Cross country is even more a distance sport this season for many

Michael O'Brien sprints to the finish line during Saturday's cross country meet at Aviano. O'Brien finished in first place in the boys group with the time of 19 minutes, 22 seconds.


By NORMAN LLAMAS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 17, 2020

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – Members of the Aviano cross country teams won’t compete in person against athletes from other schools this season.

But that didn’t stop them – and hundreds of others at other venues in Europe on Saturday – from trying to complete 5 kilometers as quickly as possible.

About 30 supporters came out to support the Saints on a cool fall day where temperatures were just right for such an event.

DODEA introduced the virtual aspect of the competition, which concludes with a championship on Oct. 24, this year in an attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. COVID-19 cases have risen dramatically recently in many European countries, including Italy. The high school at Aviano hasn’t reported any cases thus far.

“We have been working really hard and I wish we could have been able to compete head-to-head against other schools,” coach Ian Birch said.

“Our kids are very fast, and it would be interesting to see how they would do in head-to-head competition. I hope that we can see it materialize next year.”

At Aviano, the runners were divided into groups of two and three to maintain some social distance during the event. A total of 15 competitors took part on a course that consisted mainly of the asphalt trail that parallels much of the base’s perimeter road.

“Concrete’s terrible to run on,” said Makayla Hall, a senior who finished first in the girls’ race in 22 minutes and 2 seconds. “With the season being so short, we’re doing the best we can with this situation.”

Saturday’s event was the third of the season for the Saints. Next week, all runners are supposed to run on base tracks to present a relatively even playing field. Coaches will then report the scores and European virtual champions will be crowned. On the same day, competitors in Germany – where head-to-head competition was approved - will be running against each other in Baumholder with champions determined there as well.

“Competing virtually is a very unique experience because you have to motivate yourself during the race,” Hall said. “There’s no one there to compete against and therefore, you have to let your own values motivate you.”

“This format has been very different, but it has brought the team much closer,” senior Zachary Villa said. “This situation has allowed us to get to know each other better. I’m looking forward to next week and I’m hoping to run faster than I did today.”

Birch said a good part of his teams have never participated in the sport before.

“This is my first time running cross country,” freshman Savannah Dismute said. “I have been improving as the weeks go by. My technique’s getting better because I’m learning how to breath better and I’m also understanding how my body reacts to different paces, which is helping me run better.”

“I never ran cross country before,” junior Michael O’Brien said. He was first in the boys race in 19:22. “I’m a soccer player but I enjoy running. So although this is a challenge, I’m enjoying it. I prefer long running, but this is okay.”

Twitter: @normanllamas

Brandon Hwang, left, and Trenton Bouchard take off during Saturday's Aviano cross country meet. A total of 15 runners participated in the event, which drew about 30 supporters, despite the cooler weather.