Despite poor conditions, cross country had fun competing for the first time in more than a year.

Nov. 9, 2019, was the last time Sam Lenze (senior, chemistry), Head Coach Joey Zins and the rest of the cross country team took to the competition.

The IUP cross country teams hosted the Welcome Back Mini-Invitational on Sunday, complete with four schools participating and 53 total runners.

“It was just a crazy week leading up to the race,” Zins said. “You’re just wondering, ‘Can we actually get to the starting line? Can we get to 1 o’clock on Sunday and have the race happen?’

“We were supposed to race on Saturday. We had to push it back a day due to weather, and we were supposed to have two other teams come here.

“When the race started, I was like, ‘Oh my God, we actually got here. We are actually having a race for the athletes.’ It’s not how I ever would have imagined it, but it’s something because they’ve had nothing for a year.”

The competition was originally going to be held at IUP’s South Campus Course. The meet was moved to Blue Spruce Park due to an accumulation of snow on IUP’s course.

It was an unusual day for the team as they ran the race on the paved roads. Even though the sun was shining, parts of the course remained icy, and the grounds, concerningly, remained open to cars.

Zins weighed in on the unfavorable running conditions.

“Part of what gave us the idea was in 2019, one of the Division I regions, the Northeast Region, there was so much snow, it was actually in Buffalo, and they had to move the race to a 10K road race and 6K for the women from the grass to the roads because the course was completely un-runnable.

“So, they had a road event, so that kind of got me thinking like, ‘OK, obviously, our course isn’t going to be ready. We didn’t get the meeting that I was hoping for.’ I just thought maybe we would have one three- or four-day stretch where it warmed up to about 45, and some of the snow would melt, and we could try to plow and get the course ready. We knew it would be sloppy, but it has just been like this. It’s not runnable.”

Even though the conditions might not have been the greatest, runners like Lenze and Marco Cardone (freshman, political science) came into the competition excited to just compete again.

“Once we got out here and I saw the team in the uniform, things got real very fast, and it was just awesome to see everybody out here hyped up and ready to burn,” Lenze said. “No matter what the results were, we were going to go out there and give it our best, and that’s a complete feeling than any time trial, so that was really, really awesome to see.”

“I wasn’t focused on anything else other than the other people you’re racing against,” Cardone said. “It doesn’t matter about the stuff around the atmosphere as long as you got your course, and you know where you’re going.”

Cardone finished second in the men’s race with a time of 16:16.2, and Lenze took third in 16:22.6 as the Crimson Hawks claimed the team victory with 22 points. They placed their top five runners among the top seven finishers.

The IUP women finished second of three official squads. The Crimson Hawks had five finishers inside the top-10 overall. Jessica Jones (grad student, mathematics) and Brianna Herr (senior, dietetics) had big days, finishing second and third. Jones finished with a time of 19:32.7, while Herr crossed the line in 19:42.5.

Even though IUP was ultimately trying to compete for a victory, Zins and his squad saw the big picture of event and placements.

“Yes, in the sense that you are having a race, so they do matter, but I think getting back out there and just having the experience of racing and doing what you love to do, and what you’ve been doing since you were in middle school or ninth grade or whenever you started in cross country,” Zins said.

“Being back out and just having the uniform on and competing was the most important thing. But you know it’s a race, so we wanted to do well. We wanted to see where people were at. I know if you talk to any of them, they will say that they all wanted to do well.”

Overall, Sunday was a successful day in which this squad could get back to doing what they love most: running.

There is a meet tentatively being planned for California University of Pennsylvania; no date has been planned yet. This invitational will set the precedent for future cross country events during COVID-19.

Regardless, of the results, the team was just ecstatic to be out competing again.

Hopefully this can be the start of a great new season for these great teams.

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