Cross country’s running in pack shelved for now

By Mark Altstaetter - Guest Columnist

When will the pack return?

Successful cross country programs realize the importance of running in a pack.

In cross country, the ultimate goal is to get all of your runners up toward the front of the race.

All season long, coaches push their athletes to run in a tight pack for the entire race, in hopes of defeating the opposition.

For 20 years, I’ve coached cross country at the high school level. I’m in my sixth year at Elida. From the time preseason conditioning begins to the time we prepare for the postseason tournament, my athletes are constantly reminded of the importance of running in a pack.

In a 5,000-meter race, getting 5-7 runners to stay together and be up near the front part of the race at the same time, is not an easy thing to accomplish. This is when the “team” aspect of cross country comes into play.

Early in my coaching career, I was fortunate to coach a couple Western Buckeye League championship boys teams while at Van Wert, where the pack made the difference. In each of the title races, it came down to one runner. Every runner counts in a tightly-contested race.

However, with this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, the emphasis has shifted to not running in a pack — at least as far as preseason conditioning is concerned.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association granted permission for high school sports teams to start preseason conditioning and skill training May 26. At Elida, our sports teams did not start until June 1 or later. Many other area schools did the same.

This year’s preseason conditioning and skill training is a three-phase plan – where the emphasis is placed on small groups, social distancing and monitoring the athletes. The ultimate goal is to get through the three phases before transitioning to the regular season. So, while we are in the early stages, the need to keep a safe distance between athletes is critical.

The first day of cross country conditioning was definitely one for the ages.

First of all, we met in two separate groups. During Phase One (first 14 calendar days), there cannot be more than 10 people in a group. So, I had two separate conditioning sessions.

The first thing I had to do before starting the workout was check the temperatures of my athletes and ask a few medical questions. Once everyone was checked out, we then proceeded to our workout.

My athletes – some who saw their spring track season get canceled because of the pandemic – are quite aware of the situation. They realize this season might look a little different, or possibly, not happen.

The hope is that we can make it through the summer months and then compete in the meets and invitationals during the fall.

There are a lot of little things we have to do differently at conditioning.

Warming up as a team has a slightly different look. Instead of having a line of athletes standing side by side, my team has to spread out with plenty of space between each other.

When my small groups do their training runs, they have to keep at least six feet of space between each other. … So, the running-in-a-pack philosophy quickly went out the window.

For now, there are no high fives or handshakes. Athletes also have to bring their own water bottles.

However, even with all the restrictions we dearly need to obey in order to get through this unique situation, my Elida squad still displayed a great deal of enthusiasm.

I think the fact these student/athletes are finally able to get together and do what they love to do, trumps the challenges that are ahead of them.

For nearly three months, the pandemic has put a stronghold on sports.

This week, I could see my runners’ eyes light up when I talked about the upcoming season. They’re excited about the future. Now, there is hope for a return to normalcy.

The first day of conditioning produced my largest turnout of runners I’ve ever had on the first day, while at Elida. You could see the excitement in the athletes’ eyes.

They realize the possibility of a successful season still exists.

For a while, the vision of running in a pack is simply going to have to be just that, a vision.

The hope is to see the runners come together when the season officially starts.

However, in the runners’ minds, the pack is already back.

By Mark Altstaetter

Guest Columnist

Reach The Lima News sports department at 567-242-0451.

Reach The Lima News sports department at 567-242-0451.

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