During the second Saturday in November, a group of girls cross country runners from Corning dominated in capturing the team title at a meet in Middletown. The next day, more than 20 Corning runners competed against some of their counterparts from across Section 4 at Pheasant Hill Country Club in Owego.
Perhaps nothing is craved more by high school athletes in Section 4 than a return to competition. Cross country runners achieved just that thanks to the Southern Tier Cross Country Series, which wrapped up its five-week schedule with that Nov. 15 event in Owego.
Section 4 and its leagues chose to delay fall sports until the spring because of safety concerns related to the pandemic and budget cuts, while many other sections in the state went forward with fall seasons in sports that were permitted by the New York State Department of Health.
Club coaches from the Southern Tier looked for a way for their sport to happen, and an assist from Confluence Racing in Johnson City helped brighten the autumns of dozens of runners. Confluence hosts a cross country series for adults and opened its doors this fall to club teams from the region.
“My coach was like, ‘Hey, there’s this series you can do. And I was like, ‘Sweet,'” said Chenango Forks junior Pipher Reid, a 17-year-old from Greene.
Reid, a Section 4 champion and the 11th-place Class C state finisher last year in her first season of cross country, had not competed competitively since the indoor track season ended. All spring high school sports were canceled in New York state, meaning no outdoor track.
Runners from Corning (Corning Track Club), Owego (Indian Racing Team), Union-Endicott (Invictus Running Club), Vestal (Bear Claw Racing) and Maine-Endwell (Spartan) participated in the cross country series along with Reid and a Forks teammate who made up Blue Devil Racing. Owego’s Hickories Park, Maine Memorial Elementary and Greenwood Park in Lisle joined in as host sites.
Corning-Painted Post cross country coach Ray Lawson is among the coaches for Corning Track Club. Corning is home to one of the top running traditions in New York state. The boys teams won back-to-back Class A state titles in 2016 and 2017, and Lawson’s daughter, Jessica, was a state champion at Corning who has gone on to an All-America career at Stanford.
“In that type of atmosphere it’s definitely a little bit anticlimactic compared to what you’re used to, kids racing down a finish line, the cheering crowds and all that kind of stuff,” Lawson said. “That’s gone, but on a given perspective just to see these kids having a chance to race and to compete and have some normalcy. OK, so the crowds aren’t there and the fans aren’t there. But so what?”
Lydia Keys, a senior at Corning-Painted Post, is among those taking advantage of the opportunity.
“I’ve definitely enjoyed it a ton,” said Keys, 18. “It’s great to be able to race after missing an outdoor season and not having normal cross country races. It’s definitely been a good experience to be able to have the Corning Track Club.
“Most of (the races) are around Binghamton and just to be able to have the racing atmosphere, it’s really great that we’re able to to train with each other now. Over the summer we really weren’t for a while.”
While the Southern Tier season has ended, the club season is not over, with Corning runners and Reid among those set to participate in the Northeast Cross Country Club Championships on Nov. 28 in Middletown. With no state competition for even the sections that competed this fall, this will be a suitably significant substitute.
Quieter races, masks in tow
Runners in the series were masked up before starts, spread out wide near the finish line and separated by teams. The masks can come down during races, but runners pull them up during passing opportunities. Organizers had to follow state and local guidelines for gatherings, keeping race groups under 50 people. That means one race was held, those runners left, and another set of runners gathered.
Warm-up times were much more limited and there was no opportunity to walk the course before races, which is customary to give runners an idea of the hills and challenges and to make sure they don’t wander off course. Interactions with opposing teams were much more limited.
“Not being able to walk the course before is kind of difficult because obviously you don’t really know the course,” Reid said. “The boys being in the race and (Corning’s Sarah Lawson or Faithe Ketchum) are sometimes ahead of me, so I can follow them. Usually you get about 15 minutes to warm up and that’s quite different from high school because we would get there like two hours before competing and walk the course and warm up at our leisure. With this you can’t really mess around.”
Race fields were much smaller, with the last event having fields of 37 and 27 runners. Reid said at times it was so quiet you could hear other runners breathing. Boys and girls ran together, which Reid liked because it pushed her to run harder. Races were the typical 5,000 meters or so.
The ordinary fanfare of a high school meet was largely missing, with parents either watching from their cars or isolated from a distance near the course. Reid’s parents watched her run from their car, scoping out the best viewing spot before races. Even from a distance, she heard their cheers.
“It’s definitely different than a regular cross country season obviously,” Reid said. “But I still like going out there. Everyone is super supportive. The few crowd that can be there is always cheering. Here and there you’ll hear a person cheering for you. It’s still really encouraging when you’re running.”
Reid said the omnipresent nature of the pandemic comes to her mind only until the start siren. For Keys, it’s on her mind more.
“I definitely do think about it a little bit as I pass someone or someone passes me, but I just have to hope everyone’s being safe,” Keys said. “I know I’m trying to be safe. If you’re sick, you don’t go. Everyone just has to take it upon themselves I think. But it is a little bit scary and nerve-wracking, but I’ve kind of realized we’re going to have to live with it a little bit and do the best we can.”
Happy to be back
The Corning Track Club had been used primarily as a name designation for national events in cross country and track, which fall outside of official high school channels. The club has grown in significance since the pandemic.
Lawson said there are around 45 members participating this fall, with a given practice having between 35 and 40 runners. There are some middle-schoolers among the high school students, along with a home-schooler.
With runners largely left to train on their own during the spring and summer, just the opportunity to be part of a more organized approach is welcomed.
“It’s all them wanting to be here, wanting to train,” Lawson said. “So it’s been really fun to work with them. Many of them are as fit as they’ve ever been. I can see different runners from around that all don’t have that training group to work with. There’s names that are familiar, but not everybody’s at their peak fitness.”
Reid was bothered by a hip injury during the summer and said she was nervous when she stepped to the line for the first meet of the Southern Tier season in October. She quickly found her groove, as was evidenced by her No. 7 overall finish and first-place showing among girls runners at the final meet of the series.
“My times have been right around where I finished the cross country season last year, so that’s pretty encouraging given the circumstances,” she said.
Knowing on Monday you had a race on Sunday was a nice boost during the season for Reid, who is taking school classes remotely.
“It’s been super fun,” Reid said. “During cross country season in high school, basically every weekend you have a meet. We went through such a long period of time with just nothing. I was so happy to be able to start racing again.”
Lawson, who credits some of the parents with doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make this series happen, said a significant aspect of these races was to provide a lift for runners while keeping up their training.
“Especially the seniors. The seniors you feel the worst for because there are certain opportunities they won’t get back,” he said. “They’ll have other experiences and many of them will be planning to run in college and hopefully that normalizes for them next year, that they have a freshman season as collegiate athletes.”
There is a lot of uncertainty about the remainder of the high school year. Indoor track seems unlikely in part because of the lack of facilities, with college indoor venues traditionally where Section 4 holds competitions. Lawson mentioned the possibility of running outdoors during the winter if weather allows.
The cross country season has been rescheduled for a March 1 start, though there won’t be any regional or state competition. An outdoor track season would end the school year.
“I’m not super positive that we’ll be able to have an indoor season, but hopefully we’ll be able to race somehow on an open track or do time trials against other clubs,” Keys said.
“I really hope there’s some kind of outdoor season because I’d love to finish off my senior year with a good outdoor season, but we just have to see and keep training and hope for the best.”