Meets Under COVID: What Are They Like?

There will be no massive fields like the old UNM Lobo meet this year.

In this article, we take a look at meets under COVID regulations. Are they a drag? Are they just as good as meets were before? Or is there some give and taken to be found?

You may have already guessed the answer I'm intending to lead you toward, but it's probably still worth stepping through the hoops of the discussion.

There's no escaping the fact that meets under COVID are smaller than they were before. With the exception of a few very small school meets in more isolated parts of the state (whether that state be New Mexico or my home of Colorado), the meets are smaller than what we've grown accustomed to. Mostly much smaller.

In Colorado this fall, we've been limited to meets of 100 participants or fewer. While something very much like that appears to be in place for New Mexico, how the Land of Enchantment is getting there looks a little different from how things have looked in Colorado.

In Colorado, we've loaded races up to get as close to 100 athletes as we can. One boys race of 50 and one girls race of 50. If a meet wants to be larger than that, they have to run over multiple days. Some meets are varsity, while other meets are some level or another of JV. I'm hearing a lot about varsity, JV, and C races in New Mexico. In any case, the format isn't going to be as large as it was as recently as last year.

I have this much to say about smaller races: they take very little getting used to. At some point, it just doesn't matter that much if you're racing (or coaching) in a race of 30 or a race of 300 athletes. There's still passing. There are still hills to get over. The finish line is still 5K away. And, there is something to be said for running through less traffic. Just like there's something to be said for the feel, and noise, of a very large race.

As a coach, I find it much easier to find my athletes and yell some words of exhortation or encouragement in a small race. Honestly, I feel more involved in the race. I think that part is mostly a good thing.

One of the unintended consequences of smaller races is the widespread elimination of the use of timing companies. If you're not going to see more than 50 people coming through the finish line in any given race, it isn't that difficult to hand time the thing. And, it's much cheaper--which is suddenly very important. I do realize, however, that timing companies haven't yet become the staple of meet existence in New Mexico that they were in Colorado up until this year.

Gone, however, are the days of popsicle sticks and poster boards. One person records bib numbers at the finish line. Another person records times. The two lists are combined in a scoring program and, shortly thereafter, a set of completed results appear.

Typically, though, the finished results aren't available, at least not in any detail, at the meet site. If results are available on site, it's only because you can check the timer's live results with your phone. Typically, they get posted online shortly (hopefully) after the race. That right there might be the worst thing about racing under COVID. Nobody really wants to wait that long to see which team won the race. 

You want to celebrate (or not) on the spot!

Even that cloud, however, has a silver lining. The kids, and the parents, remain interested in the event longer into the evening (or day, as the case may be). 

Here in Colorado, competitors are allowed to remove masks (or bandannas) as soon as the race begins. So far, New Mexico hasn't embraced that concept. Perhaps it is coming, and perhaps not. If not, cross country will be a different sport this fall on account of that.

Suffice it to say, a mask or a bandanna is an impediment to breathing. I've decided it's good policy for me to keep my mask on all the time during practice (not required in Colorado), and I routinely find myself huffing and puffing over something that wouldn't have fazed me a year ago. I've also learned there is a large difference between masks with respect to how much air slips in around the edges when I'm breathing hard. So, I've become a little choosy about which masks I'll wear to practice.

I'm certain I'm nowhere near the first person to make this discovery.

Here in Colorado, competitors are getting astonishingly good at removing masks in the first seconds of a race. The masks get tucked away lots of different places, but runners have to keep them with them during the race. And, once they've sucked in a few lungs full of oxygen at the finish, the masks are required to go back up. 

At least one team in Colorado has been disqualified for refusing to wear masks at the start line. That seems to me a strange hill to choose to die on, but I'm guessing they are now done with that experiment. And, I'm sure the officials association has had a conversation or two on that topic for meets going forward.

The finish line is also an area of some significant difference from years gone by. Here in Colorado, at least, the chute has been eliminated entirely. An area is kept clear around the finish, runners have whatever time they need (within reason) to recover somewhere beyond the finish line, then get a mask up and join the rest of the human race. Interaction between runners in this area is frowned upon.

All involved agree that the restriction against interaction between runners is a violation of principles of sportsmanship that we've taught for years out of memory, but that's what the state association and the department of health tell us we need to do. 

One thing we've seen a lot of in Colorado that I'm not sure you'll see at all in New Mexico is wave starts. The Colorado State Department of Health has limited us to 25 individuals starting a race at a time. With a race capacity of 50 individuals per race, that means two different starting times, typically separated by a couple of minutes. 

Initially, everyone wanted to start in the first wave, allegedly the faster wave (starting the faster wave first means less likelihood of groups converging on the course). But, it hasn't necessarily been borne out that it's advantageous to start in the first wave. There have been several remarkable performances out of second waves. "Something to chase" is proving to be a mindset of value--at least for some individuals.

Sometime this fall, I'm hoping to make it down to New Mexico to catch a cross country event or two. I'm sure I'll notice some new things that haven't made it into print here. But, by and large, I expect that most of your experience will be reminiscent of what we've seen here in Colorado this fall.

In any case, all the best on a great season when it comes. Hope deferred, while always difficult to endure, is not an all bad thing.