RIO RANCHO, N.M. (KRQE) – It was a dramatic finish for a Rio Rancho cross country runner at this year’s New Mexico state championship. A senior with at least five years of competitive running experience, Adam Donaldson collapsed with his last steps of the race.

What his family heard from their doctor now has them raising the question of if runners should be wearing masks throughout the competition. With COVID-19 considerations in mind, mandatory mask-wearing was a first this year for all high school runners competing in the state’s cross country high school championships.

Following the publication of a recent study suggesting mask-wearing can affect performance during exercise, KRQE News 13 interviewed New Mexico Athletics Association Executive Director Sally Marquez about the topic of wearing masks during athletic competition. Marquez mentioned the state’s various cross country teams getting used to exercising in masks by training in them. She also highlighted the success of the recent cross country state championship events.

“Those kids were mask-wearing and ran very long miles at a high intensity and were able to compete at a high level,” Marquez said. “I think it shows an example of a sport (where) it would be very difficult to wear a mask, (and) that (athletes) were able to do it because they practiced with masks on.”

Donaldson was a competitor in that state cross country championship event. He feels differently about his performance while wearing a face mask. “I was worried I wasn’t going to make it to the end,” Donaldson said. “Every step was as a struggle to not fall down.”

Donaldson previously competed at the state championship level during New Mexico’s 2019 event. He’s also competed and won with teammates at a district championship event in the past.

During the 2021 5A Boys 5k cross country race in late March, Donaldson collapsed at the finish line. Donaldson says he’s never collapsed in prior races.

“Even though I’m pushing as hard as I can, I just started slowing down more and more,” Donaldson said, recalling the final moments of the race. “I realized I’m going to fall, I got super dizzy, I was losing my balance and I could feel my legs almost giving out from under me every step.”

Following his collapse, the Rio Rancho athlete was taken to the hospital with difficulty breathing. Donaldson says he had trouble catching his breath. He never lost consciousness but says the breathing problems lasted for at least an hour.

“Just absolutely horrifying watching,” said Adam’s mother Lisa Donaldson who was watching the race in person. “That’s not characteristic of him at all, it was scary seeing him running that way.”

While Adam says he’s spent months training while fearing a face mask, he wore a different disposable mask for the race.

“I don’t feel like I’m getting enough air under the mask,” Donaldson said, recalling the end of the race. “I could feel warmer air, maybe some of my breath was staying behind.”

Donaldson’s family says in his past, Adam got an inhaler for asthma around the time he was in sixth grade and playing basketball. However, Lisa Donaldson says Adam hasn’t ever needed it after running competitions. Blood work following Adam’s collapse showed problems, according to the family’s pediatrician.

“(The pediatrician) did say it was a problem with (Adam’s) breathing, it was too much carbon dioxide, a lack of oxygen,” Lisa Donaldson said. “He had a little bit of elevated liver enzymes, he had a high red blood count.”

Donaldson’s family believes the mask was a factor in his collapse. They would like to see the policy on mask-wearing in competitions reassessed. “I feel like the mask mandate for running outdoors needs to be rethought,” Lisa Donaldson said.

The NMAA says the mask policy tied to competition is ultimately a rule from the state’s medical experts. The organization says it’s not pushing for any changes to the policy at this point.