The stage is set: It's a cool, crisp day in October, and two Berkshire County high school cross-country teams are socially distanced near each other for a meet. But, unlike in year's past, there's no mass start to signal the beginning of the race.
In fact, there are a string of starts throughout the day, with small waves going off together instead.
Welcome to high school sports in 2020.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has released its social distancing guidelines for sports this fall, and included in the modifications for cross-country is a change to the way races typically start.
Instead of the mass starts of yesteryear, runners will now take off in smaller waves, "possibly waves of 8-10 athletes," per the MIAA.
Runners will be spaced out six feet apart from each other, with the waves "possibly" split among teams. And teams is not open-ended: "Competitions should be dual meets (2 teams) only until further guidelines are given."
When the first wave starts, the MIAA says that a minimum of three minutes should be given before the next wave goes off.
One hard part for the runners to get used to, will be distancing on the course. Countless harriers have referenced pack-running as a key to developing a good tempo. Not this year: "runners should maintain social distancing throughout the race and not cluster on the course," the MIAA guidelines read.
But before runners even get to competition, they will also have to alter how they practice. The MIAA guidelines call for "practice pods" to be created, with the same "5-10 students always working out together." The guidelines go on to add that those pods (or cohorts) should be kept consistent on race day.
As of Tuesday night, Berkshire County schools that are currently going forward with cross-country teams this fall are Mount Everett, Monument Mountain, Mount Greylock and Wahconah.
Race days will also look different pre-start. Course walk-throughs are a critical part to a team's success in a race, but course previews this year "should be provided virtually via maps or video the day before the meet," the MIAA guidelines state. "No on-site course previews should be allowed."
And speaking of courses, the MIAA guidelines stipulate that teams should place an emphasis on "a wider course that allows for social distancing and spacing throughout the meet."
Warm-ups will be socially distanced, with each team provided its own area to get loose in.
The one aspect of racing that might look similar from last year, is how runners finish in the Berkshires. Over the last several seasons, the Berkshire League has partnered with Berkshire Running Center to do chip timing for races — that is, digitally recorded times. The MIAA guidelines lay out chip timing as one of the means of timing this year. "School must develop a non-transmittal way of scoring the meet to ensure no popsicle sticks, cards, labels, etc., are given out as athletes [finish]."
In addition to chip timing, the MIAA also suggest videoing finishes, or having multicolored bibs to score later.
Finish lines will also be very wide this fall. The MIAA guidelines call for a minimum of 28 feet for the length of the finish line, and teams will be instructed to finish on separate sides of the finish line. Lanes will be created for the last 100 yards to start getting runners to funnel where they need to be.
Runners will not be required to run with face masks on, but facial coverings will be required at the starting line, and "athletes should prepare to use a face covering at the conclusion of a race as soon as possible."
When the race is done, there will be no waiting for results. The guidelines say consideration should be given to providing virtual results, and "athletes/teams should immediately disperse upon the conclusion of practice and meets."
But while the races will look different this fall, there is one silver lining to the new rules — there will be racing period.
Geoff Smith can be reached at email@example.com, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.