Sole Sisters

Makena Morley enters the final season of her historic prep career just as her younger sister Bryn embarks on her own speedy journey

By Dillon Tabish

BIGFORK — Last week after school, a couple days before flying to Utah for the first of five official Division I college visits, Makena Morley went for a run.

As the 5-foot-4, brown-haired senior zipped up and down a hill near the high school — part of her meticulous and rigorous training regime that piles up 50 miles per week — something noticeably different stood out.

She wasn’t alone.

The fastest female distance runner in Montana high school history had a new, familiar partner alongside her.

Meet Bryn Morley, a freshman at Bigfork High School, the younger sister of Makena and the top competition for Montana’s three-time defending Class B state champion.

Like Makena, who burst onto the scene four years ago as a rare talent, Bryn is joining the high school ranks as a highly touted racer.

In July, Makena’s little sister held her own against many of the nation’s best young runners at the USA Track and Field Junior Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon. In the 1,500 race, she placed third and clocked 4 minutes, 26.34 seconds, which would be the equivalent of 4:45 in the 1,600 meter race. The all-class high school state record for the 1,600 is 4:48.

Last weekend in Cut Bank, while her older sister visited Utah, Bryn competed in her first high school race and won by nearly two minutes. She clocked 17:33, which was 13 seconds faster than Makena’s time as a freshman on that course. Last year Makena blazed through the finish in Cut Bank in 17:20.

“She’s amazing,” Makena says of Bryn. “She’s really tough. And she’s really fast. She’s already mentally better than where I was as a freshman.”

The Morley running supremacy is well documented but the narrative has a couple exciting new strands.

The girls’ brother, Logan, is entering his junior year as the top-ranked runner on the boys side of Class B. He’s the reigning track state champion in the 1,600 and is poised to chase an individual cross country championship this fall. A year ago, he placed second after running 16:25 at the state meet in Missoula, finishing barely eight seconds behind the winner.

Last weekend he won the Cut Bank race, running 16:15.

“Logan is doing awesome and had a great summer of training,” Makena says.

Then there are the sisters, whose paths are crossing for one year that’s bound to be unforgettable.

Just as Bryn embarks on her high school career, Makena is coming to the end of her own historic run. Makena is eyeing a fourth consecutive Class B state cross country championship. According to the Montana High School Association, only three girls have ever won four cross country state titles: Flathead’s Zoe Nelson from 2001-2004; Kathy Jarvis of Havre from 1982-1985 and Ruby Yellowtails of Lodge Grass from 1989-1992.

Last fall Makena set a new all-time record for female distance runners in Montana history, running 16:35 at the state meet, the fastest time in any class. Her winning time surpassed Nelson’s 2002 previous best of 16:50 and was only the second race under 17 minutes in history at the state meet.

Makena went on to win the Western Regional Foot Locker Cross Country Championship and placed eighth at the national championship in San Diego.

Now she’s back with one large goal left on her list — win a national championship.

“It’s my last chance to do it. That’s what I’ve been training for,” she says.

This will be her best chance because for the first time Makena has an in-state competitor pushing her throughout the season. And it just happens to be her sister.

Makena and Bryn train together on a regular basis, either from their forested home in the Swan or after school. But instead of viewing each other as fierce competition, they’ve shifted their mindsets toward a team mentality.

“We’ve been able to redirect that competitiveness and get them more thinking like teammates rather than adversaries,” says their father Steve. “We want them to challenge each other because that makes them better but you don’t want them going against each other. Together they’ll be amazingly strong and fast.”

Steve said he watched how the Aragon sisters in Billings worked together and used them as an example of how siblings can make each other better instead of beating each other up competitively.

“It’s definitely challenging because they’re young enough still that it’s hard for them to see the whole picture. But they’re doing a great job and I’m just super proud of both of them,” Steve says.

For Makena, it’s been fun being a mentor, even though it’s hard not overwhelming her little sister with advice she’s learned along the way.

“I try not to give her too much advice because then I feel like I’m harping on her too much. I just give her good advice,” Makena says. “I didn’t used to say anything. I used to just do my own thing. Now I just tell her to have fun.”

Bryn has found a role model in her sister, someone who she can look up to and whom she can learn a lot from.

“Makena is really set on achieving her goals,” Bryn says. “I’m just excited to be able to run with her. I’m going to try as hard as I can with Makena this year.”

The sisters will only compete against each other in three races this fall — the Mountain West Classic in Missoula on Sept. 20; another large, competitive meet in Boise, Idaho on Sept. 27; and lastly at the Class B state meet in Helena on Oct. 25. The only other in-state meet Makena will compete in will be the 7-on-7 race in Helena next month.

Bryn will run this weekend at the Flathead Invitational at Rebecca Farm, Sept. 12. It will feature an exciting race between two of Montana’s top emerging talents: Bryn and Glacier freshman Annie Hill. Hill ran 17:31 in Libby in her first cross country race of high school.

Meanwhile, Makena has a busy schedule juggling school, running and visiting colleges. Makena has had straight A’s throughout high school except for one B, which she received last year after missing a few classes to attend the Foot Locker championships.

She received a mountain of letters from prospective colleges, a stream of phone calls starting July 1, and now the Bigfork senior has narrowed her list down to five potential schools — Utah, Boise State, Iowa State, Northern Arizona and University of Montana.

For a girl growing up in a small town in Northwest Montana, who didn’t start running long distance until sixth grade, it’s hard to imagine such an epic odyssey. But this was the dream from a young age.

“The things she told me she dreamed about as a freshman, they were pretty lofty goals,” Steve says. “It’s amazing she set her goals that high and it’s been awesome to see her achieve all of those goals. It’s really surprised me.”

Makena says she’s amazed that she’s already reached the final stretch of high school; it seems like just yesterday she was in Bryn’s shoes as a freshman.

“It’s been awesome. Looking back on it, I’ve done a lot of stuff and been able to go to all these places. Look what running gave me. It’s so cool,” she says.

And now it’s down to a climactic finish. However it ends, Makena says she’s happy to be running alongside her teammate, her sister.

“I’m excited to get pushed by her,” Makena says of Bryn. “When it comes down to it, whoever wins, at least if we went our hardest, I’ll be happy. If she beats me and I tried my hardest, awesome. And If I beat her and she tried her hardest, cool.”