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Coach Dolan is doing all he can to keep his team together during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Credit: Chase Sutton

With long hours of training and tough conditions, Penn men's cross country is used to doing what it takes to compete at the top of their game. With no practice and no competition on the horizon, what keeps them going?

Alex Roth is a senior from Princeton, N.J. studying Mechanical Engineering. Like most of the cross country team, Alex is living in Philadelphia in off-campus housing.

"Most of us are in the same apartment building," Roth said. "We’re all in Philly, very close to campus. The main difference from before the pandemic is that we don’t have access to any of the facilities, but we’re still able to train.”

With the pandemic and the cancellation of fall sports, training looks very different. Despite the changes, the team is still chasing greatness — from a safe distance.

“It definitely isn’t ideal, but it’s not bad. We stay in touch," Roth said. "We have an online log to keep track of what we’re doing, so that keeps us connected running-wise. Without having a season, we also have some freedom with what each person wants to do right now training-wise.”

“We’re very grateful to be here and able to train with the groups that we can, even if it feels like it’s worse in a lot of ways. The one benefit is that you have more flexibility," he added. "Every day you can get your workout in when you have time — in a regular year, there’s the challenge of working classes around practice. Now you can move stuff around, especially with some classes being asynchronous.”

Despite changes in training for cross country teams in across the U.S., rumors have spread about a potential indoor cross country season in the winter. These rumors are largely dismissed, with most runners looking towards the spring or even next fall for their next chance to compete.

“Either way, we’re going to make sure we’re ready for whatever happens," Roth said. "Most people don’t think there’s going to be an indoor season. With cross country, I think most people are worried about how that affects eligibility — whether we would lose eligibility for cross country if we participated in an indoor season. A lot of people are looking into running for fifth-year grad programs, so it’s definitely an added complication.”

Cross country runners like Roth are determined to improve, no matter how far away their next competition might be.

“Motivation is definitely a challenge — it has been since the season got canceled," Roth said. "But for a lot of people on the team, the motivation is that this isn’t going to be the case forever. There’s always going to be another chance to prove what you can do, so you have to be ready for that moment.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to waste the time that we have here," he added. "If this was a normal year, I would have wanted to prepare and continue to get better week after week, season after season. You can’t lose sight of that just because the season isn’t there.”

Coach Steve Dolan is highly supportive of the way the team has adapted to the unusual season and how the athletes are continuing to train despite challenges. Like Roth said, the team is continuing to train and stay motivated, season or no season.

“I’ve been very impressed with the collective enthusiasm on the team, their self-motivation, and commitment," Dolan said. "They’re very motivated to continue to train and develop their ability to the fullest.”

“They’re doing a great job. We have a team motto for both track and field and cross country: ‘Have fun chasing your potential.’ The athletes are really motivated from within. Regardless of whether we get to compete or whether we can get together as a team, it’s about each person reaching their own potential.”

Like many sports, cross country is 90% training and 10% competition. Losing that 10% has not deterred cross country from continuing to train and compete among themselves, finding motivation within themselves to fuel an unusual season.

“We’ll be ready for whatever there is," Roth said. "If there’s nothing, there’s nothing, but if there is a cross country season we’ll be ready for it.”