Benefield: Scrambled schedules, smoky air have cross country teams in limbo

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‘The hay is in the barn.” Meaning, the real work has been done.

Not one but two area cross country coaches used the phrase when I asked about how the poor air quality from the Butte County wildfire is affecting their final crucial days of training heading into the postseason.

They were striking a tone of optimism, suggesting that the miles have been put in, the muscles are ready and that these final days are just for fine-tuning. One coach called it “sharpening the pencil.”

But make no mistake, for the second year in a row, deadly wildfires are throwing cross country runners for a loop. This season, it happened on the eve of the postseason and has already canceled two end-of-season meets.

And make no mistake about this point, either: We have among us teams and individual runners with a shot at being state champions. So these final workouts of tweaks and preparation are vitally important.

But schools across Sonoma County have been closed since Thursday. Practice is catch as catch can in area gyms and indoor spaces, if it’s happening at all.

This is not how the season was supposed to end.

“It’s very disruptive to our training plan,” said Maria Carrillo coach Greg Fogg.

Carrillo has a boys team that could very well win a state Division 3 championship and a girls squad that could podium in Fresno in two weeks.

“But I’m trying to make sure that everyone is trying to spin this around for the positive,” he said.

Fogg has perspective on this one. He lost his Rincon Valley home 13 months ago in the Tubbs fire.

“Thinking of all the families that are going through just now what we have been going through for a year?” he said. “We love our sport a ton, but the picture is bigger than that.”

So coaches around here are doing their best to strike a balance — between keeping their kids focused on the final steps of preparation and having a dose of humility and perspective that if practice is changed or a race is canceled, there are bigger reasons behind the why.

The North Bay League championship meets originally for over the weekend, and then moved to Tuesday, were canceled late Monday. The North Coast Section championship — the qualifier for the Nov. 24 CIF Championship in Fresno — remains as originally scheduled for Saturday in Hayward.

For now.

With the smoke lingering, nothing feels certain. School has been canceled for days. Runners don’t know when (and perhaps if) that race will be run. It’s a tough way to prepare, even if the hay is indeed already in the barn.

“Of course, how can they not be disappointed? But it’s more along the lines of they are wondering what’s next,” Healdsburg’s coach Kate Guthrie said. “It’s almost like we are in a state of confusion. There is no direct course.”

But there are signals.

On Tuesday, CIF executive director Roger L. Blake issued a statement saying the state cross country championship would be run as planned on Nov. 24. But what does it mean if North Coast Section athletes (and others — we are not the only section struggling with this) can’t race this weekend to determine who qualifies for state?

The answer is about as clear as the skies above.

“Everything is dictated by the state championship,” said NBL Commissioner Jan Smith Billing.

So area coaches are looking for evidence that officials are looking at options — perhaps a change of location from Hayward High School or a change of date. But that presents its own set of problems. Officials can’t ask a runner go full tilt at a section championship on, say, Tuesday and then turn around and do it again at the state meet Saturday.

“In my opinion, if you delay it past Tuesday you are putting the North Coast Section at a disadvantage,” Fogg said.

“This kind of stuff is what drives me nuts because we don’t control any of it,” he said. “I don’t know what options we are pursuing, but I hope we are pursuing all of them.”

At this point, those are the long-term concerns. The short-term concerns are more along the lines of: Where do we work out? And how?

“In cross country you pride yourselves in running in the conditions that are present,” Santa Rosa High co-coach Carrie Joseph said.

In the Midwest or on the East Coast, major meets are held on snow-covered golf courses or shoe-deep mud.

But the skies above Northern California right now, Joseph said, are “a different animal.” Runners can’t gut this out.

Montgomery head coach Melody Karpinski had her runners at Montecito Heights Health Club on Friday and at Epicenter on Monday.

“I now know that 12 laps around the (indoor) soccer field is a mile,” she said.

She, too, tried to stay positive.

“We are tapering right now,” she said. “I’m just trying to maintain everything we have worked for.

“They worked all summer for this,” she said. “Cross country never starts in August. It starts in June. That is the only way you get to state, is if you put in the work. They are having six months of their life put into question.”

And a key question is this: If NCS is canceled and runners don’t run, who gets to go to state? The team or runner with the better rank? Who decides?

“There are a lot of ramifications to this,” Smith Billing said.

And some of that may come from individual athletes navigating a postseason that looks nothing like the one they wanted and nothing like what they worked for. And it might be about finding perspective.

“Yes, on a singular, individual level, this is a huge disappointment and it’s OK to feel that way, but expand out and in the large scheme of life, this is a blip,” Joseph said. “Put it in perspective with what is going on in Butte County right now. It’s OK, it’s a race. Yes, it’s your race, but there are other things more important to be concerned about and that’s the welfare of our community.”

And this community should know that better than others.

“Unfortunately we went through this last year,” Karpinski said.

But as Joseph sees it, her job today and tomorrow and in the coming days is not so much to coach the legs but to coach the mind. There are life lessons galore in sports, especially in one as difficult as cross country, but this is different.

“Their mind is their biggest muscle,” she said.

The hay is in the barn. There is no real work left to do. From here on out, it’s a mental game.

“What cross country is, is putting one foot in front of the other and doing the best you can,” she said. “That is what cross country runners do.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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