The solitude of the long-distance runner is not without its benefits in this troubled time.

Athletics is beset by the need of social distancing during the COVID-19 scourge. All spring sports at the high school and college levels fell victim to health concerns. For most of the time since, coaches have maintained contact with their charges by remote contact, sending them instructions and recommendations.

This works much better for the boys’ and girls’ cross country teams of Clinton High School coach Lee Atkinson. He sends his runners instructions. They follow them. There’s not much complicated about it.

Atkinson’s boys’ team graduated four standouts. The team this fall figures to be deep if not as strong at the top. A newcomer to Region 3-3A, Broome, is the likely favorite for a title the Red Devils captured a year ago.

“Last year we had five all-region winners,” Atkinson said, noting that the team consists of the top 10 finishers in the region meet, “but we also had runners finishing 11th, 12th, 14th and 16th. It wasn’t like we dropped off. We had pretty good depth last year. Even though we had four seniors who graduated, I still feel like we have an outside chance at defending that region championship on the boys’ side.

“On the girls’ side, we graduated two of our top seven. Those coming back are going to be stronger. We don’t have as much depth in the girls. We’ve been fielding a team of about 25 boys for the last 5-6 years. On the girls’ side, we’ve had as few as six. Last year we had 13.”

In spite of the aforementioned solitude, Atkinson still considers cross country “a social sport.”

“There is a lot of intrinsic motivation,” he explained. “It is easier when you’re going to report to practice with one of your buddies, and y’all are pulling each other along on days when you don’t feel so hot. Having the three groups we’ve been practicing with – nine at a time (by High School League Phase 1 guidelines) – and then having the shutdown, some of those kids have decided not to come back.”

Last week the workouts averaged 17 taking part.

“That social aspect, especially with the 7th- and 8th-graders, is important, and I really think they need that socialization. I guess it’s more fun to suffer as a group than it is by yourself,” Atkinson said. “I hope those kids may decide to come back. I’m not going to shut the door. It’s still preseason.”

Atkinson thinks the girls’ region title race is up for grabs. Though Woodruff figures to field the region’s top individual runner, he thinks his team can compete with the Wolverines, Emerald and Broome for the team title.

“With both teams, it really depends on how we develop,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson coached football and baseball for many years at CHS.

“I wanted to do something different,” he said.

He first coached cross country in 2012.

“As a kid, I probably should have been a cross country runner, but we didn’t have cross country in those days,” he said. “I was just a beanpole. I always ran to be in good baseball shape, and I enjoyed doing it. It was a good time to make a change. The hours were different. I could set my own hours. You can’t practice runners but so long. I felt like it was a pretty good fit for me.

“I read a lot, but more importantly, I talked to a lot of other coaches (notably Woodruff’s Steve Ramey). The first meet I ever went to, I hosted, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. Col. (Joel) Rexford (Clinton’s longtime ROTC head and cross country coach) helped me a lot. … By running various races myself, I’ve got a good feel for what the kids feel. Running in the heat with them … there are certain things … can pretty much run any distance that they run, and it gives me insight into what their bodies are going through, how they feel, and I can set up a schedule based a little on how I felt personally. Do we need to take a break tomorrow? As much work as you need to do in cross country, I think you also need to factor in the need to take some time off.

Maren Vondergeest is the lone senior on a Clinton girls’ team that includes two juniors, two sophomores, six 8th-graders and six 7th graders.

Gaige McWatters, Chris Nguyen and Gray Walsh are seniors with the boys, along with five juniors, four sophomores, four freshmen, five 8th-graders and two 7th-graders.

The line keeps moving along.