The Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions will live on this fall when its 19th edition is held Oct. 3 at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.
But like virtually everything else being held amid the challenges of 2020, it will be much smaller than its recent predecessors.
1,620 runners representing 75 schools from Maine and beyond — the largest single-day high school sporting event in the state in terms of participants — crossed the finish line during last year’s seven-race festival.
This year’s field will include only 140 starters — 70 boys and 70 girls — representing 10 schools in just two races.
The reductions are necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically the governor’s executive order that limits outdoor gatherings around the state to 100 people.
“We had decided pretty early on that we were going to start with a base of every school that had been to every previous Festival of Champions,” said meet director Glendon Rand, the head cross country coach at Brewer High School.
“Then we were hoping that the limit of people that could attend an outdoor event might go up from 100 to maybe 200. We were holding out hope that number might increase, but we learned on Sept. 1 that number was staying at 100.”
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Of the 12 Maine schools that had participated in every previous festival, Caribou and Presque Isle opted not to make the trip south from Aroostook County for this year’s event.
That leaves Bangor, Belfast, Brewer, Bucksport, Ellsworth, George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, Hampden Academy, Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, Old Town and Orono to comprise this year’s field, each with its top seven boys and top seven girls runners.
“Ten schools is probably going to be the biggest race you can have,” Rand said.
He explained that the other 30 available spots at the event will be needed for the 10 head coaches as well as athletic trainers, timers and other meet workers.
“It’s going to seem like, compared to what we’re used to, that there’s hardly anybody there, but that’s what we need to do to make it safe,” Rand said.
No spectators will be allowed at the race site because of the mass-gathering limit.
“I understand it’s tough not being able to have parents be able to come and watch so we’re trying to figure out a way to live stream the event,” Rand said. “We’re doing whatever we can to make it a great event.”
Plans call for the boys race to start at 11 a.m. followed by the girls race at noon, with wave starts and electronic timing used for both events.
“We anticipate the boys and girls each having two waves, with the fastest 35 boys in the first wave and the next 35 boys in the second wave,” Rand said. “We’re thinking the [second] wave will start a minute after the first wave, and then we’ll do the same for the girls race.”
In order to comply with the 100-person limit, the girls teams initially will be based at the Belfast Area High School track complex where they can prepare for their race from team tents set up 20 feet apart.
When the boys race and awards ceremony are completed, the girls teams will be bused to the course for their race with the boys being picked up and bused back to their team tents.
Rand said it is important to continue the tradition of the Festival of Champions this year, but only in part because of its normal status as a key midseason test for most of the state’s top runners and teams.
“As much as it is a competitive event, it’s a celebration of the sport,” Rand said. “We certainly want to do whatever we can to have the biggest and best festival we can under the guidelines.
“We have the experience and the personnel to put on a meet like this. There’s probably no better crew to do it so I’m confident it will be a really fun and exciting event, even with a lot fewer athletes.”