NCAA D1 Cross-Country & Track runners reflect on A 2020 Season Like No Other
April 28, 2021
On August 13th 2020, President of the NCAA Mark Emmert made the move to cancel the 2020 D1 NCAA Cross-Country championships. Although incredibly disappointing, this decision was no doubt anything but unexpected in the eyes of the college athletes, as most colleges had already cancelled their seasons. By August 13th 2020, 229 men’s teams and 250 womens teams had already cancelled their seasons, according to milesplit.com. With NCAA D1 Cross-Country all but officially cancelled in August, some feel that the NCAA and many D1 schools acted too soon, as High-School and NAIA cross-country seasons were able to continue on throughout the majority of the United States. It’s also unsurprising then that on September 22nd 2020, The NCAA confirmed Spring dates for previously cancelled fall sports. The 2020 NCAA Cross-Country championships were bizarrely announced to be taking place on March 15th 2021. The rescheduled 2020 Cross-Country season was set to take place from January 23rd to March 5th. This news immediately raised countless questions and concerns from many cross-country athletes, as the previously cancelled season had been rescheduled in direct conflict with the indoor track & field season.
With hundreds of coaches and athletes across the country put into confusion at the announcement that both indoor track and ‘winter cross-country’ would be happening alongside each other, teams and coaches alike had to make the decision on whether or not they would be competing or training for cross-country, indoor track- or both. A prominent midwestern D1 school competing in the Big East conference, DePaul University was one of many schools who’s running program would be navigating through a never-before-seen winter season of running. Dominic Bruce, a junior distance runner at DePaul University, commented on the announcement and how it affected his team. “My initial reaction along with most of my teammates was a pretty confused one, we weren’t entirely sure how it would work and when it would start, I thought we’d be running in the snow at every meet and I think we were all upset that we wouldn’t get the chance to race in the fall. After we got back on campus and started working out together in the fall I think everyone started to get a bit more excited for it and it ended up being a decent season.”
Bruce, like many other D1 runners, competed simultaneously in both cross-country and indoor track meets at the same time during the winter. While the idea of racing a five mile cross-country race in snow and then getting ready to lace up the spikes for a half mile track race a week later may seem jarring to many athletes, D1 running national powerhouse University of Michigan was able to capitalize on the mixed up season, even among a two week suspension of all athletics at the school, which caused U of M to miss the Big Ten conference cross-country championships in january. The top runner at U of M, senior Devin Meyrer, was able to finish 11th in the 5,000 meters in the NCAA D1 Indoor Track & Field Championships, setting a school record for U of M with a remarkable time of 13:40. What is perhaps more impressive, only several days later on March 15th, Meyrer finished a stunning fourth place in the NCAA D1 Cross-Country Championships, running 30:27 for 10,000m. U of M sophomore distance star and former High-School All-American runner James Gedris commented on his teammate Meyrer’s performances, stating “It was great to see Devin finish as an All American again in XC… Having that level of success from the leaders on our team is really valuable in my opinion.”
Speaking from the perspective of a D1 middle distance indoor track runner, Oakland University freshman and 1:53.22 800m runner T.J. Brooks told a different story about how the dual winter seasons affected him as well as his team. “The change honestly didn’t have an impact on my training cycle or my indoor season since I’m a mid-distance guy, but it definitely impacted my teammates. They went from having one or two indoor races to a week’s worth of conference championship racing… The atmosphere was definitely different; sometimes the distance guys wouldn’t have a workout on the day we did, and sometimes both groups would have workouts on the same day, which made for a nonstop pain train,” Brooks told The North Star.
While the change may not have directly affected Brooks, he no doubt saw the toll it took onto longer distance runners such as Bruce. Commenting on having to toggle between winter meets, Bruce told The North Star “We only ended up having two XC meets and one indoor meet, but it was definitely a bit odd, our first meet was in ten degree weather and it was really hard to race that and be confident going forward, but we all kept working hard.”
Gedris echoed this sentiment, commenting on how U of M toggled both seasons head-on. “We actually had about 90% of our team training for both indoor track and cross-country at the same time. It was definitely a challenge having to focus on both at once. Training for a mile, 3000m, and even really 5000m is vastly different than training for a cross-country 8k or 10k. The volume and pace of the workouts as well as the weekly mileage won’t be very similar across seasons for [cross-country] and track so a big part of it was trying to find a balance between both. We had more volume in training than we would for a typical indoor track season as well as more speed than we would have in a typical cross-country season.”
Another runner who was able to successfully capitalize on the uniqueness of the winter situation for D1 athletes, was Michigan State senior India Johnson. Similarly to U of M’s Meyrer, Johnson competed in the Big Ten Indoor Track & Field Championship in the 5,000m on February 27th, and finished fourth in the conference with a staggering time of 16:22.56. Weeks later, she received All-American honors in the NCAA D1 Cross-Country Championships. Johnson was a key part of MSU’s Big Ten Cross Country women’s Championship victory in January, as well as their fourth place finish nationally at the NCAA D1 championships. Like others, Johnson echoed a similar sentiment. Speaking to The North Star, Johnson stated “Having two seasons at the same time was mentally very difficult. Luckily, we were able to prepare for this type of season a few months in advance. We approached the drawn-out season by not making our two cross races about ourselves. We ran for each other and we knew that if we did, we’d have a shot at a big ten title or national podium, both of which we accomplished.”
As both the indoor track and cross-country seasons wrapped up in March, D1 athletes competing in different universities, conferences, and states, all shared one thing in common (other than confusion), an attitude of gratitude. Speaking to The North Star, Gedris stated “nothing is guaranteed and we need to be really appreciative of the competitive opportunities that we get right now as they can be hard to come by at times. The atmosphere with the [U of M] team over the past year has been really good… Even with some of the setbacks we’ve had to endure that were really out of our control, people are still training hard and bringing a positive atmosphere to practices and competition.”
MSU star Johnson echoed a similar sentiment, saying “[The season] was still very rewarding. Especially since collegiate running, as of late, has been very competitive. We can’t complain about coming home with hardware, and we’re all grateful for the opportunity to compete again.”
Maybe the lesson that the runners in the NCAA’s top division learned is that the key principal of distance running can apply to anything, best stated by Bruce, who reflected on the 2020-2021 winter season in his closing statement, “ …As [the DePaul team] came together as a group I think the uncertainty turned into determination to push through it and do as well as we could with what we were given and not complain, but enjoy it, and I think that’s a mentality that much of the NCAA, and cross-country/track athletes have.”