Next to “multi-time state champion,” “University of Colorado school record holder,” “Big Sky champion,” and “cross country national team champion,” Bigfork native Makena Morley can now add “Olympic Trials competitor” to her list of accolades.
Morley competed in the 2021 Olympic Trials in the recently remodeled historic Hayward Field stadium in Eugene, Oregon last weekend.
“The stadium was amazing, and the crowd, even with some COVID restrictions, was great,” Morley said.
At the Olympic Trials, Morley raced the 10,000 meters (10k), an event that covers 25 laps of the track. The longest race on the track was Morley’s collegiate specialty, and she holds the Colorado school record in the event.
Morley, who signed a multi-year professional sponsorship deal with Asics last year, qualified for the Trials at a May track meet in California. Morley ran a huge personal best time in the event, finishing fourth in 31 minutes, 25.19 seconds — just .19 seconds off of the Olympic standard. In order to make the U.S. Olympic Team, athletes must finish in the top three at the Trials and have run the Olympic standard, or hold a high world ranking.
“The goal going in to be honest was just to race smart and stick in, or on, the lead pack for as long as I could and try to get that top three spot,” Morley said after the race. “I was confident that I could get into the top five with a good race and if I had the race of my life could get into that top three, but I would also have needed more Montana-like conditions.”
The conditions for the women’s 10k, which took place on Saturday, June 26, were unlike anything the Bozeman-based runner has run in before. The race, originally slated for Saturday evening, was moved to the morning to avoid the worst of a heat wave that rolled through Eugene, peaking at 102 degrees on Saturday and 108 on Sunday, prompting delays in competition.
The women’s 10k started with an air temperature of 85 degrees, but a track temperature over 100 degrees, and the effects of the heat were quickly apparent on the 41 runners who started the race.
“I didn’t heat train at all — I didn’t realize Eugene would be so hot,” Morley said. “After about five and a half [kilometers] the heat really started to affect me and then with two miles to go I got freezing so I knew I was pretty dehydrated.”
“At that point I just wanted to finish the race without dropping out,” she continued. “I love Montana, but it doesn’t help when you have to run such a hot race.”
For most of the 25-lap race, Morley ran at the back of the front pack of runners, in around 11th place, before slipping back over the last mile and a half and ultimately finishing in 19th in a time of 33 minutes, 2.87 seconds.
Emily Sisson won the race in an Olympic Trials meet record of 31:03.82 to eclipse the mark set by Deena Kastor in 2004. Sisson took the lead on lap five and closed her last mile in a sizzling 4:45. She will be joined at the Tokyo Games by Karissa Schweizer (31:16.52) and Alicia Monson (31:18.55).
The heat took a toll on the entire field — four runners dropped out and Monson was hospitalized immediately after the medal ceremony.
“I’m bummed I didn’t race to my fitness,” Morley said. “But I learned some good lessons and got to compete at the highest level I’ve competed at this far, so all in all I think that’s a win!”
After a short break, Morley said she will return to training for the road racing season, starting with the Falmouth Road Race, a world-class seven-mile race in Massachusetts. Morley has had a lot of success on the roads, including a second-place finish in the 2019 USA 10-mile championships.
Ten other athletes with Montana ties competed in the Olympic Trials.
Current Montana State University athletes Carley VonHeeder (javelin, 16th), Drake Schneider (400-meter hurdles, 14th), Lucy Corbett (high jump, 16th) and Duncan Hamilton (steeplechase, 14th) all competed in Eugene in Bobcats jerseys.
Bozeman-based world mountain running champion, steeplechaser and training partner to Morley, Grayson Murphy, placed sixth in the steeplechase, while Billings native Dani Aragon was eighth in the 1,500-meter final and Corvallis native Sadi Henderson was 21st in the 800-meter run.
Other competitors with Montana ties included Benji Phillips (javelin, 17th) and Sammy Evans (triple jump, 19th),
One of the top prospects for making the Olympic team was Isaac Updike, a New York-based runner with strong ties to the Flathead Valley who was the top American in the steeplechase this year going into the Trials.
Updike’s parents have a house in Somers, his sister Bethany Johnson is a Columbia Falls-based realtor and his great grandparents homesteaded in the Swan Valley. When New York shut down due to COVID, Updike lived and trained in the Flathead for a few months, running with Glacier High School cross country coach Cody Moore.
Updike easily won his semi-final heat and was picked as a strong favorite to make the team. In the final, Updike took the lead with 500 meters to go in the 3,000-meter race. After being passed by two competitors on the backstretch, Updike was in a battle for the third and final Olympic spot heading into the final water jump, but stumbled on his landing and ultimately faded to fifth in the final seconds of the race.
“It was just on the last lap he said his legs got wobbly,” said Johnson, who flew to Eugene to watch her brother race. “It’s crazy how close those races can be and crazy how every little detail matters. Regardless, we’re all super proud of him and it was so special to see him race there.”
Updike, who was previously running without a sponsor, signed a contract with Nike between his semifinal win and the final, which will support him as he aims for next summer’s world championships.
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