Collegiate running isn’t fair in 2021

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There’s something about running a cross country race that brings pain like no other. I am but a humble alumna of a not-so-impressive high school cross country team, but I can attest that the all-consuming effort that goes into completing a running race is the kind of feeling you can’t really simulate anywhere else.

Yes, all sports are hard. But running is really hard. Athletes in sports that involve but don’t revolve around running tend to dread it. The phrase “run a lap” is often used as a punishment for a team whose coach thinks it isn’t trying hard enough at practice. When you run a race, you put 100% of your energy into moving your legs over and over until you reach the finish line, climbing hills and sprinting across fields in the meantime. That in itself is no easy feat.

Along with the pain that comes from a race is the feeling of total satisfaction that the grueling task you had to complete is finally over. I can only imagine how good it must feel to be a collegiate runner having finished the first big race of the season. The pressure is finally off, and your body can succumb to soreness and rest in preparation for the next time you have to do it all over again.

The experience of running a cross country or track and field race is unique to in-person competition. As much as you may try to recreate the sensation during practice, it’s impossible to imitate the high stakes and total exertion that come with running a real race.

This spring, Cal track and field and cross country seasons are occurring simultaneously, which means that the distance runners are missing out on track season to run for the cross country team. While the opportunity to watch the Bears finally showcase their year of training against other schools is one to be grateful for, it’s still disappointing that the season is so abbreviated and that the track and field team is missing its distance runners.

At season’s end, Cal cross country will have had two meets compared to the six it competed at in the fall of 2019. The track and field team will have attended four meets during the indoor season — not including the NCAA Indoor Championships that senior thrower Camryn Rogers is scheduled to attend — in comparison to 2020’s eight invitationals before the pandemic-induced cancellations.

Even more disappointing than the shortened season is the fact that other schools get to compete at more invitationals than Cal. Real competitive experience is essential in preparing for the more important races of the season, and the idea that some universities get more of it is frustrating to fans of the Bears who want to watch them succeed.

As an example, the University of Utah’s cross country team has competed in two invitationals in 2021 so far, which is one more than Cal, and will compete against the Bears at the Pac-12 Championships on March 5. The Utes have also had the chance to attend seven track and field invitationals this season, which is three more than the blue and gold. Cal is being compared to and competing directly against schools that have had more experience this season, which puts the team at a disadvantage when it comes to things such as qualifying for the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships and placing well at the Pac-12 Cross Country Championships.

In recent years, Cal has seen many individual athletes on the cross country and track and field teams win events at competitive invitationals. On the cross country side, redshirt junior Mina Anglero placed first at the 2019 Stump Invitational. For track and field, Rogers is the reigning 2019 NCAA Division 1 outdoor champion in the hammer throw event.

That being said, the cross country team has had less success at ranking highly as a group. Cal failed to qualify either the women’s or the men’s team for the 2019 NCAA Division 1 Cross Country Championships. The track and field team is also in a transitional period, as this is only head coach Robyne Johnson’s second year with the Bears as head coach.

Every year Cal has to compete is key to growing the team as a whole and improving its rankings compared to other programs — however, some other programs have more invitationals, setting them ahead of the Bears on the basis of unequal scheduling practices.

Despite all the unfairness, it’s important to also recognize how fortunate Cal is to have any chance to compete in person. Even though other schools have more opportunities to gain pivotal experience this season, the Bears will bounce back next season when sports have (hopefully) returned to normal. This year is a setback for the cross country and track and field teams, but it is not one they can’t overcome.

Mia Horne covers track and field and cross country. Contact her at [email protected]