”
Top runners, such as Concord-Carlisle’s Emma Kerimo, feel the challenge of molding their mind-set, especially with a canceled spring season.
“It was hard to get back in the mentality of, ‘You’re racing, you have to go now,’” she said. "Now we have to look at these smaller races and think: these are what we’re actually training for. "
Those dual meet showdowns also are a far cry from standard races.
Staggered start times mean clusters of runners take off together, usually spaced 3-5 minutes apart. In many leagues, this results in groups of 2-6 athletes from each school facing off, depending on the width of the course.
“We have enough space that we could do the five-on-five start with the spacing in between for the teams,” said Concord-Carlisle girls’ coach Hanna Bruno regarding the procedure of her team’s first meet. “We’re going to be at some courses where it’ll be a two-and-two start, and I think that’ll take some adjusting mentally.”
At other schools, such as Lowell, the setup feels more like grouped time trials than a legitimate race.
“It’s definitely taking a little bit away from the kids,” Ouellet said.
Adding to the uncertainty for high school runners is another MIAA rule: teams can no longer walk a course before a meet. Instead, the only preview opportunities come from maps and pictures provided by the coaches from the host school.
Despite the increasing presence of trail markers and course directors, runners are struggling to adjust. During Prep’s first meet at St. John’s of Shrewsbury, junior Nathan Lopez and a couple of his teammates got lost on the course.
“[We] took a wrong turn and had to turn back to get back on course,” he said.
“The rule that you can’t preview a course goes completely against what we try to teach kids,” said Boyle. “You can’t just fire a gun and have 25 kids go run down the street when half of them don’t know where they’re going. It’s crazy.”
It’s going to take a while for the state to adjust to this aspect of its new normal. Ultimately, runners and coaches are simply happy to be back on the trails.
“It’s been so long since we have been able to race and even run with people,” said Kerimo. “It definitely makes a difference to have your teammates there next to you.”
Setting the pace
▪ With the fall slate starting nearly a month later than usual, teams are hurrying to condition themselves for the shortened calendar.
Hanna Bruno said her Concord-Carlisle girls have needed to adjust their training regimen. Her team normally emphasizes lifting and strength training, but athletes cannot use the school’s fitness center due to COVID-19 regulations.
“[We’ve been] trying to think of ways, creatively, to do our strength training without equipment, without heavy weights and that kind of thing,” Bruno said.
Among the changes for the Patriots are more body weight exercises, which Kerimo believes are still valuable training tools. These include barefoot walking routines and stretches for injury prevention.
“One of my coaches says that all distance runners really need are body weight exercises; those are the most important,” Kerimo said. “We’ve been putting more emphasis on those.”
▪ Though conference title meets around the Bay State are nixed with the current state of the sport, Weston head coach John Monz hinted that the Dual County League may consider some form of a league championship.
“We have a Large and Small [division] in the Dual County League,” he said. “We’re hoping to have a divisional championship — like a large-school championship and a small-school one somewhere else.”
Monz also admitted, “who knows if it’s going to be allowed,” and reiterated the importance of cherishing the meets on the schedule.
“That’s definitely a different mentality than you would have in a typical season,” he said.
▪ Lowell will not be able to defend its 10-year streak of Merrimack Valley Conference titles if the season continues as scheduled.
However, the Red Raiders accomplished one major milestone on Wednesday when they defeated Andover, picking up the program’s 100th consecutive dual-meet victory.
“We’re 2-0 on the season, so we’ll keep it going,” Ouellet said after the race.
Over 10 years of sustained success, Ouellet has lost count of the All-MVC and All-State runners who have joined the team. But he says the streak of wins and titles come from a decade of unparalleled determination.
“The kids, they just love to compete, and that culture’s just been passed around,” Ouellet said. “You get great senior leadership to motivate the kids, and everyone just kinda wants to carry on for the team.”