Makena Morley was napping in her Albuquerque hotel room when she got the text.
“All the text said was, ‘It’s canceled, want to go to the mall?’” she recalled. “So we went.”
The “it” was the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, Morley’s last shot at a national title as a star distance runner for the University of Colorado. She was slated to run both the 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter events, and was ranked highly in both.
“We’d already been to the track; we’d already done our pre-race routine,” Morley said.
The COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to sweep across the country, canceling sporting events left and right. Following news that conference basketball tournaments were canceled, the track athletes knew the odds weren’t in their favor.
“I think my headspace was OK,” Morley said. “I was hopeful that since we were already there they’d let us compete, but it was sounding worse and worse every hour.”
Then she got the text.
The team flew from New Mexico back to Boulder the next day, and Morley barely had time to say goodbye to her teammates of four years before everyone left to ride out the quarantine.
As a Buff, Morley set school records, earned seven All-America honors and was part of the 2018 NCAA champion cross country team. She had entered her last year as a collegiate athlete with high expectations in mind, including an individual national title..
Just like that, it was all over. But Morley’s ascendance to the world of professional running was about to begin.
Three months later, Morley and fellow Flathead Valley native Zach Perrin laced up their shoes on a muggy June afternoon, just like they have nearly every day for a decade. Their first steps across the parking lot were a slow trot, before transitioning to speeds that carried the two runners past cyclists, even as they casually jabbered nonstop.
To passersby, the two harriers might only register as talented distance runners efficiently striding along. Watch them for mile after mile, however, and small hitches emerge. Morley has a race-walker shuffle, and her steps are short and quick, even for her diminutive stature. In contrast, Perrin lopes, and every 10th step or so, his left leg circles out a little farther than normal, as if he’s unconsciously shaking out a cramp in his hip.
Neither quirk has posed a problem in the careers of the fastest couple in Montana history.
The supremely fit couple, who started dating four years ago as teammates in Boulder, have eerily mirrored each other’s lives. Both grew up on the shores of Flathead Lake, both captured numerous high school state titles in track and cross country, and both rewrote the record books in Montana. Each is the oldest of a trifecta of track-star siblings — Morley’s brother Logan competed at Montana State University and sister Brynn currently runs for Northern Arizona University; Perrin’s younger brothers, Jake and Ben, compete for Gonzaga and MSU, respectively.
Both runners went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, although Morley took a semester-long detour at University of Montana first, picking up a Big Sky Conference cross country title as a freshman along the way, and both were on national championship cross country teams — Perrin in 2013, Morley in 2018.
Now they’re figuring out their life together.
Their next step is tied to Morley’s recent entrance into the world of professional athletics. In May, Morley hired agent Ray Flynn, of Flynn Sports Management, and is currently negotiating her professional contract with a shoe company. As soon as the details are finalized, the couple will be relocating.
When Morley first turned pro, she began talking with coaches and teams in Colorado, Flagstaff, Ariz., and Boise, Idaho.
“Ultimately once we knew Makena was going to continue running, we started looking for a good city we could compromise on,” Perrin said. “So a place she would be able to train with people and I could find a job.”
While her official announcement is forthcoming, Morley has chosen a team and begun working with her new coach. She’s also been sketching out goals for the next year.
But while the future is bright, Morley’s last year as a collegian was a blurred finale she hadn’t anticipated.
In lieu of a cross country season, as she had exhausted her four years of eligibility in that sport, Morley got a taste of her upcoming professional life last fall by racing the Medtronic TC Ten Mile, a USA championships road race. Despite being longer than any race Morley had specifically trained for, she ended up finishing second among the professionals—just six seconds out of first place.
“It was just so fun,” Morley said. “I kept waiting to bonk and get tired, but I was just right there with her until the end.”
That second place finish won Morley $10,000, but she had to forgo the prize money in order to remain an amateur athlete and focus on her final indoor and outdoor track seasons.
Morley’s last indoor track season started off well. Morley ran two regular season meets, including a 5,000-meter race in Boston where, despite going out “way too fast through three k[ilometers],” she ran a personal best of 15:26.22.
With the cancellation of the indoor championship meet and outdoor season, however, Morley lost the opportunity to prove herself against the best collegians in the nation one last time. The NCAA offered affected athletes an extra year of eligibility, but Morley opted to turn pro instead.
The last years of Perrin’s running career have been a similar rollercoaster, although he did get the chance to run in his final collegiate championship meet. Unfortunately, he missed scoring points for his team.
Perrin had run a 13:37.06 in the 5,000 meters that spring, a time that qualified him for the USATF National Championships. But by that point he was burned out on running and decided not to race.
Instead, he took a full month off, his longest break since he started running competitively at Flathead High School. He started up again a few weeks before the Missoula Half Marathon that July and finished second there.
After another break, Perrin signed up for a 50-mile race — The North Face Endurance Challenge.
“It seemed like a fun event and there’s a lot of prize money there,” Perrin said, noting that he knew of some runners who made their longer trail-racing debut at that event. “Eventually it was canceled for the California fire, which in hindsight was probably a really great thing for me.”
Fifty miles is just a few miles too many, he realized.
Perrin didn’t think seriously about racing for several months after that, until a trip took him to Idaho. While there, he reached out to Kameron Ulmer, coach of the Idaho Distance Project (IDP), a post-collegiate and professional team.
“I was in Boise for an EMT course and I sent Kam a message asking for any recommendations on where to run,” Perrin said. “He invited me to run with the team and I spent the whole weekend hanging out with them.”
When he got back to Boulder, he reached out again, asking if Ulmer would be willing to work with him remotely.
“He just has such an infectious personality it was easy to get excited to run again,” Perrin said. “I started to enjoy running again, which I hadn’t done in years.”
With a new coach on board, Perrin began racing again. He met up with two Boise-based teammates in California for a half marathon. Then in December he flew to Pennsylvania, where he ran with IDP in the USATF Club Cross Country Championships.
“It was just the most ridiculous race,” he said. “It was so hard and the course was muddy, but it was also just so fun. The meet is like Comic-Con for runners.”
Perrin says the team would have finished a clear second in the race, were it not for one member battling a stress fracture. However, he says it was one of the best weekends of his life.
“I’ve never been part of a team that has so much fun and has such an enjoyable approach to running,” he said.
While 2020 has been bereft of races, the fire and fun are still there for Perrin.
“The final catalyst for me starting running again, honestly, was Makena graduating and being done with the college thing,” Perrin said. “It’s just so hard running by myself and now we get to run together anytime.”
After Morley returned from indoor nationals, the couple was quarantined in their 450-square-foot apartment in Boulder. Perrin worked, Morley finished classes and both of them ran.
Once they could, Morley and Perrin returned to the Flathead Valley to crash with their families. For locals, that means it’s once again possible to catch glimpses of the bouncing twin braids and lean blond frame of Montana’s fastest running couple along the roads and trails. For Morley and Perrin, it means navigating the Millenial/GenZ nightmare of living at home as an adult.
“I have to keep telling myself I’m an adult, so I don’t relapse into acting like a kid,” Makena said near the end of a recent run along the Great Northern Historical Trail. “It’s so hard when everything is done for you.”
Morley’s father, Steve, knows it’ll be the last time his eldest daughter lives at home, and has made sure they get in a few runs together.
“It always seemed like where she was headed, so it’s not that unusual,” he said about Morley’s professional career. “But it’s more complex than I thought it would be. There are just a lot of different layers to professional running.”
Morley’s parents have stayed spectators in her professional negotiations, other than as a sounding board for ideas.
“At this stage, it has to be completely driven by her,” Steve said. “More so than college, where you have a lot of support and everything, if you want to be a professional runner, it had better be your dream, so that you’re the one that’s pushing the goal along and making sure it happens.”
To a greater extent than ever, Morley’s livelihood will be tied to her running. Her contract with a shoe company will provide a modest salary, but race performances will be essential. Increases in her base pay will come by running specific times, and a bonus structure will exist for high-placing finishes at national championships or selection to an Olympic or World Championship team. In addition, the prize money offered at road races, like the 10-mile she ran last fall, means a five-figure incentive could be on the line every time Morley is.
“I’m already seeing it — she’s more committed to her own racing,” Steve said. “When you have to start performing for yourself, not for your coaches, not for anyone else, it’s a big step up in maturity, and I think you have to have that on the professional level.”
For her first year of professional racing, Morley and her new coach have targeted the USA Running Circuit, a series of road races ranging from five to 25 kilometers, and potentially a marathon debut. Morley is tentatively looking at the California International Marathon in December, where her goal will be to run under 2:30.
“I really didn’t think I wanted to run a marathon anytime soon,” Morley said. “But it will be fun to do one and just see how that goes.”
With the Tokyo Olympics pushed back a year, both Morley and Perrin have extra time to get the times needed to qualify for next summer’s Olympic Trials, and both have a lot of room to improve.
“I don’t think I could have gotten the [Olympic] standard this year, but now that I’ve got a year, it could be possible,” Morley said. “But making the team will be so hard.”
“I used to hate running with you; it was just so easy for you,” Morley told Perrin during the last mile of a recent run. “Now I like it a lot more!”
“Oh, so you just like running with me when I’m out of shape,” Perrin replied. He appeared to be struggling more after 11 miles than Morley, who seemed to barely take a breath during the hour-and-a-half run as she maintained a steady stream of conversation.
Perrin is still working out what kind of racing he wants to focus on going forward.
“I think that’s one of the things from college, is I just never really figured out what distance I should focus on,” he said. “I think once I get fit and have training under my belt, Kameron will have a good idea of where I’ll excel.”
All that will be coming together when Perrin and Morley make their move and get settled in with their new running partners and training ground.
“I think it’s going to be awesome,” Morley said.
Wherever Morley’s shuffle takes her next, it’s sure to be accompanied by two things: her nonstop joyful chattering, and Perrin’s lope, matching her stride for stride.