With schools closed by the COVID-19 pandemic and his runners holed up at home, Bethlehem track and field coach Andrew Rickert was desperate for an idea that would help keep a pack of bored teenagers engaged with their sport.
The best option? Embracing the power of technology and social media.
Thus, the All-Comers Quarantine Classic was born.
“We were looking to inspire the kids to get out there and have something to look forward to,” Rickert said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I think that’s what they need the most right now.”
The virtual “meet” will take place Saturday, with schools entering gender-specific teams of four in three events: the one-mile run, the two-mile run and a “relay” where each team member runs a half-mile and the times are added together.
Participants must run on their own and times will be confirmed by screenshots from GPS tracking apps like Strava that are available on smartphones and smart watches.
“You can verify that it’s legit,” Rickert said. “Satellites don’t lie.”
Competitors may not run on a track, both because most tracks are on school or public property that is closed during the pandemic and because Rickert said running laps on a track makes it difficult for GPS apps to properly record the distance.
The idea for the Quarantine Classic was hatched as Rickert saw road races like the Freihofer’s Run for Women moving to a virtual format and wanted to provide a similar option for his runners and other athletes throughout the Capital Region.
Running — especially distance running — is one of the few sports that’s easy to keep up with even during a time of strict social distancing.
“Running is one of the purest forms of sport there is,” Rickert said. “All you need is a GPS watch and a pair of running shoes, and you’re out the door and can compete with others.”
It’s exactly the kind of thing Mohonasen girls’ coach Bill Sherman was looking for.
“It’s a beacon of light in this dark time,” Sherman said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It gives something for the athletes to focus on. We haven’t stopped training at all … but it gets to be a drain of just going out by yourself training. My youngest daughter [Kate] is on the team, and I can even feel it with her that it’s just not the same. She’s excited about this, to see where her fitness is.”
Rickert said he made sure to check with Bethlehem athletic director Len Kies to make sure that conducting the meet wasn’t violating any rules, and was “reassured” that everything was good to go as long as no school facilities were used, runners competed on their own and social distancing was maintained.
The three events were chosen because they’ll be the easiest to verify via GPS apps. Sprint races are too short for the apps to accurately record the time and distance, although Rickert said a quarter-mile event — “anything shorter than that, it’s going to be really hard to verify,” — was under consideration for a possible second installation of the Quarantine Classic.
There was interest from field athletes as well, but Rickert said those events either required specialized equipment or were simply too difficult to verify results.
“I suppose people could take pictures of their jumps or their throws,” he said, “but without having a set of eyes on the measuring tape, I could see a lot of people getting away with marks that weren’t necessarily the most accurate.”
As of Wednesday morning, eight other teams aside from Bethlehem — the boys’ and girls’ teams from Ballston Spa, Corinth, Greenwich, Schenectady and Schuylerville, the boys’ teams from Saratoga Springs and Guilderland and the girls’ team from Mohonasen — had registered for the event.
Registration is open through Friday night — Rickert said either coaches or team captains can register for their team — and all running must be done Saturday, with times to be submitted by 11:59 p.m.
Participants are encouraged to post pictures of their runs on social media using the hashtag #QuarantineClassic and tagging the @bethlehemruns account on Instagram.
Sherman said he’s kept preparation for his team — done at a distance through Google Classroom and online video meetings — as close to what it would be if they were preparing for a regular weekend invitational.
“We pulled back a little bit on the mileage, just to keep them fresh,” he said. “I’m trying to give them the same real-season experience as best we can.”
Though the event is made up of distance races, Sherman challenged his sprinters to at least give the half-mile “relay” a try and got a few takers.
“A couple people I could see on the video were rolling their eyes,” he said, “but I know I’ll have at least one sprint team.”
There’s a small amount of wiggle room in terms of distance in every event — one-hundredth of a mile each way — and aside from the ban on track running, Rickert’s got one other rule.
“No downhill running,” he said.
It’s on the honor system, he said, but doesn’t expect much trouble considering the event’s all being done in the spirit of fun.
“There’s no prizes, so why cheat?” Rickert said. “It’s bragging rights only, so do it right and see where you measure up.”
Sherman said his runners were already scoping out optimal spots.
“They’re all scouting out the flattest course,” he said. “It’s strategic.”
Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.