Going the distance, virtually

Washougal middle school coaches find creative ways to keep track and field athletes engaged

Seventh-grader Grace Perkins (right) runs with her father as part of the school's virtual track and field program.

Jemtegaard Middle School sixth-grader Gracie Perry runs near her home as part of her school's virtual track and field program.

Jemtegaard Middle School eighth-grader Danica Stinchfield (left) and her sister Alyssa, a seventh-grader, run during a workout session for the school's virtual track and field program.

Jemtegaard Middle School sixth-grader Gracie Perry records information from a workoout session to a website for the school's virtual track and field program.

For Washougal middle-school athletes living through the COVID-19 crisis, “distance running” has a whole new meaning.

After the initial statewide school shutdown due to the coronavirus in mid-March, Jemtegaard Middle School track and field coach Tracey Stinchfield devised an online workout plan for her athletes to stay in shape for when their season started later in the spring.

But shortly after Washington Governor Jay Inslee closed schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association announced that all extracurricular athletics and activities scheduled for this spring were to be cancelled.

At that point, Stinchfield turned her plan into a full-fledged “virtual season.”

She created a website (washougalrunners.com), which features weekly workout plans for the runners, who can record their results via a comment form.

Stinchfield hopes that her virtual training program can provide her athletes with “something to do and something to look forward to,” and a way to reduce stress and anxiety.

“I was trying to think of anything to help the kids deal with the uncertainty, and I felt that this would be a great way for them to stay involved with something and keep a connection to each other,” she said. “The kids seem to be excited about it; they’re saying how glad they are to have something to do and a goal to work toward every day. One of the kids sent me an email that said, ‘Thanks for doing this. There really nothing else to do but run.’ I was like, ‘Yep, you’re right.'”

After she launched the program, she reached out to Canyon Creek Middle School coach Megan Lambert to see if her athletes would be interested in joining. Lambert enthusiastically accepted the offer.

Lambert said the program encourages students and helps them connect to their coaches.

“Being away from the kids is tough for us, but we can say, ‘We’re still here and we care about you,'” Lambert said. “A huge part of it is giving the kids some sort of a routine; the development of a schedule is important for peace of mind. And they can communicate with each other, see what they’re doing and encourage each other as a team.”

About 15 to 20 athletes had recorded their results on the website as of April 14, according to Stinchfield, who hopes to recruit more athletes as the season goes along by creating an incentive program that would reward certain accomplishments.

“And at (Canyon Creek), we’re trying to figure out how to reach non-runners, too,” Lambert said. “If an athlete is more interested in throwing or jumping, we’ll try to get more specific workouts for them on the website. But running is good for everybody regardless of what event they’re interested in.”

Some of the athletes have previous running experience, while some are new to the sport.

“I’m excited for this distance learning type of track,” Jemtegaard seventh-grader Grace Perkins wrote on the website. “Normally I wouldn’t be able to participate because I always have dance after school, but now I can do it on my own time and be part of the track team.”

The six-week training program is tailored around the end goal of participating in a 5-kilometer (5K) run at the Washougal School Foundation’s Student Stride for Education event, which is scheduled to be held on May 16. The workouts are designed to increase in difficulty and be flexible to accommodate the athletes’ personal schedules.

“(I ran) for 25 minutes, but I actually ran for longer,” Jemtegaard eighth-grader Aaron Sled stated on April 6. “It was fine. My brother rode his bike, and he annoyed me. My mom ran with me, but she is slow, and I could fast-walk her speed. My knee hurt sometimes, and I hate stretching. Mom made me stretch. My warm-down was mowing the lawn.”

Stinchfield hopes that the athletes can participate in a “virtual track and field meet” later in the spring.

“But at this point, we’re focusing more on participation,” she said. “Because we’re dealing with so many kids at different fitness levels, we’re asking them to set goals to run for a certain amount of time. We hope that if they follow the current training program that they can run a 5K five weeks from now.”

Stinchfield also hopes to start “virtual workouts,” on Zoom, a video conferencing application.

“They’ll be able to do their workouts together,” she said, “and we’ll have some classroom discussions about healthy habits and ways to improve their running. And the kids can talk and share their ideas with each other. We’re excited about the potential. We’re just looking for ways to make it happen.”

Running is ideal for a “virtual” platform, according to Lambert, because a large majority of its competitive elements can be completed in relative isolation, unlike a lot of team-oriented activities.

“Track and field is truly an individual sport,” she said. “We put a lot of emphasis on personal records, what you do from meet to meet and the growth you’ve made, even if it’s just a half an inch on a throw or jump. For middle-schoolers, those types of milestone achievements that allow them to see the results of their hard work are important for their self-esteem and help them to develop as athletes and people.”

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