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A Season Without a Season

Covenant cross country teams pose for a team photo after an intrasquad meet on Sept. 12, 2020 (photo credit: Riley Howe/Athletic Marketing)
Covenant cross country teams pose for a team photo after an intrasquad meet on Sept. 12, 2020 (photo credit: Riley Howe/Athletic Marketing)

By Andrew Mindeman / Director of Athletic Communications

LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- As the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout the country, college athletic programs have had to get creative to keep the competition level high and athletes in peak condition.

While Covenant also faces these challenges, the cross country programs and head coach Katie Stanford are doing all they can to have a normal fall season.

Faced with only training this fall, Stanford devised a plan to motivate and challenge her athletes. The result was a five-meet intrasquad schedule that allows both of the programs to face each other, and on courses on campus and around the Chattanooga-area.

"I wanted them to have something to train for and have goals for, so that is why I am doing intrasquad meets," said Stanford, who is in her 10th year as head coach. "Our home course is only a 5k and challenging, so I wanted to also give them opportunities to race a 6k and 8k on flatter courses so they could compare with other seasons."

The Covenant teams raced on the mountain earlier in September on trails they normally run for the Mountaintop Invitational. Both squads did the 2-mile trek on Sept. 4 followed by the 5k on Sept. 12. Stanford plans on three more meets in October at off-campus locations.

"I knew they would enjoy having some kind of competition even if it is within our own team," added Stanford.

Men's junior Benjamin Jones and women's junior S.K. Lipperd came out on top in each of the first two races. Jones raced to a 5k time of 17:19 on Sept. 12, while Lipperd came in at 20:23 in the same meet. Lipperd's 2-mile time of 12:47 on Sept. 4 would have been a top-3 mark in the Mountaintop Invitational.

Lipperd, the top returner on the women's side and a 2019 All-USA South first team honoree, believes the fall meet schedule has allowed the team to rediscover their joy of running.

"Having the competitions stripped away and a normal schedule has really allowed us to see running for what it is," said Lipperd. "It has reminded us why we run and who we ultimately run for: the Lord and each other."

Jones comes from a family of runners as his father, Jeremy, ran cross country at Covenant from 1994-97. The junior understands the mentality of the sport, and how these meets can have a positive impact on the programs despite all the challenges around them.

"Running and racing is such a mental sport, so to me, these intrasquad races feel as real as any other races we do," said Jones. "It's just about getting in the mental headspace to be able to go up against an opponent and really push yourself to your limits. If we're able to race well in these intrasquad meets, we're training our brains to be able to handle all kinds of draining race scenarios."

As the uncertainty of what a spring season will look like with cross country and track, the teams are relishing the opportunities to be with one another competing.

"I think just being able to compete and have our summer and fall training really pay off for races in the spring will be super rewarding and is super exciting to think about," Lipperd continued. "Everyone has worked so hard and we are really praying that we all see the benefit of that in the spring."

Stanford has been coaching a long time, but certainly has never experienced a fall season like this. However, the longtime coach is proud of her team's ability to adjust to the new surroundings, guidelines, and all that has gone into being at Covenant in 2020.

"I have learned that they can quickly adjust to changes and that they all have that competitive drive, even if it is just among the team or with themselves," noted Stanford. "It's also not just about the racing, it's about being with the team and the friendships that come out of that. They are happy getting to just practice together."

A return to a normal competition schedule will be a welcomed sight, but the Covenant teams are improvising and thriving during a difficult time.

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