Coach Merry Ellefson compliments runners on a job well done after a race. (Courtesy Photo / Debbie Lowenthall)

Coach Merry Ellefson compliments runners on a job well done after a race. (Courtesy Photo / Debbie Lowenthall)

Long-distance running meets socially distanced competition

Team spirit carries Juneau-Douglas Kalé High School’s runners on where others falter.

After the termination of all high school sports at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring, it was unsure how or even if many sports would continue.

For Juneau-Douglas Kalé High School’s cross country team, at least, the path toward the finish line is clear.

“It’s great to be together training it, because you don’t pay attention to the wet, you pay attention to the work. It’s important to be together because they aren’t even together in school, and it’s important to be safe,” said team co-coach Merry Ellefson. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, so if we can keep having this happen, that’s the hope.”

The team, with nearly 65 runners, is more than halfway through its season, and is running on strong, albeit with some modifications to its normal way of operating, including running all races against other teams on courses in their own community, without traveling like usual. Many, like one of its eight captains, senior Linnea Lentfer, joined after hearing about that community.

[It’s a 2-candidate race for District 1]

“I actually came here from Gustavus for high school,” Lentfer said in a phone interview. “I’d done running for Gustavus in middle school and I’d heard good things about the team. It’s a pretty amazing group to be part of.”

Races are now done separate from other schools, and training groups are broken into different time slots for different geographical areas to avoid bringing the whole team to one place and increasing the chance of infection, Ellefson said.

“We’re doing some virtual races,” Ellefson said. “With Thunder Mountain, we do them at one part of the day and they run it another.”

Spirit of competition

While the changes have affected many things, running is running, said Finn Morely, JDHS senior and team captain.

“It’s surprisingly normal. Except we’re not traveling doing trips,” Morely said. “Some days we just do our geographical groups. There’s a different feel. The pre-race hype is a little different. We don’t do any touching.”

The differences have changed the chemistry of the team, Lentfer said, taking away the ability to carry on some of this team’s traditions.

“We would have a waffle party at someone’s house after the first meet. We’d do big huddles and cheers before races. This has thrown that off,” Lentfer said. “We’ve tried to keep as much going as we can. Not having shared meals or making food together is hard.”

The team did have a modified retreat, Ellefson said, heading to Eaglecrest for camping rather than the trip out of Juneau they’d normally take.

“It’s definitely different. There’s a lot of challenges that come with that. It was harder to build the overall sense of community within the team,” Lentfer said. “When we’re not traveling together, going on retreat together, it changes things.”

Instead, Morely said, the team is turning up the dial in different areas.

“The squad wasn’t feeling team-like. So we said, okay, let’s go do more team bonding. We’re trying to do more things as a team,” Morely said. “Doing cookouts the night before the races. The gifts, we’re upping our game. We’re enjoying the small things and making the small things bigger.”

Built in firebreaks

Practices are built with an eye on safety, with mandatory screening questions and an ironbound rule of staying home if a student is experiencing any possible symptoms.

“We’re doing intra-squad competitions. We have eight captains or squad leaders this year. They’re not only leading them as we race but as they stretch or warm ups,” Ellefson said. “We do stagger start for our workouts. We also have a day in our week where we do a recovery run. There are three simultaneous runs happening at the same time but not together.”

The team has eight assistants helping Ellefson and co-coach Tristan Knutson-Lombardo, a mix of volunteers and district staff. A priority on health derived from their modified summer running camp and guidance from public health officials

“It’s really important to us that the community stay healthy,” Ellefson said. “Student-athletes need to get outside.”

The adversity will only bond the team tighter in the end, hardening their alloy, Lentfer said.

“I think what might stay around from this season is we can rally to do cross country in a pandemic,” Lentfer said. “We’re adaptable. As soon as we can we’re gonna be back together.”

Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or

Eli Crupi followed closely by Martin Holst and Aubrey Hekkers. (Courtesy Photo / Debbie Lowenthall)

Eli Crupi followed closely by Martin Holst and Aubrey Hekkers. (Courtesy Photo / Debbie Lowenthall)