The rhythm of the seasons often serves as a notation of the events that come with them. It’s autumn, which means students are settling into the routine of the academic schedule, the bluffs are gaining their fall colors and pumpkins are popping up on front porches.
In my sixteen years at Luther, autumn also means we are in the thick of the cross country season. The team revels in the cool bite in the air, a welcome respite from the summer’s miles of heat and humidity. Autumn signifies a point in the season when their fitness transitions from base building to the specificity of racing. The championships are on the horizon!
Ah, but we are in the era of COVID-19 this fall and things are a little different. The NCAA and American Rivers Conference (A-R-C) has reshaped what the athletic landscape looks like at Luther for all sports. Cross country, along with tennis and golf, are the few and fortunate teams that get to compete this fall. After our experience in March when athletics were shut down in what felt like a matter of hours, we arrived at practice this fall with a new found appreciation for what previously had felt routine. The simple act of heading out for a run with a few teammates, something that has not been done since early March, has gained a new level of joy.
Our routines are different. We started the season in mid-August with a COVID test and five days of quarantine, joining together only for packaged meals on Bentdahl Commons, sure to keep six or more feet between us at all times. And masked of course. Once cleared to practice, we divided the team into six pods in an attempt to keep a positive case from taking out the whole lot in one fell swoop. Each athlete is required to complete an online daily COVID screen every morning and have their temperature checked at practice. We wear masks all the time unless we are running and can maintain at least six feet between us.
It felt so constricting. Our action packed preseason designed to build connections and ground the runners in the beauty of our natural surroundings was diminished to connecting behind masks and over Zoom. As off balance as I felt, my first-years reassured me that they were having a great time. They had nothing to compare it to. I hope I get the chance to show them a different preseason next fall.
As challenging as those first few weeks felt, we have found our rhythm. Temperature checks and masks are simply part of the routine. We have been able to connect, finding our footing in our common endeavor to become the best distance runners we can this fall. With some creativity, we have been able to explore the Oneota Valley and the gravel roads of Winneshiek County in ways that are both familiar and unique to this season. For instance, we used a combination of bikes and canoes to both explore and transport ourselves to Professor Jon Jensen’s farm for a fuller immersion in this beautiful place.
We have been lucky to race twice thus far, with more scheduled in the coming weeks. Opportunities to toe the line are few, so each one is approached with a new level of intensity, allowing us to embrace it in a way completely unique to this season. While we are building toward the conference championship in early November, each of us knows the precarious nature of competition. Savor each practice and make the most of each race.
We take nothing for granted, embracing each glorious autumn day whether it be a biting indication of winter’s approach or carry a whispered warmth of the summer receding. It is an opportunity to challenge ourselves physically in synchrony with our mates.