When the Half Moon Bay and Menlo-Atherton varsity boys’ cross country teams lined up on the Bears’ track for the start of their Peninsula Athletic League race, it marked the end of a 437-day drought.

The last California Interscholastic Federation-sanctioned race was Nov. 30, 2019. The regular 2020 season, which normally starts in September, was pushed to Wednesday. The Bears and Cougars became the first teams to compete in San Mateo County since athletics were shut down March 13, 2020.

“Oh my gosh. It is the perfect day,” said M-A head coach Eric Wilmurt. “It was a beautiful day; I got to see one of my favorite coaches, Paul Farnsworth, and I had tremendous support (from the M-A administration).

Menlo-Atherton runners ended up winning both varsity races, as the runners went off in waves. The top three runners from each team were placed in the first group, with the next handful of runners going off in a group 17 seconds later.

M-A Senior Lars Osterberg covered the 2.13-mile course in a time of 11:27. He got out to an early lead and steadily increased it on the course that included a three-quarter run of the track and then out of the football stadium, around the auxiliary field, through the quad, across the outfield grass between the baseball and softball fields and down the backside of the campus.

The route was run twice and the race ended on an 80-yard dash beginning from the east end zone of the football field.

Osterberg said his first cross country race since October of 2019 felt different. After the months of training and even some simulated racing, nothing really prepared him for the real thing.

“During the pandemic, I did some time trials,” Osterberg said. “It definitely didn’t feel like this [Wednesday]. It was definitely a new feeling.

“I was just trying to go all out and give it my best.”

Will Dennis was second for the Bears, in a time of 11:40 as they had the first four finishers. Aidan Doherty and Cody West came in at third and fourth, respectively.

Half Moon Bay was paced by Kenny Jones, who finished fifth overall with a time of 12:27.

Cross country 2
Half Moon Bay’s Kenny Jones gets in a last-minute stretch before starting the first cross country race since the 2019 state meet — 437 days ago.

On the girls’ side, M-A’s Claire Beebe, also a senior, took home first place with a time of 12:46. The race was close for about the first three-quarters of the first lap with freshman teammate Annie Pflaum hanging on Beebe’s shoulder as they crossed the outfield grass.

But Beebe pulled away on the back stretch and won the race comfortably.

“I didn’t really have a plan,” Beebe said. “It was just to come out here and do our best. I’ve put in a lot of work, but it’s just nice to be out racing again.”

Pflaum ended up second with a time of 13:08. Like the boys’ race, the M-A girls’ took down the first six spots: Katriona Briggs was third, Kendall Oleson fourth, Cleo Rehkoph fifth and Nao Ohashi sixth.

Freshman Deia Kerseg was top finisher for Half Moon Bay, seventh overall, with a time of 13:58.

“It’s been fun,” Kerseg said of her first high school season. “But it’s been different.”

Reminders of the pandemic

Both teams have been affected by the pandemic, however, as numbers are down for both teams. Wilmurt said he usually has 70 runners in the program, but a number of would-be athletes simply got burned out with all the training and constant starting and stopping of organized team training.

Wilmurt said he has about 30 kids this right now.

“The problem with this cross country season, the goal posts have been moved three or four times,” Wilmurt said.

The Half Moon Bay team, which is a traditional PAL and Central Coast Section power, was severely affected by the pandemic. Because of the uncertainty of the cross country season, Farnsworth said many potential runners have decided to focus on other sports, leaving the Cougars with just eight runners. Only seven were available Wednesday.

Despite the small numbers, Farnsworth was pleased with the performance — if for no other reason than getting the athletes out and running competitively again.

“[PAL coaches] have been having Zoom meetings a little more than once a month (about having a season),” Farnsworth said. “Seeing it come to fruition is very exciting.”

While the event marked the return of sports to the Peninsula, there were plenty of reminders that this was not a traditional cross country race. Wilmurt, who has taught and coached at M-A since 1995, said a cross country race hasn’t been run on campus in at least 30 years.

Then there was the fact the race was simply a dual meet — an event in which only two schools compete against each other. For the last several decades, most high school cross country races followed a similar formula: three all-league meets, weekend invitational races and then the postseason. These events feature dozens of teams and hundreds of runners.

Wednesday there were a total of 33 athletes participating.

“It was weird to see just maroon and white,” said M-A’s Dennis, referring to the teams’ uniform colors.

A new experience

At least the athletes simply had to worry about running. Wilmurt was tasked with setting up the whole thing.

“I’ve never really hosted a home cross country course,” Wilmurt said. “Having a dual meet? [The PAL hasn’t] discussed that since I’ve been here (at M-A).”

There was also a matter of timing the runners. Wilmurt said he used a stopwatch-style timer connected to a small, handheld printer. When the button was pressed to stop the time, a printout was produced with the time. Hit the “stop” button again, a second printout came out. Those times were then matched with the runners after they crossed the finish line.

The other main indicators that this race was being run under extenuating circumstances were the masks and social distancing being maintained. The athletes were required to have their masks on before their races and as they warmed up. As they lined up to start the race, they were told the decision to wear the masks was up to them and nearly all the runners stripped them off shortly after starting.

Those in attendance watching the race — mostly parents who had to transport their kids to the race because busing is not being used — were also masked and socially distanced. But even in small numbers, they provided plenty of encouragement as the runners came by.

“It’s been a long time (since we ran),” Osterberg said. “Just getting used to running (competitively) is a key first step.

“It was hard. I wasn’t used to the race feeling.”