Events

How NCAA Track Programs are Coping with a Global Pandemic

How four NCAA Division One track programs are addressing an unprecedented loss of a racing season in the midst of a worldwide health crisis.

Two weeks ago, in an unprecedented move that sent shock waves across the American running world, the NCAA’s governing body canceled all remaining winter and spring championship seasons in response to the coronavirus global pandemic. 

“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a statement, released a day before the Division I Indoor Track and Field Championship Meet in Albuquerque.

As the novel coronavirus—which has, as of Monday, infected 46,000 Americans and killed 515—brings American life to a screeching halt, NCAA running programs find themselves grappling with both the jolting cancellation of the track season and a once-in-a-generation world health emergency.

The Right Thing to Do

In retrospect, as COVID-19 cases reach astronomical heights around the country, there is no doubt that the NCAA made the right decision to end the winter and spring athletic seasons. Among the coaches spoken to, there is unanimous adherence to the calls made by health experts and leadership.  

University of Michigan Track and Field Associate Head Coach Mike McGuire was at the NCAA indoor championship track meet in Albuquerque with a group of competing athletes when the decision to cancel the meet and outdoor track season was made. Despite the disappointment of a lost season, McGuire says that he respects the decisions of “people who are a lot smarter” when it comes to dealing with a public health crisis. 

“The health of our country and of the world is a heck of a lot more important than whether we’re going to the Stanford Invitational or the Mount Sac Relays,” says McGuire.  

Michigan State Director of Track and Field Walt Drenth, who, like McGuire, had runners ready to compete at the indoor championship meet, agreed that the NCAA acted appropriately. He pointed out that by canceling the event, the NCAA helped protect older individuals essential to the track and field community. 

“I think one of the things nobody talked about, but was probably relevant, [is that] our officials are not young,” explains Drenth. “As a general rule in track and field, officials are an older group and most and most vulnerable to this disease, apparently.”

Before the meet in Albuquerque, the Ivy League had already made the call to cancel athletic seasons for the year. For Jason Vigilante, assistant coach of the Princeton men’s track team, the decision to cancel the meet was no surprise. 

 “At the time I felt that our leadership knew a great deal more than we did and they made the best decision for everyone’s well-being,” says Vigilante. “It’s easy to see [now] that they were both accurate and ahead of the curve.” 

Photo courtesy Jason Vigilante

And yet, despite the consensus that the correct decisions were made by the NCAA’s governing body, there is no denying the collective heartbreak felt over racing seasons and dreams being ripped away.

For Drenth and his Michigan State runners, the abrupt ending of the season magnified the devastation felt. 

“There’s no closure, there’s no ‘what do we do next?’ They just had to go [home]… It’s a loss.” 

Running in Times of Chaos

Few times in American history has daily life been so precarious. In the sphere of athletics, there is no predicting what will happen day-to-day. On Tuesday, for example, it was announced that the 2020 Olympic Games will be delayed up to one year. 

Asked if they could recall anything similar in their experiences as coaches, McGuire and Drenth drew on the 9/11 terror events of 2001. Yet the scope and length of the disruption of daily life is far greater now than even then. Drenth noted that the magnitude of COVID-19 is unique to any other national catastrophe he has experienced in how it has influenced every individual’s decision making and caused educational institutions to shut down in nearly every state in the nation. 

“I mean, that’s unprecedented,” says Drenth. 

So, what has this meant for running? 

Though Michigan State University and Princeton have outlined training plans for their teams, the plans are loose and voluntary. Vigilante emailed his Princeton runners a week ago to outline their steps forward, acknowledging that a return to full training will take time given the stressful circumstances. Drenth gave his runners a three-week general training plan to do on their own volition, and said he will continue to through mid-May when the Big Ten conference track meet would have taken place. 

Per direction of the University of Michigan athletic department, McGuire has not been in contact with his runners from a training perspective. If they are running, he says, it’s simply to deal with anxiety rather than to train. 

Louis Quintana, the head track and field coach of Oregon State University, believes that this health crisis has put into perspective the mentally and physically wearing nature of the three-season sport distance runners go through at the NCAA level. In his view, now is a time for a necessary pause in the constant grind and hype of competitive running. He encouraged his athletes not to stress about structured training, but to think of running as a form of somatic therapy to serve as a mental break from the persistent chaos. 

“Running is a great joy in your life and that is all it should be right now,” Quintana told his athletes. “It should be cathartic and therapeutic to get out the door every day. Run because you love it.”

Oregon State University runners laughing in a circle.
Photo courtesy Louis Quintana

The big picture

For McGuire, making sacrifices to work through the COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate expression of teamwork. 

“We’re all in this together,” he says. “This is a national emergency, a national crisis. It’s a world crisis… We’ve got to rally around each other” 

Similarly, Vigilante hopes that athletes around the NCAA who have had seasons cut short will utilize their extra time to translate their team mentality into helping their communities. “It’s clear our country needs a strong dose of leadership at every level, perhaps this is a time that galvanizes us together.”

Noting that this national health emergency could very well take a serious psychological toll on the entire country, Quintana offers this advice:  “I would encourage all competitive runners… to use this time [not just] to run, but to heal physically and emotionally. To learn that it’s okay to take a break.  Shoot, right now, everyone is taking a break.”