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NMAA: Big changes planned to cross country to make it safe

Massive throngs running in tight spaces early in prep cross country races, such as this race at Nusenda Community Stadium in 2019, won’t happen in 2020 as new NMAA guidelines to make the events as safe as possible in the coronavirus era will prevent them, in theory. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal File)

Smaller fields, staggered starts, athletes in masks, no spectators.

And new start dates and finish dates for the season.

These are all part of the new guidelines for the 2020 high school cross country season, as outlined Friday by the New Mexico Activities Association.

Chief among the new wrinkles is that all boys and girls will have to wear a mask, or face shield, during their races. The only athletes exempt from this will be those who produce a note from a doctor.

And those masks must be worn from start to finish.

“It’s definitely harder to run with a mask,” said Leah Futey of Cleveland, last year’s Class 5A girls state cross country champion and an incoming sophomore. “I guess whatever it takes, as long as (we) get to compete. … I’m not quite sure how it will affect racing.”

It is important to note that the masks are a governor-driven mandate here in July. With the first meets now pushed back to Oct. 10 – and the state meet now scheduled for Dec. 4-5 at Rio Rancho High, instead of mid-November – there is 2½ months before that is finalized, and it is possible that mandate may be amended before then.

Host schools are facing a battery of tightened – and challenging – rules for the upcoming season.

“Compared to what some other states are doing, where a lot of them have pushed cross country to the winter, or some states are doing time trials … the NMAA did a great job of giving us the opportunity, the chance, to have a true cross country season,” Rio Rancho coach Sal Gonzales said. “Considering the circumstances we’re all dealing with, the NMAA gave us guidelines to have a true season. It’s safe, it makes sense and it gives us competition.”

As the NMAA will permit no more than 100 people at an event – a number that includes coaches, athletes and staffers for the meet, but not fans – the cosmetic make-up of meet fields will require comprehensive tweaking.

Smaller meets are going to become the norm. The Rio Rancho Jamboree, the state’s largest regular-season meet, has been canceled. Meet directors could also stagger start times throughout a single day and compare times at the end of the day if they opt for somewhat larger fields. In essence, this would be similar to how track and field meets sometime conduct heats in the distance races like the 3,200-meter run.

Courses could also host multiple meets on a single day.

Another possibility, radical though it may be? Virtual meets, with multiple locations. But that would feature athletes running three miles on their home-school track.

Other items of note:

• All cross country courses must be a minimum of six feet wide throughout the entire length of the course;

• Starting lines must provide six feet of spacing between teams;

• Team camps are being abolished for this season, and all teams must remain in their buses or vehicles until it is time to warm up. Following each race, teams can immediately cool down before going back to their vehicles.

• There won’t be a finish-line chute so as to prevent a large gathering.

• Boys and girls can run together in a race, but only in the regular season. This will allow schools to get teams in and out of a race area quickly.

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