A crowded sprint to get seasons in for college runners

STEVE MEGARGEE
·3 min read

Moving traditional fall sports to later in the calendar due to COVID-19 includes some consequences unrelated to the pandemic itself.

That has been evident this week as Big Ten runners have prepared for Saturday’s cross country championships at Shelbyville, Indiana, with snow blanketing much of the Midwest.

“In terms of training for it, obviously we can’t get on grass,” Wisconsin coach Mick Byrne said. “The Zimmer cross country course (on campus) is covered in snow as are most of our regular training sites. Obviously we’ve had some snow around here. Most of what we do is outside on the roads or bike paths.”

The Division I board of directors announced in late September that NCAA championships for cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and men’s water polo would take place in the spring of 2021 rather than the fall of 2020.

Some leagues such as the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 went ahead and played traditional fall sports in the fall anyway. The Big Ten was among the conferences that chose to wait until 2021.

The Big Ten cross country championship typically would take place in late October or early November rather than at the end of January. Saturday’s forecast in Shelbyville calls for temperatures in the 30s with an 80% chance of precipitation.

“We pride ourselves in running through pretty much everything,” Indiana senior Ben Veatch said. “It’s going to hurt, regardless.”

Even after pushing the cross country season back to 2021, the Big Ten still must deal with the ramifications of the pandemic.

Michigan put its entire athletic department on pause this week after several positive tests for a new COVID-19 variant that transmits at a higher rate, which means the Wolverines won’t be competing Saturday. Michigan finished third in the men’s and women’s divisions in 2019 but won three straight women’s conference titles from 2016-18.

“In my opinion, the Big Ten championships without the Michigan men and women is a diluted championships,” said Byrne, whose Badgers won the men’s division and finished second to Michigan State in the women’s division in 2019.

Veatch said the biggest complication in having a cross country season at this time of year isn’t the weather. He’s more concerned about the cross country season coinciding with the indoor track season.

Many cross country runners also compete in indoor track, but the length of their races varies. For instance, men’s cross country runners generally compete in the mile, the 3-kilometer run or the 5K in indoor track. The Big Ten men’s cross country championships are an 8-kilometer event for men and 6 kilometers for women. The NCAA championships go 10 kilometers for the men and 6 for the women.

That has created a training dilemma for runners. Veatch notes that “while some people think it’s the same thing – we’re just running – it’s quite different disciplines (in) cross country versus track.”

“We’re just trying to walk that very thin line of what can make us the best at both currently,” said Veatch, who noted the team aspect of competition: “We don’t feel it’s right or fair to our sprinters, throwers, jumpers or vaulters in indoor track jut to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go focus solely on cross country.’“

Te calendar is crowded for the track and field athletes across college sports: The Pac-12, Big East and several other leagues are holding their conference championships March 5, which is 10 days before the NCAA championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma. .

But the Big Ten indoor track championships are Feb. 26-27 and the NCAA indoor championships are March 12-13.

“It was just so much intensity in a sequence,” Michigan State coach Lisa Breznau said. “(We thought) really having it earlier might be the better idea for us.”

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