Racing to the Top

Makena Morley, one of the most decorated distance runners in Montana history, recently shattered another all-time mark but has her sights set on bigger ambitions: a national Division I title, the Olympics and a professional running career

By Myers Reece
Makena Morley poses on the Bigfork High School track on July 3, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On June 30, Makena Morley woke up at 3 a.m. to ready herself for the Missoula Half Marathon, where she had set the all-time record in 2018. She felt strong heading into the race and set a swift pace after the gun sounded, but her stomach seized up with about two miles left. She started dry heaving.

Morley struggled across the finish line, battling a body in rebellion, and looked up at the clock. She had shattered her own record, finishing at 1:14:29, a pace of 5:41 per mile. The next finisher from more than 1,800 women didn’t arrive for another 5 full minutes. It was the fourth straight year Morley won Montana’s marquee half marathon.

“I felt terrible,” she said. “The last two miles were really hard. But it felt great to break the record.”

That’s what the 22-year-old Morley does with her summer break after finally getting a reprieve from her demanding Division I collegiate running schedule. She keeps running and striving, unfazed by obstacles both external and internal.

Morley has been breaking records and piling up accolades since she was a 14-year-old freshman at Bigfork High School, when she won the first of four state cross country championships and the first of four Montana Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year awards. That spring, in her first Class B state track meet, she swept the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 distances. She also placed 22nd out of nearly 29,000 women at the Bloomsday Run in Spokane, soundly defeating all 958 other 15-year-olds and finishing on the heels of elite professional runners.

By the time she graduated high school, Morley was one of the most decorated distance runners in Montana history, with her name at or near the top of a lengthy list of record book entries for cross country and track. In her final cross country race at the Class B state meet, she broke the all-class state record with a time of 16:33.20. Her coach, Sue Loeffler, proudly said Morley went out “in a blaze of glory.” Loeffler added that Morley deserved to exit the high school stage in such a manner because, beyond being an “amazing runner,” she’s an “amazing person.”

Morley is still amazing, but a lot faster and wiser. And with her eyes trained on a national collegiate title, the Olympics and a professional running career, she has no intentions of slowing down.

Morley hails from a family of athletes. Her father Steve was a star sprinter at Bigfork High School and then at Montana State University before taking up distance running later in life. He has consistently been in the upper national percentile for men his age, running 5Ks under 16 minutes well into his 40s and posting mile times that approached his age-group world record. Morley’s brother Logan and sister Bryn both tallied numerous cross country and track titles in high school and now run in college at MSU and Northern Arizona University, respectively, a sibling trifecta of Division I talent.

Yet it was Morley’s mother Jill who introduced the family to distance running after getting into the sport as a healthy activity, not necessarily a competitive pursuit. Jill has described the Morleys’ passion for running in the straightforward terms of family love: “We like hanging out with our kids and they like hanging out with us.”

In middle school, Morley started entering fun runs, reluctantly at first, with her parents after Jill’s enthusiasm had rubbed off on Steve. She quickly discovered she had a natural talent, which manifested itself in dominance. But after a high school career in which she rarely lost a race and often won by absurd margins, the transition to college wasn’t seamless.

Makena Morley celebrates with Bigfork High School teammates after breaking the Class B state record in the 1600-meter relay in her final track meet on May 23, 2015.  Beacon File Photo

Morley spent her first post-high school year at the University of Montana, where she ran cross country and won the Big Sky Conference title as a freshman. She transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder, one of the top distance-running programs in the country, and redshirted the indoor and outdoor track seasons. The new environment introduced a difficult truth: She was no longer the fastest runner in every race and often not close to the fastest, even on her own team for that matter.

“It was so hard,” she said. “I had to accept that it will take a while to get to where I was in high school.”

Not to mention, having come from a small high school program that barely fielded a team some years, including only five runners one year, she was accustomed to predominantly training with her family and limited in her knowledge of formal team-oriented practice regimens.

“I didn’t even get the formations,” she said of her first Colorado practices. “They’d say, ‘Makena, what are you doing? Why aren’t you rotating?’ I didn’t know what they were talking about.”

But the unflappable Morley used those challenges as motivation to improve as a runner and mature as a human, and she reflects on the experience with clear eyes.

“I’ve grown a lot as a person,” she said recently from her native Bigfork, a week removed from her Missoula Half Marathon victory.

In 2016, Morley had a solid first year at Colorado by most standards but not her own. She made the All Pac 12 second team in cross country and placed 43rd at nationals, helping the women Buffs finish third overall. She was gradually beginning to hit her collegiate stride.

Then in the 2017 indoor track season, Morley finished 14th in the 5K at the NCAA National Championships, qualifying for the All-America second team. In outdoor, she narrowly missed an All-America finish by placing 17th in the 10K.

It was next two years that vaulted Morley back to the front of the pack, although the spring of 2018 started out ominously when she reinjured the same plantar fascia in her foot that had forced her to redshirt her freshman track season. She contemplated resting but instead decided to tape it tight and keep going.

“I thought, ‘I can’t take another redshirt,’” she said.

Makena Morley poses on the Bigfork High School track on July 3. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Running through the injury, Morley broke two personal-best marks in the indoor season and three more in the outdoor season, when the injury was beginning to heal. She also scored first-place finishes at the Colorado Invitational in both indoor and outdoor, and secured All-America second team honors in outdoor by finishing 11th in the 10K.

That fall, fully recovered from the injury, Morley placed eighth at the NCAA Division I Championships for cross country to earn All-America first team honors, finishing less than 20 seconds behind teammate and national champion Dani Jones. The Buffs won the national team title.

Then at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March of this year, Morley became the first University of Colorado runner in over a decade to earn first team All-America honors in two different individual events, finishing seventh in the 5K and sixth in the 3K. She followed that up with two more All-America finishes at the national outdoor track meet, coming in 11th in the 10K and sixth in the 5K, just 12 seconds behind teammate Jones, the national champion.

With seven All-America finishes to her name, Morley has exhausted her eligibility in cross country but has one more year left for indoor and outdoor track. Among her goals is becoming a national champion in either the 5K or 10K, or both. She also has her sights set on the Olympic Trials, already posting times that are near trial qualifying while only getting faster, as she demonstrated in Missoula last month.

To hear it from her, as her collegiate career winds down, she’s just getting started. There isn’t the faintest hint of burnout or complacency in her voice. She runs 90 miles a week, the most on her team, and besides her plantar issues years ago she never suffers significant injuries, “knock on wood.”

“I just love running,” she said. “It’s so therapeutic for me. And I love racing.”

For someone so fast, she’s not rushing her future. She plans to enjoy her final year of coursework, completing a double major in anthropology and English creative writing, and take her running goals one at a time. Finishing her college career strong is her first priority. She would of course be thrilled to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics, but she’s not putting all her eggs in that basket.

“I have time to do that,” she said. “I can do it in four years.”

Morley also wants to get sponsored after college and become a professional runner. She could then focus more of her energy on road races like the Missoula Half Marathon, her preferred style along with trails, and spend less time on tracks.

“I think road racing will keep up my love for running,” she said. “We’ll see it how goes. I just know I want to keep going, for sure.”

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