Navigating Meets In View Of COVID-19

It may be a whole different kind of start this fall than what we're used to seeing.

It's anyone's guess exactly what high school cross country looks like in New Mexico once it gets off the ground this fall. Doubtless there will be some changes we haven't really heard about yet. But, we have heard about some of the changes. Assuming that cross country does start as currently scheduled on September 14, there are some things already worth talking about.

Specifically, how do you manage things like starts and finishes?

There's conversation afoot about limited meet size. Right now, nobody much is questioning that meet sizes will be limited. The big question, then, is to what? Five teams? Ten Teams? A limit on the number of runners?

Once you set a limit on meet size, there remain other questions to be answered. Among the most prominent of those questions are concerns about how to start and finish the races. 

If you limit a meet to five teams and seven runners per team, you have a start line of no more than 35 runners. At that point, some are going to question if there's any point in breaking up the start line any further. But, others will answer with a resounding, "Yes!"

The person who wins that argument has a lot to do with whether you want to consider the content of the next section of the article, or not.

Supposing the person who wants more separation at the start wins the debate, what more can you do to reduce congestion at the start?

If you've been reading around the distance running community--both message boards and articles--you've seen the suggestion of wave starts. The most common, but not the only, suggestion for doing wave starts is to release each teams top runner first, then--30 or so seconds later--each team's second runner. And so forth until all the runners are released. 

That works to help spread apart the field, but probably mostly so in the first 500 to 1000 meters. Beyond that, you'll largely see runners running in the same clusters they would have been running in, anyway. 

Another method for breaking up the start, and one that's starting to gain some more attention of late, is what you could call an incremented start. You rank order the competitors before the race by seed time (imperfect, of course, but still some basis in reality). You release the top-ranked runner first, the next runner second, and so on until all runners are released. Time the releases about two to three seconds apart. 

This effectively spreads the field out and guarantees that--in general, if not in all the particulars--that the field will tend to further spread out as the race develops.

Both wave starts and incremented starts, however, bring some timing peculiarities with them. Essentially, there's no fair way to do incremented starts without chip timing. The runners cross one timing mat shortly after starting. They cross a second timing mat at the finish line. The difference between those two times is their race time. You can't do it by hand with enough accuracy to time a serious race that way. Even with only 35 runners, it would be a monstrous undertaking to try to time such a race by hand-timing each runner.

Wave starts can be done either by hand or by chip timing. Chip timing is easier, more accurate, and more expensive. Unfortunately, ease and accuracy come at a price.

You can, however, do wave starts by hand timing with good coordination between your starter and timer (or representative thereof). The key is to get good deltas on each new wave so that you know what time to offset the times of those runners by. Without that, all is lost. 

It's also probably a good idea to round everything to full seconds and accept that you're going to need to accept a few ties in the scoring. If not everybody starts at the same time, small imperfections creep into the timing, no matter how careful you try to be. Better to declare a few ties than to try to split the hairs of all the small imperfections.

Probably as much as any state in the nation, New Mexico still uses hand timing at cross country meets. For those meets that do that still, any method other than the traditional start is going to require some extra work and attention to detail. Start planning for it now.

A video camera (or two) at the finish line can help immensely with timing if you're willing to postpone results until that evening or sometime the next day. Bib numbers are an excellent idea if you're using a camera at the finish line.

The big advantage of a camera at the finish line, of course, is that you get more than one chance to record the finish correctly. In theory, you could do the same at the start line. At some point, though, it becomes a lot of cameras, and somebody needs to watch all the video for the effort to be worthwhile.

Whether or not you mess around with different methods of starting, you definitely want to consider some different methods of finishing this fall. The traditional chute figures to be an open invitation for transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Sweaty people hugging, people breathing heavily in each other's faces, people throwing up (sometimes on other people), parents rushing in to throw arms around their son or daughter, and so it goes...

Short of an air-conditioned hazmat suit, nobody is likely to be much interested in taking stickers or tear-off tags from competitors coming through the finish line. 

You're beginning to see why--at least if you don't have chip timing--that the two cameras at the finish line might be a better idea than you first imagined.

Besides the cameras, though, what do you need to do? 

One, cordon the area off and make it off limits for all spectators. It's nice if you have a vantage point not far from the finish line where people can go (presumably with masks on) to see the finish, but the area right around the finish needs to be a no-go zone for all except race personnel and competitors.

Two, establish a protocol for where runners are to go after finishing. Runners from Team A might take a hard right, Team B might take a soft right, Team C might proceed straight ahead, and so on. If you let runners mix and linger around the finish line, you're inviting COVID-19 to mix and linger right along with them. A coach standing at each position might provide a good marker for the destination for each team.

Three, tell coaches, athletes, and spectators that official results will be emailed to the various schools by the next day. Send results to MileSplit for quicker posting. A results board isn't such a great idea these days. If chip timing is used, results can be posted to a live results site (MileSplit will be unveiling its own updated live results service this fall). People can then bring up results on their phones.

So, it's still cross country. It will just need to look a little different this fall. We're a highly adaptable race of creatures; we'll manage. Somehow.

There are other things to think about as well. Crowd control is at or near the top of that list. Topics like this should provide conversation fodder for several weeks to come. Meanwhile, if you have any great start or finish ideas of your own to share, click on More/Discuss on the gray navigation bar above. Start or join a conversation about these topics!

Jaren Brooks' earlier article on changes coming to cross country here.