So where does Makena Morley go from here? How far will she go?
The 15-year-old Bigfork freshman just wrapped up her first season of high school athletics by sweeping the distance events at the Class B state track meet in Bozeman. Morley won the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 by comfortable margins in snowy and windy conditions, adding to her state title from the fall cross country season.
Her state cross country performance shattered the all-time Class B state record and was a full minute faster than the second-place finisher, though it was still 40 seconds slower than her personal best. She was named the Montana Gatorade Cross Country Girls Runner of the Year, given to the best distance runner in the state regardless of class.
In December, Morley placed ninth in the nation at the National Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego after finishing third at regionals. Then earlier this month she finished in the top 25 out of more than 28,000 women at the 7.46-mile Bloomsday Run in Spokane.
Morley has come so far in one year. How far will she go in four years?
Zoe Nelson, widely regarded as the best female runner to ever come out of Montana, believes Morley will go as far as she wants to go. That could very well mean seeing some of Nelson’s state records fall, and Nelson is fine with that.
“It looks like she’s the one to do it,” Nelson said over the weekend. “It’s good for the sport to have runners like her coming out of Montana and doing great things for the sport. It’s really fun to watch. I’m happy for her.”
Nelson, who attended Flathead High School before running at the University of Oregon, was highly touted as a high school freshman, much like Morley. In her freshman year at Flathead, Nelson won the first of four cross country titles. She is one of only three girls in state history to win a state cross country title in every year of high school.
Nelson owns three of Montana’s four fastest state cross country times, including the top two at 16:50 and 17:08. She was also a three-time champion in the 1,600 and 3,200 and holds the state 3,200 record by a wide margin, running a 10:26.18 in 2004.
Morley is very aware of Nelson’s legacy and records, as well as all other state records, and she establishes her personal goals within that historical context. Those record-breaking ambitions help push her in races when she doesn’t have an opponent to push her, which is often. She generally outdistances the rest of the field, especially in cross country, by such great lengths that she is essentially running by herself. It’s as if everybody is chasing her while she is chasing history.
Morley has already run some of the state’s fastest times in cross country (17:05), as well as the 1,600 (5:01.30) and 3,200 (10:44.46). But any hopes of breaking records at last weekend’s state track meet were ruined by a fierce headwind and snow.
Even if her times were slower because of the conditions, she still won her three titles by large margins: five seconds in the 800, 17 seconds in the 1,600 and 23 seconds in the 3,200. She placed sixth in the 400, only two seconds out of the lead and less than a second out of second place.
Perhaps a serious challenger in Class B will emerge, but for now it appears that Morley will have to get used to lonesome races, far out in front of all of the other runners. That’s where her personal goals and self-motivation – that sense of history – come into play. Steve Morley, her father, said she studies distance runners around the nation and sets her goals to keep pace with the country’s best.
“She does that on her own – I haven’t really been involved in the numbers she pulls out for her goals,” Steve said. “When she sets her mind to things, she achieves her goals.”
Morley comes from a family of runners. Steve was a record-breaking sprinter at Bigfork High School in the 1980s before running at Montana State University. In the past few years, he has taken up distance running and, at 44, recently placed 56th out of nearly 48,000 total runners at Spokane’s Bloomsday Run, completing the 7.46-mile course at a pace of 5:28 per mile.
Morley’s mother, Jill, frequently participates in local 5Ks, while her younger siblings are following in their sister’s footsteps. Logan, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, ran a 5:01 mile this year, the same personal best as Makena. Bryn, a 12-year-old sixth-grader, ran the mile in 5:24, which would have placed her second at the Class B state track meet.
It is clear that Morley has the physical gifts and self-discipline to continue growing as a runner, but Nelson, speaking from experience, says intangibles such as family support and an upbeat attitude are just as important for a young runner.
“It sounds like she has a supportive family and that’s great,” Nelson said. “The key is to keep a positive attitude. It sounds like she knows what she’s doing and it sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders.”
There is one other factor that can’t be ignored: Morley simply enjoys what she’s doing.
“I just like to run,” she said.
And now, her freshman season is over. So where does she go from here? How far will Makena Morley go?
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.