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Let high school runners shed shirts at practice

It's the middle of summer, and you've got one thing on your mind. Your senior year is about to start, and with it, one last season of high school cross country.

There's plenty of work to do and hundreds of miles to run if you're going to make it to the state meet in November. So you wake up early — often before the sun rises — and pound out the miles. Or you run in the evening. Sometimes you do both.

You do whatever you can to avoid the sun, but there's no escaping the heat. This is Florida, after all, and it can be dangerously hot for a runner. Naturally, you ditch your shirt without a thought and complete your workout.

Boys go topless; girls wear sports bras. It's a nonissue in the running community, but one that seems to resurface regularly at the high school level.

Hillsborough County students are required to follow the school district's regular dress code while training for sports. That means shirts must be worn at cross country practices, regardless of the triple-digit heat index that runners sometimes face. There is a provision that allows boys to wear sleeveless shirts at practice, said Lanness Robinson, the county athletic director.

So I propose this: How about a provision to allow boys and girls to run without shirts at practice?

Many high school runners — including me, an alum of Bloomingdale High's cross country team — ignore the rule, and some coaches don't care. Wearing an extra layer of clothing in our humidity weighs you down as it absorbs sweat. It just isn't practical.

"We've always thought it was a ridiculous rule," said Mike Zwijacz, a senior and team captain at Newsome High. He finished last week's 5-kilometer district meet in 16 minutes and 54 seconds, leading the Wolves to a sixth place finish.

"It's hot outside," he said. "I just don't know who it's bothering."

Robinson said it's bothering him, because rules are rules. He was at the Hillsborough County Championships last month at Lutz's Lake Park, where, he said he saw dozens of kids without shirts running around the park. Robinson was standing near the finish line and heard parents griping about it.

Runners generally aren't looking to make a fashion statement or attract attention by showing skin. Extra clothing gets in the way of the stride. There's a reason running shorts are so short.

But the main reason the rule should be amended is the heat.

"We have a dress code that we have to follow, and we obviously have taken (the heat) into consideration," Robinson said. "If they can run their events in it, why can't they practice in it?"

That's not exactly a fair comparison. Cross country races are just over 3 miles. It takes 17 to 20 minutes for most boys to finish, 20 to 23 minutes for girls.

Training workouts, which occur off campus for many schools, take much longer. A typical practice consists of more than an hour of running. Also, a lot of schools practice in the dead heat of the afternoon, when temperatures can reach the high 90s. Races are early in the morning or in the evening, so the sun is less of a factor.

And it's not like high school runners are trying to cause a stir. Most serious adult runners around here go topless, too. Whether it's through neighborhoods or out on the trails, the adults I run with have the same desire as their high school counterparts to avoid heatstroke.

As Zwijacz, the Newsome standout, brought to my attention, look at the cover of Runner's World magazine. It usually has a photo of a bare-chested man or a woman in a sports bra. There's nothing inappropriate about it. It's the nature of the sport, especially in the Sunshine State.

The day after the county meet, Robinson said he addressed the rule at a scheduled meeting with athletic directors. He said there are no set consequences for breaking the rule, only that runners who don't comply will be "dealt with accordingly."

Zwijacz, whose team will compete in the Class 4A, Region 2 meet this morning, said he has been warned to keep his shirt on several times, including after a 6 a.m. Saturday run. With the hopes of making it to the state meet Nov. 21, he'll follow the rule as the season winds down.

"I've been informed that if I'm caught not having my shirt on — on campus or off campus — I'm pretty much off the team," he said.

Now that the weather is cooling down, it shouldn't be a problem for high school runners to put on a light-material shirt. Soon, though, track and field season will be here and the scorching heat will return.

Eventually, the rule should change. Until then, I say keep breaking it. Just try not to get caught.

Let high school runners shed shirts at practice 11/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:18pm]
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