Iowa Hawkeyes

Cross country in January? That's normal in this strange season

Ogden column: Big Ten will host championship races on Saturday

The Big Ten cross country championships will held in Iowa City in November 2014. That's the normal time of year for the
The Big Ten cross country championships will held in Iowa City in November 2014. That’s the normal time of year for the sport. This year’s meet is Saturday in Shelbyville, Ind. (The Gazette)

Much has been written about these strange times in our wide world of sports.

While shuffling through this global pandemic, we had a somewhat “normal” fall with football, volleyball and cross country on the high school and, for some, college stage. This winter has brought us basketball and wrestling — albeit a later-than-usual start for colleges — but also is bringing us more football and the start of volleyball at a number of colleges and universities.

While scouring the local schedules over the weekend to try to stay on top of all the postponements and subsequent makeups, something stuck out.

The Iowa men’s and women’s cross country teams will have a one-meet season this school year — and that one meet, the Big Ten Championships, is Saturday. In January. In central Indiana.

And “in the middle of the indoor track and field season,” said Iowa associate head coach Randy Hasenbank, who coaches all the Hawkeye distance runners.

Iowa State had a three-meet cross country season in the fall, culminating with the Big 12 Championships in October. That’s normal. UNI didn’t run cross country. That’s normal for 2020-21.

What’s not normal is cross country in the middle of winter.

“I suppose it’s happened, but it's unprecedented in the Big Ten,” Hassenbank said.

It’s actually not as bad it sounds, it turns out. The meet will be held on the Blue River Cross Country Course inside Blue River Memorial Park in Shelbyville, Ind.

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The forecast is a high of 40 degrees, a low of 35 and chance of afternoon rain — “hopefully after the awards ceremony and we’re tearing down,” said Gary Nolley, who built the course and maintains it.

There is no snow on the ground, but he expects the course to be “soft” on Saturday when runners from Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue and Penn State show up in Shelbyville.

“It looks very, very wet and muddy,” said Hassenbank, who has seen the course only from afar.

“We’ve had some moisture,” Nolley said, noting the course drains well and is mostly dry.

“That’s cross country,” Hassenbank said.

Yes it is.

Cross country traces its roots to the 19th century, to a game called “hare and hounds” or “the paper chase.” It is the “natural-terrain version of long-distance track and road running.” Courses used to include running over or through creeks and maybe climbing a fence or two. Think steeplechase on the grass.

This will be a different setting for today’s modern cross country runners, who are used to competing on groomed golf courses, city parks or, like the Blue River Cross Country Course, layouts designed just for the sport.

“The kids that are going are excited about it,” Hassenbank said.

Michigan, because of its coronavirus shutdown of all sports, won’t compete. Rutgers has opted out and Maryland is sending only its women’s team. Wisconsin (men) and Michigan State (women) are the defending champions.

Iowa is sending only four men, including former Cedar Rapids Prairie prep Jack Pendergast, and three women, including former Iowa City West standout and UNI transfer Gabby Skopec. The rest of the team will take part in an indoor meet in Champaign, Ill.

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The toughest part, Hassenbank said, has been getting in proper training. The men will run an 8,000-meter race and the women a 6K. Freshman like Pendergast and Max Murphy have never run that distance in competition.

Like all sports, there have been challenges for the cross country and track teams with the pandemic and quarantines.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of inconsistency” in the training of all runners and, Hassenbank said, consistent training is vital for distance runners.

“No one has a bigger challenge right now,” he said.

But the handful of Hawkeyes will “do our best” and they are excited to finally be running a cross country meet. In January. In Indiana.

“It will feel normal,” Hassenbank said.

Comments: (319) 398-8416; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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