In this 2018 file photo, runners in the Class C boys race come off the starting line during a North regional cross country championship meet in Belfast. Credit: Ernie Clark | BDN

Cross country is one of the lower-risk sports allowed for interscholastic competition this autumn amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s one of just two fall sports, along with golf, given the OK to stage regional and state championship events. The new challenge is to develop a format that crowns Maine’s top running teams and individuals within the boundaries of safety standards designed to address the coronavirus.

“We have our fingers crossed that we’ll have championship meets at the end of October,” said Brewer High School coach Glendon Rand, who is a member of the Maine Principals’ Association cross country committee.

That panel is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss postseason options, including how to compete within the state-mandated limit of 100 people for outdoor gatherings.

“We’re going to look at how we can run some type of championship events and still fit within the guidelines,” said Mike Bisson, MPA assistant executive director and liaison to its cross country committee. “When you’re looking at 100 people it really limits your field, so what would be avenues that we could run some type of culminating event?

Ideas include using smaller county or sectional races to qualify top finishers for subsequent events and staging championship meets for different classes on multiple days instead of the one-day, single-site format.

Fewer runners will compete in any regional or state championship race in 2020.

Five of the six state championship races last year had at least 103 starters, with 84 runners in the Class C girls race. Six of the 12 regional races exceeded 100 runners apiece, with the Class C North and South girls having the smallest fields at 72 and 80 runners, respectively.

Those numbers don’t count coaches, athletic trainers, timers and other meet workers, all of whom count toward the 100-person limit — even if they’re spread out over 3.1 miles.

“You really need to look at your numbers at the start and the finish where they all congregate. That’s really your limiting factor,” Bisson said.

Conferences are working on determining regular-season schedules, with smaller fields anticipated and wave starts planned to address the 6-foot physical distancing mandate.

“Cross country the last few years has taken this tack where they have all these invitational races with eight, 10, 12 or 14 schools there,” said Dave Jeffrey, a longtime former coach and now president of Brewer Timing Services, the state’s top electronic timing service for running events. “This year is going to be really different because there’s going to be just three or four schools there.”

Bangor High School’s Lydia Gilmore paces the field during the Class A Northern Championship cross country meet at the Troy Howard Middle School course in Belfast on Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Glendon Rand

Jeffrey said that will reduce the number of runners significantly, which should help keep the competitors spaced out on the course.

Rand expects regular-season meets will be staged in one of two ways.

One is a two- or three-team meet where the schools bring all of their runners. Another option is a five- or six-school competition limited to each team’s top seven boys and top seven girls.

“I like the idea of alternating those options,” Rand said. “Having the whole team there is good for team spirit and keeping your team together as a whole, but if there’s only two or three schools there it might not be as competitive at the front of a race.

“If you could have five or six schools and just bring your top seven, that makes things more competitive for the varsity runners.”

Wave starts — which likely would be employed for postseason events, too — involve starting a portion of the field, then waiting for a minute or two before sending off another portion of the field and continuing that process until all runners are on the course.

Social distancing at the start may be achieved by taking the width of the starting line and dividing that number by six to determine the number of runners in each wave.

“Probably in our first meet we’re going to have waves by schools, so runners from school A will start six feet apart, followed by school B and so on,” Rand said.

Later he envisions organizing the waves in terms of the fastest runners, then the next fastest group, and so on.

“A meet with both boys and girls would be limited to probably 40 boys and 40 girls, so I anticipate most meets would have two waves for each gender,” Randy said.

While electronic timers can handle wave starts, many smaller meets still will rely on traditional hand timing.

“Hopefully at those places that don’t have electronic timing they have few enough kids so they can just run a boys race and a girls race and it would be just like it normally would be in any other cross country year,” said Jeffrey, who also serves on the MPA cross country committee. “The beauty of cross country is that timing really doesn’t matter. It’s just getting people in the right place.”

The MPA panel should have more information once it finds out how many schools plan to field teams this fall.

“Once we know how many schools there are in each regional, then we’ll just have to figure out a way to make it work,” Rand said.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...