Weird start to 2020

It was weird. I guess I should be grateful for fall sports to be back, more so for a sport I’ve covered for almost two decades — cross country.

Nothing has made sense in 2020.

That includes the distance runners in this area. A 3.1-mile run starts. Normally, a word sparsely used nowadays, runners start on a line with their teammates and bottleneck toward the course on the noise of a starter’s gun.

The gigantic wave of runners coming toward you is something to behold, like an enormous wave overtaking as you stand still. I had the pleasure to experience that years ago with the late Oscar Grant as he started the race at the Maplewood High School Invitational. Grant’s namesake is on Thursday’s race at the Trumbull County Fairgrounds.

That has changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything in our lives. Masks. Social distancing.

Runners are assigned computer chips tied to their shoelaces to account for their times. That stays the same.

What’s different is runners are assigned wristband with an array of colors to signify which wave they start the race. Chips are programmed to account for the delays of each runner, if they are not in the first wave — a normal start for the race. Nothing is normal this year, far from it.

Local official Lou Brown stands in front of the racers. He moves up his arms so all racing can see. The starter’s gun goes off in one hand. The first wave moves, definitely a socially-distanced group of runners with holes much bigger than you’d find in a poorly guarded offensive line in football. Guess that’s a sign of a good race these days?

Within a minute or two, everybody in the race is out on the course — each in their wave.

Parents and other family members are there, but only a few for each runners. No large crowds lining the course. The sounds of coaches encouraging runners, noise makers and other things normally heard during races are far and few between.

It was weird.

The course wound around the Trumbull County Fairgrounds, weaving back and forth from one side to the other.

The coziness and shade provided by the tree lining of what is normally the Billy Goat Challenge was gone for this year, but Champ the Goat, a wood carving of a goat with a McDonald uniform on, was on site. I took a selfie with the goat, which you can find on my Twitter account @jvargoTrib. I sent it to my wife, which she told me, “Nice picture, weirdo.” It’s just my jam.

Saturday’s Billy Goat Challenge has been run for years inside Woodland Park in McDonald. The sign stating the event and it was sponsored by McDonald was on the finish line, hanging above as each runner passed through the metal gate. The first runner came through with little fanfare.

Official results won’t be known for most races until most of the race participants finish.

No closed finishing area, better known as a chute. No litany of Ohio High School Athletic Association officials ready to direct and help along the way. Runners exit as quickly as they enter.

There was someone from the Bazetta Township Fire Department there to help, waiting in their truck near the finish line, in case someone needed medical assistance.

Two to three people, wearing masks, were socially distant and giving guidance to each runner finishing his or her 3.1-mile trek. Ted Rupe is the architect of race this year’s races all held at the Trumbull County Fairgrounds through his Gopher Running timing system. Command central is his blue van near the finish line, along with a camera to back up each runner’s finish.

The first-place runner is not what it seems. No hands up. No celebration. Just a finish. Exit the finish area and go to one of three tables distanced apart with bottled water. Family members are on the other side of a red line separating themselves from their loved ones. McDonald coach Chris Rupe is on his megaphone, normally telling who is leading or finishing during a race. He was there to remind fans to socially distance, wear masks. I’m pretty sure he’s rather be doing the first than the later.

No long stays around the fairgrounds property. Get you belongings and go on a bus or with your parents.

The normally social sport is another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People like Ted Rupe, coaches and officials worked tireless hours putting races together this year, trying make a semblance of a season for area distance runners — coronavirus be damned.

It’s about getting a sense of normalcy when there is very little to find in a confusing world.

Saturday, Billy Goat Challenge was weird, but it’s cross country season.


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