INDIANAPOLIS – High school cross-country runners are starting a season they aren’t sure to finish.
Yet if there is any sport that can be sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic, this might be it. Distance runners are intrinsically motivated. Chance of transmitting disease outdoors is smaller than indoors. Cross-country is categorized as low risk.
Moreover, there is resolve among these teenagers.
“We’re really committed and really want a season, especially after the track season was canceled,” said Krishna Thirunavukkarasu, a Brebeuf Jesuit junior. “Because of that, we’re more disciplined of how we take precautions and try to stay clear of COVID-19.”
Coaches contacted by IndyStar painted similar pictures.
Boys and girls wear masks when they are not running, including on team buses. They abide by social distancing and train in small groups rather than in customary packs.
“I know the kids are nervous, and that’s probably my fault because I’ve instilled the fear of God in them,” said Kendra Champion-McAloon, the Pike girls coach.
Karl Knerr, coach of Brebeuf boys and girls, said his runners are so spread apart when he addresses them before practice that he must shout.
“This way, we have a chance to have a season. That’s all we want,” Knerr said. “We want a cross-country season. I know it’s a low-risk sport, being outdoors.”
Yet even cross-country is not exempt from peril. John Christenson, medical director of infection prevention for Riley Children’s Health, said risk of transmitting COVID-19 is greatest when runners are bunched at start and finish of races.
“Those are moments when people can shed droplets of respiratory infection virus,” he said.
There is concern about myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart caused by viral infection, among COVID-19 victims. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said there have been about 12 such cases among college athletes.
Christenson said there have been no large-scale studies determining risks in cross-country. If you closely follow an infected runner who spews out particles of the virus, he said, the trailing runner would be at risk.
“If you ask me about football, I would tell you you’re looking for trouble, right off the bat. As soon as the coin goes up,” he said. “Cross-country is different. You’re outdoors, the wind is blowing, so the dispersion of particles is going to be different.”
The sport will be put to the test Saturday when about 1,000 runners gather for the Valley Kickoff at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute. That is also site of the scheduled Oct. 31 state meet.
Terre Haute South has been accepting more entries in recent days, largely because this meet is a certainty and the rest of the season is not. The meet has been divided into five races, with varsity girls going at 9 a.m. and varsity boys at 9:30.
There will be no coaches’ meeting, no awards presentation. Runners are to wear neck gaiters that they may pull down when races start. There will be no runouts, which are a prerace warmup.
Brebeuf runners customarily pray together before a race, but Knerr said they instead will do so on the minibus. He usually wants runners who aren’t racing to stay and cheer for teammates, but not this season.
Spectators at Terre Haute are to wear masks, and organizers have asked no one except parents attend. Christenson expressed concern about spectators. They should wear masks and spread out, he said.
“If not, you’re getting an outbreak there,” he said.
Distancing is a challenge at Carmel, which features 150 boys on the team and nearly that many girls.
Colin Altevogt, coach of the No. 2-ranked boys, canceled Carmel’s team camp and a LaVern Gibson time trial. Instead, the Greyhounds open Saturday at the Valley Kickoff.
Carmel runners have been divided into four training groups, no more than three to a group. Bus seats are assigned, marks worn when not running. Altevogt said the boys have met all expectations.
Brebeuf was third at state last year and is ranked No. 4. Thirunavukkarasu, who was 20th individually at state, said teammates are so used to protocol now that it is habit.
Unlike peers elsewhere, runners could train normally over the summer, and Thirunavukkarasu said he logged about 50 miles a week. Knerr said runners were so eager that Brebeuf had more attend offseason conditioning than ever before.
“They miss it. They want to be a part of it,” Knerr said. “They’re starving for that camaraderie.”
That can apply to coaches, too.
“About the only time I feel almost normal is when I’m at cross-country practice,” Champion-McAloon said.
Brebeuf junior Madeline Keller, who ran third in the state last year, said her team is preparing as if there will be a state series. She is the daughter of Sean Keller, an IU Health pediatrician. The runner said her father “knows how easy” the virus can spread.
Safest runners, of course, are the ones who pull far ahead of everyone else. Barring that, Christenson recommends meets with few teams.
Twenty-five teams, plus individual qualifiers, advance out of semistates to state. It would be plausible, albeit unconventional, for the Indiana High School Athletic Association to organize a two-section state meet and compare times afterward using chip technology.
“The people who would really like to see this happen and would like to do this safely will really be quite creative,” the doctor said.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.