With COVID case numbers at an all-time high in B.C. and more health orders coming into play over the past few weeks, it seems very unlikely that any high school sports will get in any competitions at least until the New Year.
But one North Shore sport managed to sneak in an honest-to-goodness championship competition while following every single one of the health guidelines in place, giving a few lucky athletes the thrill of competing for their schools.
Earlier this fall, before the latest round of health orders, approximately 200 athletes from 12 schools came together to hold a COVID-safe North Shore high school cross-country running championships. Well, they didn’t literally come together. But they still managed to hold a real championship event and hand out some trophies.
To make it all safe but competitive, the teams took turns over four days showing up at North Vancouver’s Rice Lake course where, staying in their training cohorts, they all raced the same distance and clocked official times.
Each team basically held an individual training session in which they all raced the exact same course, and at the end of the four days they had their North Shore champions, led by the Sentinel girls and the Handsworth boys, winners of the senior team titles.
The competition was the brainchild of Colin Dignum, a coach at West Vancouver Secondary and long-time organizer in the sport.
“We knew it was going to be safe and it wasn’t going to break any rules, so we did it,” said Dignum, adding that the athletes seemed thrilled to be competing again. “You could hear it. They were excited to be out doing something. They’re not all hard-core runners, but there’s not much of that stuff going on.”
In a sports year totally disrupted by the pandemic – school teams across B.C. have been able to practice since September but have not been allowed any inter-school competition – the cross-country season and its makeshift championship stood out for many students, said Dignum, adding that some schools fielded their largest teams ever.
“The season was a bit shorter than normal, but you could tell that the kids, I think like all of us, appreciate the small things these days,” he said. “It gave them something hard and fun. … It gave them a chance to get fitter and feel human again. And competition for a lot of them is big. They’re competitive people, they got to line up and give it a go.”
The four-day race, however, wasn’t simply an exhibition, said Dignum, adding that the Rice Lake course sets up perfectly for a time-trial format.
“The course is pretty much the same every day,” he said. “We didn’t need any marshals or a lot of cones or tape or anything like that. It was just three laps around the lake. … It was wet and muddy and they all had to run hard. The results were pretty legit.”
Dignum was on site every day ensuring that each team followed the exact same procedure to clock their official times.
“It was a legitimate five-kilometre race, they all had to run hard, and we added up the best three runners in each age group to get the team results,” he said.
Handsworth won the overall AAA team title while St. Thomas Aquinas took the combined AA title.
Individual winners included Sidney Clement, Juliet Pulfrey, Jenna Talib and Sarah Conlin in the senior, junior, juvenile and Grade 8 girls divisions, while Cyrus Young, Ryan Goodwin, Keyann Jivraj and Oliver Van Dijk won the senior, junior, juvenile and Grade 8 boys races, respectively.
In a normal year the athletes would have raced from the North Shore championships right to provincials, however that was not possible this season for obvious reasons. That’s a shame, said Dignum, adding that there were some definite provincial medal threats coming off the North Shore this year, including the Sentinel senior girls and Handsworth senior boys teams, as well as Sentinel’s Clement in the senior girls solo category and Handsworth’s Goodwin in the junior boys division.
The North Shore cross-country racing community is hoping that there still might be a provincial championship event next March – they’ve provided a bit of a blueprint for how it could work and are asking provincial sport officials to consider it – but for now they’re happy they made this event work in a safe and fun manner.
“I think you can guarantee that that was the only championship event [held this fall],” said Dignum. “It was great. … Even the athletes who don’t necessarily love the racing itself, they still liked to be out there as part of that. I was really happy that it came off like it did.”