CAPE ELIZABETH — As a high school sophomore, Carter Abrahamsen did not consider himself a serious runner. His motivation for joining the cross country team at Cape Elizabeth had little to do with athletic success.

He enjoyed the team dinners and the camaraderie that came along with being part of a group with a common goal. That he usually finished last in actual races bothered him not a whit.

“I’m not running well, but at least I’m having fun,” he reasoned. “That was always my main reason for doing it, was the friendship.”

Then along came a pandemic, which wiped out team dinners and pretty much every other group activity. Hunkering down at home in front of a screen was one option, but remote learning already checked that box. As he considered the 2020 cross country season, he knew team dinners were unlikely even if races did occur, so “it might be kind of boring if I’m not running well.”

An email from cross country Coach Andrew Lupien asking if runners could complete a mile in under seven minutes sent Abrahamsen out into the March snow to check. His time shocked him.

“It was around 7:30 and I was dying,” he said. “I was just gassed. I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t good. I need to work on that.’ ”

Abrahamsen started running six days a week, then seven. He watched YouTube videos that offered tips and techniques. He increased his mileage. He ran between online classes. When fall came around, he discovered the joy of being in shape, and cut five minutes off his best 5-kilometer time. He still stands 6-foot-1 but has dropped 20 pounds and says he has better posture.

Lupien said Abrahamsen, now a senior, could be his No. 3 runner this fall.

“There must be tons of stories of runners who didn’t hibernate and spend time on screens,” Lupien said, “but took to the road and used the pandemic to better themselves as athletes.”

A fellow Cape Elizabeth classmate, Ella Bromage, rose from borderline varsity runner in 2019 to No. 2 on the team last fall after lopping three minutes from her best times. She played soccer her first year in high school but turned to cross country because it seemed a pleasant pastime.

“My goal wasn’t really to win,” Bromage said, “it was to stay in shape and have fun.”

In early March 2020, however, the death of a close friend affected Bromage deeply. Just when she yearned to be surrounded by people, the pandemic forced isolation upon her.

“So running was coping,” she said. “It was a super healthy way for me to spend my time and clear my head.”

The side benefit was becoming more fit. By the fall, her obvious improvement spurred her to work harder at practice and unleashed unrealized potential.

“The feeling after a race is so good,” she said. “Everyone is so happy for each other and builds each other up. It’s really just a little bit of pain, but it makes everything else more enjoyable.”

In the 2021 spring track season, her mile time dropped below six minutes. Absent the pandemic, Bromage said she doubts she would have realized such success in her running.

“It’s hard to say, but I think that probably not,” she said. “Having that time where I was just running a lot, that’s what started the improvement.”

Delaney Hesler, right, and Bonny Eagle teammate Emmaline Pendleton, not pictured, said they were able to increase their mileage and work on strength training during the pandemic. Eli Canfield/The Times Record

Of course, more serious runners also took advantage of the extra hours freed up by remote learning and cancelation of so many other activities. Bonny Eagle seniors Delaney Hesler and Emmaline Pendleton ran on Class A state championship cross country teams during their first two years of high school and remain eager to defend their title this fall.

They increased mileage, did double sessions and experimented with strength training and weight lifting.

“I found that I needed a mix of body weight and lifting,” Pendleton said. “I found I couldn’t do too much one way or the other or else it wasn’t going to work. I also learned that it’s OK to sometimes take a step back.”

Hesler said they were lucky to have an abbreviated cross country season last fall, even if the state meet was called off because of COVID-19 concerns. The tackle football and indoor volleyball seasons were canceled last fall, which she called heartbreaking.

“During the pandemic, running was one of the only things I could count on,” she said. “No matter what the temperature was or what the weather was, I could always get out there and get my run in. Having that as a constant really helped me get through the hardest part.”

The spread of the delta variant raises question marks about whether this fall season will continue as scheduled. Whatever happens, both Bonny Eagle runners said their perspective has shifted and they are more grateful than ever for their sport and their fellow runners. They find joy in such simple exercises as group stretching before and after workouts.

Even team dinners are back, although no longer packed inside one house.

“They have to be outdoors now,” said Cape Elizabeth’s Abrahamsen. “We had our first one last week and it was nice to be back together with the team.”

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