Student-led distance runner training is giving some Gorge athletes the opportunity to stay in shape — physically and mentally — as high schools and their coaching staffs navigate life with COVID-19.

Go to some of the popular distance running routes in the Gorge — Sorosis Park or the Riverfront Trail in The Dalles, or Indian Creek Trail in Hood River, for example — and you’ll likely see groups of high school runners, and maybe even a few middle schoolers, out training at various times of the day.

In a “normal” year, high school distance runners would have finished their summer training programs and transitioned to school-based cross country competition. That hasn’t — and won’t — occur this fall.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association lists two seasons for competitive cross country: One which began Sept. 7; and one that begins March 1, 2021. Earlier this summer Columbia High had planned to offer fall cross country (generally considered a low-risk COVID-19 sport), but nixed the idea in August and decided instead to use the spring option. The Oregon School Activities Association is offering competitive cross country next year beginning February 2021.

Some Oregon and Washington schools, which are using online learning for at least the next month, are not allowing their high school coaches to directly coach runners. That left distance runners — some who have logged extensive training routines this summer — in a state of flux. But not for long. Distance running programs at the Gorge’s three largest high schools have traditionally been student-led during the summer months and that practice is continuing in various forms into the fall.

If runners are not self-isolating because of contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, running in a non-crowded area is generally recognized by national, state and local guidelines as a safe way to exercise. Football and basketball, on the other hand, are among the contact sports that neither the WIAA nor OSAA are allowing participation until this winter (basketball) and next spring (football) — based on recommendations from state health officials.

The formula for success of Gorge distance running includes ideal running venues, dedicated coaches, and motivated athletes. Mike Hannigan, eighth grade science teacher at Henkle Middle School and the Columbia High School cross country coach, said a couple of upperclassmen have been organizing voluntary running workouts.

“The students are on their own,” he said. “They know all the workouts; they’re pretty motivated. They all have goals and I don’t want them to give up on their goals.”

The same can be said about runners in The Dalles and Hood River.

Bob Thouvenel, the dean of Gorge distance running coaches, said some of his athletes at The Dalles have been continuing their workouts on their own.

“I’ve got some kids that were running last spring even though the (track) season was canceled. Some of those are still running,” he said.

Thouvenel said The Dalles is working on a coordinated strength and conditioning program for interested students. That program would focus on certain sports for a three-week period, for example, followed by another period focusing on different sports.

In HRV runners’ cases, the love of the sport is supplemented by some swag.

“We have a group of motivated kids,” Brandon Bertrand, Westside Elementary physical education teacher and HRV cross country and track and field coach, said. “They are doing it for the love of the sport.”

Plus at least one additional incentive. Bertrand has taken coaching distance running from a distance (so to speak) to another level. With support from Brian Shortt, owner of Shortt Supply outdoor sports store in Hood River, Bertrand is fitting his dedicated runners with Garmin GPS running watches. From the comfort of his home-based COVID classroom, Bertrand can monitor the workouts of his runners who are wearing the watch.

“Each week they have running workouts to do. The program (GPS watches) allows them to stay connected to each other,” Bertrand said. “If anyone wants to start, they are welcome to do a virtual program. If they stay (committed) they get a virtual watch.

“Cross country is the best sport during this time. It’s hard for me (not to work with them in person). It’s hard for them. We like each other. My job is to find supplementary activities to keep that relationship going. I play the role of Mr. Silver Lining.”

Hannigan agrees. “Honestly, I just want these kids to be healthy and be outdoors,” he said.