The Impact Of A Lost Season On Track Athletes

A.C. Reynolds senior Dwayne Lillie will lace up his running shoes this week, but it won't be for the state championship meet he had been eagerly anticipating for months.

Lillie envisioned himself pursuing his first individual 3A state title this week at North Carolina A&T's Aggie Stadium in Greensboro, but the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the world shattered his dream.

He believed he could have accomplished many stellar personal bests: 1:55 for the 800-meters, under 4:20 for the 1,600-meters and 9:10 for the 3,200-meters. He had hoped that hitting those marks would have put him in the running to perform well at the state meet in May.

The Appalachian State commit felt that he had something to prove, especially following the surgery he underwent in November of 2019 to treat debilitating heart disease.

But Lillie will not travel to Greensboro this weekend, and neither will hundreds of track and field athletes across North Carolina. Instead, he will go after that time of 9:10 in a two-mile time trial, with family members pacing alongside him on bicycles to help him still have his one shining moment of sorts.

"I had everything planned out that would have hopefully led to me getting everything I wanted to get done," Lillie said. "Then this coronavirus hit and all of that completely changed."

On April 24, the NCHSAA announced the final cancelation of the remainder of the spring sports season, officially marking the end of the final chapter for high school athletes. For the first time since 1912, not a single athlete will toe the line at the outdoor track and field championships this May. 

For Lillie and countless other athletes, the coronavirus pandemic has forced athletes to create new goals, adapt new routines and mold new attitudes during the difficult times.

"It's turning this negative and horrifying situation into something that's eye opening for the future," Lillie said.

Striving to Adapt

The rapid acceleration of the coronavirus in the United States and subsequent cancellations of many events in March felt like a whirlwind for athletes from all over. 

Shock swirled through Charlotte Country Day senior Sophie Spada's mind as she learned that she could not travel to New York to compete at New Balance Indoor Nationals in mid-March. Then she lost the rest of the outdoor track season and even the school year, news that Spada learned all within a mere few days.  

"It all happened within 48 hours," Spada said. "No more practicing with the team. No more track."

Other North Carolina athletes found the cancellation of indoor nationals heartbreaking as well, and saw it as a signal that outdoor track and field competition was in jeopardy.

"My first reaction was like 'Wow, this is real,'" said Cuthbertson junior Mickey Schihl. "If [the coronavirus] could cancel my trip to New York and my plan to hopefully PR or get All-American [in the 4x800-meters], I just saw it as the start to everything."

Once the NCHSAA postponed and eventually canceled the spring sports season, athletes felt extreme disappointment. They missed out on setting new PRs and didn't have the chance to bond with friends and coaches.

"I was really looking forward to mainly the memories with my teammates at the meets," Cuthbertson junior Will Walsh said. "We have a really good time all of the time. At every meet we go to, we make some kind of a memory."

The despondency even extends beyond the loss of competition. Walsh had been eager to gain key leadership skills as an upperclassman on his high school team and as a volunteer coach working with the Cuthbertson Middle School track and field athletes.

"That's always such a great time to connect with the younger kids, and I was going to definitely look forward to that." Walsh said. 

But for many, the cancellation of a season does not mean that they throw the training shoes in the closet. Rather, it means it is prime time to develop daily training and life routines to prepare for what's to come post-quarantine.

Lillie said he finds great solace in following a rigid routine to stay positive. From early morning runs, to schoolwork, to spending time in nature and to evening double runs, Lillie remains committed to following a somewhat structured life to improve his training.

"It's best to just suck it up and just go ahead and get in the routine of doing the stuff that you're supposed to be doing that will ultimately bring much benefit to you in the future," Lillie said.

Many follow similar routines-run, train, school, eat, sleep, repeat-through different modes and methods.

However, with most track facilities closed to the public due to coronavirus-related restrictions, many athletes face challenges when it comes to developing such routines. Cuthbertson senior Mackenzie Townsend and others have had to construct alternative solutions for training that usually requires access to a track.

"I haven't had access to a track, making things a little difficult being that I'm a sprinter," said the UNC-Wilmington commit. "I'm trying to go on endurance runs to work on my 400, and to lighten up the impact of running on the cement all the time, I started biking."

For pole vaulters like Leesville Road senior McKenna Brunick, training during this time proves especially difficult. 

Her pole vault training facility closed. Schools closed. Track facilities closed. How could she practice pole vault at all during this time? Pole vaulting requires access to equipment and facilities - all of which Brunick does not have.

"It's different than being a soccer player where you can still play in a field," said the UNC signee. "We can't pole vault. That's been tough."

Brunick instead puts away the poles and tackles general strength training directed by her pole vault coaches and her mother, a personal trainer. Each day she completes some school work and goes through vigorous strength and conditioning drills. Her background in gymnastics helps her complete these tasks more easily.

Yet for athletes who found themselves injured ahead of what should have been the outdoor season, the cancelations have allowed them to spend more time recovering and rehabbing back to full health. T.W. Andrews senior sprinter and Iowa commit Jenoah Mckiver strained his achilles at the 1A/2A indoor state championships in February and uses the time off from competition to complete physical therapy.

"I've been slowly recovering," Mckiver said. "Rehab [facilities] closed, so I've been doing stuff on my own and I've just started getting back on the track."

It would be easy for athletes to stop training since there are no meets circled on the schedule to look forward to for the foreseeable future. However, many want to stay in shape to prepare for future competitions-whenever they take place.

"When I do come back, I don't want to be a thousand steps back," Brunick said. "I want to try to come back and be ten steps forward than other people."

But even the training cannot make up for the lost opportunities. Spada wishes more than anything to have the chance to lace up her track spikes and compete in an 800-meter race - her specialty.

"I miss racing so much," said the future Alabama distance runner. "I'm a very competitive person. I feel like training is the only thing that's keeping me going."

She tries to find other ways to fuel her competitive juices. Spada strives to log the fastest runs among her high school teammates on Strava, a social media site of sorts for runners. She practically sprints the latter portion of her training runs in hopes of besting the paces and times logged by her male teammates on the website.

Amid the difficult circumstances currently gripping the state and the nation, many find running and training as a way to escape uncertainty and boredom.

"It helps me clear my mind and it's just something to do," Walsh said.

Others feel they have a newfound appreciation for the sport they now found themselves unable to participate in.

"At first, I didn't really like going to practice and stuff like that," Mckiver said. "Now I realize that I really miss track once it's gone."

Running Uphill

Athletes planned on obtaining those personal records, regional qualifying spots, and state championships. 

Underclassmen wished to enjoy another season building their high school running careers.

Juniors wanted to put up one jaw-dropping performance in hopes of attracting attention from college coaches. 

Seniors hoped to have one final race with their training partners and teammates and hear one last word of encouragement from their dedicated coaches. 

The 2020 outdoor track and field season will instead end with athletes pondering many "what ifs."

Yet athletes can only move on. Some will look forward to their next year of high school track and field, while others will continue their careers at the collegiate level or maybe never compete again.

But the athletes hope that their continued dedication during grim times can encourage peers and teammates for years to come.

"I just really want to be a role model during this time so that they can all fall in our footsteps," Spada said.

Spada said struggling through the consequences of the coronavirus resembles powering through a tough hill in a workout or a race. You look ahead to the top of the hill, just waiting to reach the peak and hit that nice stretch of downhill.

But maybe, Spada said, it's better not to desperately look to the faraway crest of the hill. It may be best instead to look down at the ground and power through, knowing that the struggle will be over soon enough. 

For track athletes that may feel that they've lost grip on all of their hopes and aspirations, downhill almost always lies on the other side of the dreaded climb. 

"I just put my head down and chug along until [the hill] is over, so that's how I'm taking this," Spada said. "Just taking it day by day and not getting too worried about the future and trusting that everything is going to work out."