On the Run: Events without the Busy Buzz
By Alexis Mercer
Most cross country meets that the Newaygo High School team attends throughout a typical season are large; consisting of hundreds of runners per race, with multiple races per day.
The Michigan State meet that takes place in mid-September, for example, would often contain more than 500 runners toeing the line per division. The gun would go off indicating runners could begin and the ground at Forest Akers Golf Course would tremble with the impact. With five high school divisions (both boys and girls) and also a college division, this meet meant thousands upon thousands of runners, spectators, and volunteers from the break of dawn until the sun was setting.
Covid changed all that.
Michigan State was canceled. The Portage Invite (the only invite we attend where schools from other states were allowed to travel to participate) canceled.
Other meets weren’t canceled completely but altered to meet the safety requirements given by the MHSAA and allow runners to still compete.
CSAA schools have added JV races to allow everyone to be able to participate as opposed to limiting the number of runners who can attend. Hill and Bale, an early season meet, limited the teams to 10 and allowed 7 runners per gender to compete.
So when Allendale sent out information saying they were changing format to allow all schools who had originally participated to be able to compete, I was thrilled. My athletes love the Allendale course. Its elevation change is perhaps 1 ft total. They run quickly and the weather most often seems to cooperate being that it is held in early October. Not too hot, not too cold.
There were annoying complications, like parents having to sign up early for spectator passes and an online system that wasn’t easy to navigate. But we would get to compete!
Allendale put on a lesson in event planning, however. The teams would be split up into geographical regions. 7 regions total competing between Friday evening and Saturday all day. No more than 7 teams per region and each team could then allow 10 runners to participate. Results would be compiled from all regions and handed out the following week.
All of this was impressive and I was grateful to them for finding a way to make the race work for our athletes.
But I have to say, as I pulled in to the nearly empty parking lot at 4:00 on Saturday afternoon, and found my team huddled in the location where we would have normally put our team tent, coolers, food, bags, and blankets, only with their one extra layer of clothing over their uniforms, I could only think of one description for what I was feeling: eerie.
The masses of people. The rolling off a bus at 6:30 am having watched the sun rise on the way to the meet. The smell of the caramel corn being made in person as you ordered right at the half mile mark. The volunteers holding back crowds to cross the track in order to get to the start line on the East side of the field. Sprinting through parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends who happen to live nearby and are so excited to watch a race to get to a point on the course where you could scream for your school’s athletes and be heard. Hearing over the loudspeaker to stay off the football field unless you are a runner.
It was all missing.
I’m grateful for any chance to compete in a safe way. I’m grateful to Allendale for being brave enough to rework a well-oiled machine and find a new format for their race. I’m grateful that my runners put their hearts on the line and ran the course with pride regardless the number of competitors in the field.
But I can’t help but think about just how eerie it all is.
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