BIGFORK – There is no shame in losing to Makena Morley. When this 14-year-old girl passes you in a 5K, at an apparently bionic pace, remember: There is no shame in losing to Makena Morley. She is not an ordinary eighth grader.
Morley’s times in the 5K over the last two summers would rank among the fastest female high school cross country marks in state history, though we won’t know exactly where she stands until she begins her freshman year at Bigfork High School in the fall.
But we do know this: No matter how fast she runs, she still can’t beat her 43-year-old father. In fact, very few people in Northwest Montana can beat Steve Morley in a 5K. And, seemingly defying science, he’s only getting faster the deeper he gets into his 40s, a decade removed from his fight with cancer.
To hear it from the Morleys, though, you would never know of their uncanny familial dominance. They are too modest for that. All five family members are runners, and these types of collective passions are typically rooted in something more meaningful than winning.
Maybe, when you boil it down, it’s as simple as this sentiment from Steve’s wife Jill: “We like hanging out with our kids and they like hanging out with us.” With running, they have found a common and unifying passion.
Nearly anyone who has participated in a recent 5K in Northwest Montana knows of the Morley family from Bigfork. All five regularly place in the upper portion of the standings, with Makena consistently winning the women’s titles – sometimes by several minutes – and Steve often taking the men’s crowns.
At June’s Whitefish Lake Run, Makena defeated 157 other girls and women of all ages to claim first place overall with a time of 18:01.6, averaging 5:49 per mile. Nobody else finished under 20 minutes. Her closest competitor was a familiar face: her 11-year-old sister Bryn. In third place was Jessica Sagen, who will run at Stanford University next year.
And at that same race, Steve won the overall men’s title with a time of 16:37.2, edging out three current and former Flathead High School distance stars: Zach Perrin, Leif Castren and Hunter Schutt. Perrin is 16, Castren is 19 and Schutt is 17. Those were the only four runners to beat Makena.
Rounding out the Morley finishers in Whitefish were Logan, 12 at the time, in seventh place in men’s and Jill, 43, in 21st in women’s.
Years ago, it was Jill who first got into running for exercise. Once she started entering races, the whole family would show up for support. Steve, a former standout sprinter at Bigfork High School, was happy cheering from the sidelines.
“I’d always look at them and say, ‘Three miles – I can’t believe you can run that,’” he said.
But at a race in Spokane, Steve watched runners of all ages and abilities cross the finish the line, all possessing a shared sense of satisfaction. And it clicked for him.
“You could sense that the people felt really proud about finishing,” Steve said.
Makena, despite her solid performance in a one-mile fitness test in fifth grade, remained hesitant, even with her father’s budding enthusiasm. But as an avid snowboarder, Makena quickly saw the benefits running had for her performance on the ski hill.
“That’s what helped us motivate Makena,” Steve said. “That was the selling point.”
After Makena showed a preternatural ability for the sport, the other two kids eagerly followed.
“I did it because I just thought Makena was super cool,” Logan said.
Jill explains it this way: “Makena paved the way and Bryn’s our antsy caboose at the end. If nothing else, we thought it would be a good lifelong skill for them.”
Makena has certainly paved the way. At various races, she has crossed the three-mile mark – the standard cross country distance as opposed to the 3.1 miles of a 5K – at around 17 minutes, a pace rarely if ever achieved in Montana high school girls cross country, except by Zoe Nelson of Flathead High School a decade ago.
“I’m pretty excited for cross country in high school,” Makena said.
In May, she placed 30th out of about 30,000 women’s runners at the 7.46-mile Lilac Bloomsday Run in Spokane, finishing behind a group of elite athletes heavily weighted with top Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, and no 14-year-olds. Steve placed second in his age group.
Then in July’s 50-mile, multi-sport Glacier Challenge, Makena placed 14th overall in the solo division and fourth in women’s.
Over the past couple of years, Steve and the three kids have taken their training and racing to another level, while Jill is content with keeping her own pace. But Steve operates under a golden rule: “You’ve got to have fun.”
“I’ve seen distant runners get really nuts about it,” he said. “We don’t put in a lot of miles, but we run with intensity.”
He added: “We do one hour a day, intensely. If you’re up for 14 hours in the day, one hour is a speck. If it’s all about running all the time, it could get old or too serious. Fun has to be the key.”
The family eats healthy, giving them the “tools” they need. Also, the kids don’t have certain distractions such as videogames, so Steve said “their minds are pretty clear,” which helps with the mental aspects of distance running. And, since Steve and the kids are all relatively new to running, it’s an enjoyable learning experience for them all.
But perhaps more than anything, the Morleys are motivated by Steve’s worldview. Since overcoming cancer in his early 30s, he has lived by the philosophy: “Just go for it – you never know what will happen in life.”
“He’s always preached, ‘Life’s short, have fun,’” Jill said. “Live in the moment; live for today.”
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