An advantage that the sport of cross country has during the COVID-19 pandemic is that the athletes can train solo.
The sport, however, requires teamwork and teammates to make each other better.
Olivia Perdices, the longtime cross-country coach at Santa Barbara High, misses watching her runners push each other in training and competing in meets.
She also misses just seeing them in person.
“We haven’t met in person as a team since March 13,” Perdices said. “There’s been a lot of communication via email, Instagrams, Starva (fitness app).”
Now that school is back in session via remote learning in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, Perdices sees her boys and girls team members in the cross-country class through Zoom video conferences.
“It’s not an ideal platform for cross-country practice, but it is good for them to interact as a group in some manner,” she said. “Our program is built on a culture of the older athletes mentoring and teaching the younger athletes how we do things. That’s a lot more difficult virtually, and a big piece of what we’re trying to do in our Zooms.
“It’s daunting for the new kids to come into the program under these circumstances, and we really want to put them at ease with their teammates.”
Most of the Dons have been training through the spring and summer, following programs set up by Perdices, who coaches at the high school after working in special education at Santa Barbara Junior High.
She’s been flexible in her training plans, mindful of the precautions that the families of each athlete were taking to avoid the coronavirus.
“There are kids who were out on the roads and trails as well as kids who stayed in and did their training on treadmills and stationary bikes,” Perdices said. “The good thing is that in comparison to other sports, cross country lends itself to a lot of solo training. The biggest things we missed out on were weight room access and, most importantly, team support and day-to-day camaraderie.”
With campuses closed and the students taking classes remotely, Perdices gives her runners the flexibility on when to do their workouts.
“We’re telling athletes what their workouts are everyday, but letting them do it when and where it fits best,” she said. “Some are running before class in the morning, others right after we Zoom and some later in the evening. Some of that depends on their preferences and other obligations.
“Luckily, most of our athletes understand the value of the training process and are more than willing to take responsibility for themselves.”
With the cross-country competition scheduled to start after Christmas under the CIF-Southern Section’s two-season sports calendar, Perdices hopes health guidelines will allow in-person training before then.
“If we aren’t cleared to train together, I can’t see us competing and traveling,” she said.
Santa Barbara’s first meet is slated for the day after New Year’s Day, the Gaucho Invitational on the UCSB Lagoon Course. Four days later, it’s the Channel League Preview Meet at Santa Ynez.
In addition to six other invitational meets, there will be a league midseason meet at Dos Pueblos on Feb. 10, the County Championships at Lompoc’s River Park on Feb. 24 and the league finals on March 3 at Santa Ynez.
The post-season meets of the CIF-SS Prelims, Finals and CIF State Championships are March 12, 20 and 27, respectively.
Normally, a fall season sport, running cross country during the winter months isn’t an issue for Perdices.
“It’s going to be very different, but in a lot of ways I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “Usually the concern early in the fall is heat. With races starting in January, it will be more like what we deal with in our traditional postseason.
“I’d anticipate it being cold and maybe wet most of the season, which isn’t a bad thing in cross country. It’s actually closer to the origins of the sport and how a lot of the country experiences it every year.”
While the pandemic has impacted athletics at all levels, Perdices feels fortunate that things in her world are OK.
“I guess I can say I’ve been lucky. My family, friends and athletes are all healthy and I’ve never had any uncertainty about my job,” she said. “The other side of that is that cross country athletes and coaches are probably more guarded than most after already having track pulled out from under them in the spring.
“The thing I’ve been stressing with the team is to control the things you can control.”
She’s also stressed to her athletes to follow the public health guidelines, respect the rules and do your best to find ways and places to train safely.
Perdices looks forward to the day when she can be with her athletes in person and coach them up on cross-country and life skills.
“More than anything, I miss the day-to-day interaction with the kids and getting to know and impact them beyond school and sports,” she said. “That’s ultimately why we coach.”