Distance runner McGrath adapts again for Illini | Sports

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CHAMPAIGN — Some aspects of life haven’t changed for Allison McGrath.

Early-morning workouts at 7 a.m. Weightlifting sessions. Constant camaraderie to look forward to among the Illinois cross-country runners.

“Right now, we’re still kind of going along with our training plan,” the Illini senior said. “We’re still trying to sort things out with exactly how the fall’s going to look like.”

It’ll look nothing like any fall distance running season the 21-year-old McGrath ever has known.

No cross-country meets will take place, with the Big Ten postponing fall sports last week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

No chance for McGrath and her teammates to follow up on the Illini’s 22nd-place national finish last year.

No chance to see McGrath smile or frown, either. Plenty of mask-wearing is in store, a concept McGrath and her fellow Illini runners have become accustomed to since returning to campus earlier this month.

“Whenever we’re on campus we’re wearing the mask,” McGrath said of protective face coverings that have become the norm during the pandemic. “Then, once we’re off campus and distanced enough in smaller groups, just two or three of us running together, we take the masks off and run with them.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s too bad. … We all kind of accept it’s a thing we have to do if we want to practice together.”

That’s the biggest carrot McGrath and the Illini have to chase now that their 2020 season is shelved.

McGrath is among those contending with the reality of having a second college athletic season uprooted by the pandemic. The Wheaton native missed out on a bulk of her junior track and field slate earlier this year for the same reason.

“When the outdoor (track) season got canceled … we could see it coming,” McGrath said. “I was like, ‘OK, this should all be over with by the summer and then we’ll get back in the fall and then be back to normal, back to competing.’ But obviously that’s not the case.”

The timing is especially painful for coach Sarah Haveman’s women. All five of the athletes who scored for Illinois at last year’s NCAA national meet were underclassmen, with McGrath at the front of the pack via a 65th-place 6-kilometer clocking of 21 minutes, 2.3 seconds.

“We were definitely, as a team, disappointed,” McGrath said. “We had big goals for this fall. I think it made it a little bit better we were already on campus (when the season got postponed). … We still want to improve, and the best way is to practice together.”

Even that was a challenge when McGrath initially returned to Champaign-Urbana.

McGrath arrived back on campus Aug. 10 and immediately was subject to COVID-19 testing. She and her fellow runners then were placed in quarantine that day and remained within it the following two days before another test Aug. 13 and resumption of quarantine measures through that day.

The athletes, McGrath said, were provided hotel rooms or other solo living accommodations until all of the test results came back. McGrath appreciated university officials setting up meals and testing measures during this time, though she admitted it was difficult to know she couldn’t see any of her running friends despite being in the same city as them.

“It’s tough having everyone here on campus and not being able to hang out with them or run with them, just because we’ve been separated for so long,” said McGrath, referencing the Illini being apart since mid-March because of the pandemic. “We just wanted to see each other. It’s definitely worth a tough couple of days being by ourselves.”

The Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall sports, of course, was delivered in the middle of the runners’ COVID-19 testing timeframe.

“Everyone can admit it is frustrating to have the fall season canceled, especially for us track and cross-country athletes,” McGrath said. “But, honestly, our mindset right now is whenever everything opens back up again, we want to be ready. So we’re staying motivated for the next opportunity.”

To that point, the cross-country team devised a mission statement — McGrath can’t remember it word for word — in order to keep the team as upbeat as possible during this uncertain period.

“It’s a way to unite ourselves and stay focused on our goals and how we’re process-oriented, how we’re always there to support each other,” McGrath said. “It’s just been especially important during this time. It’s hard not to compete for months and months.”

In McGrath’s case, that’s specifically since Feb. 22 at the Alex Wilson Invitational in South Bend, Ind., where she ran unattached and won the women’s 3,000-meter event. Besides some intra-team time trials, McGrath hasn’t raced since that meet.

“It’s definitely different because I’m so used to three competitive seasons per year,” McGrath said. “I’m used to constantly traveling and competing and having a race in mind that you’re preparing for. It’s certainly different to not know when your next opportunity is going to come about.”

Luckily for the Dike Eddleman Female Athlete of the Year nominee last school year, she’d already planned to remain an Illini for the 2021-22 school year because of a previously-used redshirt.

It’s helping her cope with another running season set back by the pandemic. At least to a certain extent.

“It does still sting because the team won’t be the same and other people have things set up for next year,” McGrath said. “They won’t be able to stay for a fifth year. But it is nice to know I’ll have another year after this.”

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