Cross country during a pandemic? Local runners, coaches say not much has changed

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/19/20

Every morning, Sarah Barbour wakes up at 7:30 a.m. By 8 a.m., she’s running, with the open country and trails of Moncure as her course and contemporary Christian as her music of choice.

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Cross country during a pandemic? Local runners, coaches say not much has changed

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Every morning, Sarah Barbour wakes up at 7:30 a.m. By 8 a.m., she’s running, with the open country and trails of Moncure as her course and contemporary Christian as her music of choice.

The Northwood sophomore puts in three to six miles a day. She’s up to 184.8 miles for the summer. In June, she shattered her previous personal best in a two-mile run by 53 seconds. An optimist, Barbour said she realized the coronavirus pandemic has helped her in that regard.

“I’m making the best out of the worst situation,” Barbour said. “Without all of this being at home, the growth that I’ve had probably wouldn’t have happened.”

With life slowed down a bit, she’s found it easier to eat healthy, stay hydrated and most of all keep up with her stretching — “usually,” she said, “I’m horrible at that.” So far, the results of Barbour’s hard work have shown, and she’s excited to carry them over to the Chargers’ 2020 season.

Her progress is a nod to cross country’s place in a sports world still largely dictated by COVID-19. An individual sport at its roots, it remained relatively unscathed in comparison to team competition. And, more so than golf and tennis, two lower-risk sports that have also seen a surge, running is equitable.

“All you really need is a pair of shoes, somewhere to run and some motivation,” Barbour said.

As such, coaches in Chatham County said they had an easier time making progress this summer. Whether in-person, under the NCHSAA’s socially distanced guidelines, or remotely, their athletes can still go the extra mile.

At Woods Charter, co-head coaches Bernard Penney and Karen Hawkins just wrapped up six weeks of workouts, focusing mostly on “regular runs” of 30 to 45 minutes to help runners establish base times for running a mile, two miles and so on. They also utilized “tempo runs,” shorter-interval runs meant to build up speed for competitions, jump roping, agility ladders and core and strength training.

It was a “safe environment,” Hawkins said, as the Wolves adhered to the NCHSAA’s Phase One and Two guidelines for in-person workouts. When they weren’t running on the shady one-mile trail behind Woods Charter’s Chapel Hill campus, athletes wore masks, and everyone got temperature checks.

“Despite all of those added things, I’ve seen a joy that they’re improving and getting a few moments to hang out with their peers,” said Hawkins, a former scholarship runner at N.C. State.

Chatham Charter started holding workouts June 15, the earliest date allowed the NCHSAA, and will resume them next week after a dead period for the first five days of school. Cross country coach Gary Oakley didn’t hold summer workouts, but he said he’s working on a fall schedule where he can train athletes in specific techniques, such as heel or speed exercises, to supplement their solo distance runs.

“When kids are together and they see each other,” he said, “they’re more likely to push each other.”

Area runners and coaches got a nice surprise last Wednesday, too, when NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker revealed the association’s new 2020-21 athletics calendar. It places cross country front and center along with volleyball, as both are scheduled to start official practices Nov. 4 and competitions Nov. 16 — the earliest of any sports in the state.

Jackson Adams, a Northwood sophomore, said the idea of cross country being front and center under the new schedule was “awesome,” even if it brings some necessary adjustments to cooler weather.

Outside of a two-week stint in July, the high schools in the Chatham County Schools system (Northwood, Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central) have not held summer workouts. So Northwood coach Cameron Isenhour and his athletes have done most of their work individually, logging times and keeping up with each other’s runs through the app Strava, which Adams described as “an Instagram for running.”

This summer, Adams has started his hour-long runs around 7 a.m., running the backroads of his Pittsboro home. He logs between 50 and 60 miles a week (seven to nine a day) and, like Barbour, has improved dramatically — he’s dropped 42 seconds from his previous best two-mile time.

“The only reason I’m willing to do that is because next season in the fall, we have a very good chance at a state championship,” Adams said. “I’ll do anything to help that.”

The Northwood men’s cross country team finished eighth in last year’s NCHSAA 3A state championship meet, capping off a successful 2019 season in which all five high schools in Chatham County placed at least one men’s and women’s runner each on their respective all-conference teams.

This season, coaches and players want their season — one of the first in the NCHSAA’s attempt to resume high school sports, which haven’t been played since March, amid coronavirus — to mean even more.

“We hope we can not only be a sport that people tune into,” Hawkins said, “but a sport that gives them hope.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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