‘It will be like playing on easy mode’: Cross Country during the pandemic

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

I think most of us expected the shutdown to last a few weeks, or maybe a month at most. We didn’t need to think about how to continue our lives during the pandemic, because we thought we could just press the pause button for a short period of time and then resume life as normal. But the weeks started to add up, and then the months. Somewhere along the way, we all started to realize that things weren’t going to go back to normal anytime soon. 

I have written a lot about how professional sports leagues attempted to adapt to the pandemic, but today I want to discuss something a little more personal and closer to home: Vassar athletics. Specifically, my team, Vassar Cross Country.

Over the summer, the Vassar administration carefully crafted a plan for a return to campus this fall. Faculty and staff worked hard to ensure that it was executed smoothly. Part of the deal for students wishing to return was that we had to make some sacrifices for the safety of everyone on campus. Fall athletic competitions were one of these sacrifices. The bubble model implemented by Vassar did not allow for off-campus competition or practice, so we lost our season. 

We could have just said, “That sucks, hopefully next season we get back to normal,” and left it at that, but we didn’t. The Vassar Cross Country team is an amazing group of people, and we love spending time with each other and training together. We are a Division III team, so there are no scholarships involved—we are all on the team because we want to be, not because we have to be. It was a crushing blow to miss out on our competitions this season, but we still kept training through the end of the summer and having team Zoom meetings with our coach, James McCowan, to figure out ways to come together. Fortunately for us, Vassar allowed teams to practice after a few weeks on campus, when all members had tested negative multiple times. 

It was the greatest feeling to finally meet up with the team in person again before our first practice back in September, even though we had to wear masks and stay six feet apart at all times. We jumped right back into it, running hundreds of miles together and grinding out track workouts again (instead of running in a pack like usual, we would start one runner, wait a few seconds and then send the next one until everyone got going and then we would repeat for the next rep). Coach James planned some team time trials for later in the season, and we were all committed to making the most of what we had. We had to totally revamp the way we did things, but we were willing to do whatever it took to get back to running with each other. 

It is annoying to have to pull up your mask and cut off some of your oxygen when your heart rate is off the charts. It sucks not having a locker room, not being able to have team dinners at the Deece, not being able to go off campus for long runs in the mountains or tempo runs on the rail trail, not being able to watch movies together or hang out at each other’s houses. Most of all, it sucks not to have meets. But everyone has had to make compromises in every aspect of their lives to live in the age of COVID-19. Lots of people have had to go through worse and sacrifice more because of this virus, so as a team we decided to take advantage of every opportunity we had this season, even if it wasn’t always under the most ideal conditions. 

One of the key moments early in the season was our team goals meeting. At the beginning of every season, we get together as a team and discuss what we want to accomplish. It could have been a disheartening meeting this year, seeing as we had no competitions to look forward to and we were living in very uncertain times. But one of the things that was said at that meeting really stuck with me: “You can’t always wait around for the perfect conditions. They will never come, there will always be something standing in your way.” 

This is true in all aspects of life, but these words resonate even more these days. In an ideal world, we would be training and having fun as a team together all season long until our regional championship meet, where we would run the race of our lives and finally qualify for the NCAA national championship. But as I always say, sports are a microcosm of life, and nothing ever goes exactly according to your big plan in life, so why should it in sports? That is not a reason to throw in the towel. If you spend your life putting things off until the perfect moment, you will never accomplish anything because that moment will never come. So we can’t go to nationals this year, but if we want to go next year we need to improve a lot as a team right now. We can’t afford to wait around until the virus goes away. This season has been a huge opportunity to overcome obstacles and improve. If we can operate under these conditions, then if and when the threat of COVID-19 is finally neutralized, it will be like playing on easy mode.

So we carried on with our training, enjoying every moment we could together along the way, and then as October finally rolled around, we started having our team time trials. One of the nice things about cross country is that you can compare times between people even if they aren’t running concurrently in the same meet. To try and motivate us a little more for our time trials, Coach James set up some virtual meets with Bard College and the University of Rochester. The idea is that we run our race on our track as a team while the other colleges run their race on their track on the same day, and then we compile the results online. The standardized measurements of the tracks coupled with the easy-to-measure individual results provided us with advantages over other sports in holding virtual competitions.

Our first race was a 5K on the first Friday in October. We had the clock setup at the track as well as the starting gun and some members of the track team in the stands (safely distant) to cheer us on. Time trials usually suck—running is hard, especially trying to run a distance faster than you have ever run it before, and it is easy to give in to the pain and exhaustion and just quit on yourself when you are just racing the clock and not other people. But this one was different: it was under the almost blinding lights on a Friday night and there was excitement in the air. When I lined up at the start with my teammates after working our butts off together all season long, I was pumped to run my heart out and show them they could depend on me. We all wanted to do well for ourselves, but we also wanted to push each other. We crushed it. Many of us ran personal bests and we all ran tough. We were really doing it—improving and accomplishing our goals in spite of the pandemic. 

The next weekend we upped the distance to an 8K for men and a 6K for women. We crushed it again, and someone even set a new school record (shoutout to Jack Casalino ’22). But just like a real season, not every week went our way. Our most recent race, another 5K, was a tough one. Lots of soreness from recent workouts and stress from schoolwork weighed us down. A few people had standout performances, but overall we mostly slowed down and crossed the finish line feeling crappy. Yet, this also presented us with another opportunity: every season there is going to be a bad race or two, and one of the things that a great team has to do is find some value in grinding out a tough race, and not letting it discourage them. We have one last virtual race coming up this season, and we are ready to turn the page and crush it one more time.

Our team-wide results from the virtual races were strong. In the first 5K, both the men and women defeated Bard handily. In the 6K, our women’s team beat Rochester 26-31 (lower score wins in Cross Country) and in the 8K our men’s team narrowly lost 27-28 to Rochester. In our most recent 5K the men’s team got our revenge over Rochester with a 26-29 victory, and the women’s team came in second (44 points) out of three teams, beating St. Lawrence University (60 points) and losing to Rochester (26 points). 

It has been a successful season so far, and I am very proud of us for carrying on despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. I am very grateful to be here and to be working towards my goals with my teammates. In the darkness of the pandemic, we have shown each other that we can still get it done. We are strong and we aren’t gonna let COVID-19 stop us.

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