Andy Monroe leads a pack of Crater teammates and others during the annual State of Jefferson cross country race last year at Lithia Park in Ashland. Poor air quality has forced runners to use alternative training methods early this season. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]

Drastic steps

No running in the halls?

Don’t tell that to the Crater cross country teams, or their peers across Southern Oregon as they try to save the fitness levels they’ve worked hard to attain over the summer — some putting in upward of 70 miles of road and trail running work a week — during this smoky phase caused by wildfires.

“Today, we got a couple of good (pictures) in the hall of the kids running back and forth,” Comets coach Justin Loftus said Tuesday. “That’s something in my short, 16-year coaching career I haven’t seen before. I can’t say it’s enjoyable. It’s crazy. I don’t even know what to say.”

His cohort at North Medford, Piet Voskes, is using treadmills, stationary bikes and pool work — like most coaches — while he and his Black Tornado runners wait for the smoke to clear and air quality to improve enough to get outside for strenuous activity.

“Even a hard workout in the pool or on the bike is not necessarily going to mimic what we’ve been doing all summer,” said Voskes.

Like teams in other sports, cross country squads are making the best of a bad situation, finding alternative places and methods to train as the season fits and starts its way to commencement.

If any sport requires sucking air in voluminous, rapid cadence, it is distance running.

Air quality that sits resolutely at hazardous levels — indicating “everyone should avoid outdoor exertion” — could not be more counterproductive.

The Oregon School Activities Association issued a statement Tuesday lowering the acceptable level of outdoor activity to an Air Quality Index of 100 or below. Contests and practices are to be canceled or moved indoors if the level goes above that.

On Wednesday at noon, the AQI in Medford was in the high 320s, or the maroon range — considered hazardous.

A level of 101 to 150 is the orange range and is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.

The OSAA said in its statement: "While Oregon Health Authority guidelines do allow for light outdoor activities in the orange level, the intensity and duration of high school practices/contests in cross country, soccer and football are not considered light activity by OSAA."

Loftus, who has one of the nation’s top individuals in senior Andy Monroe and a team ranked in the top 10 in a couple of national polls, uses the other training methods and has taken the Comets to Ashland, Shady Cove and Valley of the Rogue State Park for practice when levels have permitted the past two weeks.

“We’re not going to risk the health of our kids,” he said. “Everybody’s just trying to cope with this in all the sports: football, soccer, cross country.”

Hall running, treadmills, bikes and pool work will keep a runner in shape for a while, he said.

“It’s just going to be harder to get some of those key workouts in,” said Loftus.

Meets aren’t a necessity for cross country teams. Their championships come down to district and state competitions later in the fall.

They don’t require weekly contests and win-loss records to determine their fate.

“I don’t think not having races is impactful,” said Voskes. “They’re just rust-busters. Most of the work is done from June on, through now.”

Fitness levels built over months can be maintained through other methods for about 10 days, he said.

“Now we’re coming up on that 10-day block, so now we’re approaching diminishing returns,” said Voskes.

He added, however, that pool training has been a big hit and might be incorporated into North Medford’s regimen.

The Black Tornado has a meet scheduled in Yreka, California, on Saturday, and the Southwest Conference pre-district meet next Wednesday.

It’s conceivable those will be canceled or postponed, and the Black Tornado’s first competition would come Sept. 16 in Concord, California.

“If that’s our opening meet, we’re in good shape,” he said.

No one might be more eager than Crater’s Monroe to return to action.

When last we saw him in May, he was gutting out a victory in the Class 5A 3,000 meters at the track and field state championships at Hayward Field in Eugene.

He suffered a 50-percent tear in the plantar fascia ligament in his right foot with a mile to go in the race, and, despite extreme pain, emerged victorious. It was his second straight title in the event and fourth overall state championship — including one last fall in cross country.

Monroe was in a walking boot for six weeks, then did pool work. He attended an elite Nike camp in July — one of 10 high school boy runners in the nation to be invited — and is back to full running.

Now, he, like others, must wait out the smoke.

“A lot of teams that are really strong are really excited about the season,” said Loftus. “To have this kind of cloud over our heads and cover up the sun, it’s just stressful. You want to make the most of the season. The kids have put in so much time over the past three or four years.”

— Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or

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