Although the regular season for high school cross country is over and Saranac Lake’s classes have shifted online, some of the boys, like the Energizer Bunny, just keep running.
Today, the top seven boys from Saranac Lake’s two-time-state-champion team will run in a 5K as a part of the qualifying round for Nike Virtual Nationals, an elite annual running competition restructured to fit COVID-safe guidelines.
Last year, the Red Storm team participated in the New York regional race in the Nike competition, and while the whole team didn’t qualify for the national championship, Peter Fogarty individually qualified and flew out to Oregon with Coach Bill Peer to compete.
In a recent interview, Peer remarked that following Fogarty’s positive experience in the championship, he had hoped the whole team could make it to nationals this year, but the pandemic and its many cancellations dashed some of these goals. However, once Nike announced it would conduct a similarly structured virtual competition series, Peer, assistant coach Elizabeth Ash and the runners worked hard to integrate this competition into their season.
“We had really hoped for that (experience) with our guys, and they worked hard to get to that, so this was a nice consolation prize,” Peer said.
The Nike Cross Nationals divides the country into nine regions, and within each region teams compete in the qualifying round to advance to the national meet. Five top individuals are also given the opportunity to advance. This year, instead of racing side-by-side, each club team is required to run “virtual” 5Ks by itself, where distance and times are tracked to determine overall rankings.
Since competition rules technically don’t allow direct affiliations with schools, the top seven boys from Saranac Lake will run under the banner of the Red Storm Runners club team, selected to compete in the New York region with the Warriors club team from Liverpool High School.
Even the preparation for this race has been vastly different, with the added difficulties of the pandemic on top of navigating rules and regulations that vary from those of standard high school meets. While the boys were able to hold a few practices after their final regular-season match against Lake Placid on Nov. 7, the shift of Saranac Lake schools to remote learning on Monday meant adjustments for training as well. Peer noted that it’s not easy, but the school, Section 7 and the student-athletes have done a great job following protocols while exploring new ways to practice.
“With the infection rate going up, we’ve had to navigate more now than earlier in the year, in terms of minimizing our contact, doing a lot of Google meets, sending out workouts, those kinds of things,” he said.
Despite these added difficulties, Peer emphasized how much the team has enjoyed participating in this virtual competition, working hard to overcome the obstacles and still perform their best. They finished the regular season undefeated, but because the state called off playoffs, they were denied a chance for a third straight state championship.
“We weren’t sure if there was going to be a season. Our guys were looking for something to look forward to,” he said. “And they were just looking for ways to compete in the event that we didn’t have a high school season. And I think everyone would agree, we’re very happy with what we were able to accomplish in terms of the high school season and just providing opportunities for kids, and … they were just happy for the opportunity to race. “
In particular, Peer noted how the boys stepped up to make the Red Storm Runners’ participation possible.
“It meant juggling some schedules during the week to make sure we got the virtual 5Ks in,” he said. “And so we put a lot of onus on them to make this happen, and they did. It was a priority for them.”
According to their coach, senior captains Micah McCulley, James Catania, and Peter Fogarty especially took leadership in the midst of this virtual competition.
In interviews over the phone, both McCulley and Catania emphasized that although they were disappointed about the cancellation of many in-person meets, they were glad for continued opportunities to race and train together as a team. A small group of senior boys has taken it upon themselves to run together on a regular basis to encourage one another to continually improve.
“I’m really fortunate to train with a great group of teammates,” McCulley said. “We’re all able to push each other at the dual meets, even with the staggered starts. We weren’t able to race in person against anybody besides ourselves, so I think we made the best out of it.”
McCulley noted that in the Nike competition in particular, it’s neat to look at the leaderboards of runners all around the country to see how other teams are doing, but that this season has led to lots of personal growth for him and his teammates.
“I think we’ve all just learned that we can really only focus on individual progress during the season,’ he said. “Hopefully that will pan out pretty well for us on Saturday.”
Catania also emphasized motivation as key in the team’s performance, especially as races are much different this year in light of the pandemic.
“We don’t get to be on the start line with the best runners in the nation this year, (and) it’s definitely a challenge having to compete at a high level and to the best of our abilities when no one is there right on your shoulder trying to beat you,” he said. “I think as runners the hardest part is being motivated and pushing through things where it seems like everything can be against you. But I think as a team … this year we’ve all kind of had this challenge of not being able to have these normal, exciting races that we always look forward to. Overcoming that as a group, I think we’ve grown a lot as people.”
While the virtual aspect of this competition makes it difficult to really predict how the team will rank until all the results are out, both Peer and the senior captains expressed confidence that the Red Storm Runners will perform well, no matter the outcome.
“I think we’re pretty prepared, looking forward to just leaving it all out on the course Saturday and seeing what we’ve got,” Catania said.
James Catania, Micah McCulley, Peter and Andrew Fogarty, Sam Ash, Tucker Jakobe and Justin Duprey will record their times for the regional qualifying round of the Nike Virtual Nationals this Saturday at 10 a.m. at Cadyville Recreation Park, hosted by the Northern Lights Running Club.