Cross Country

Morley Makes World Cross Country Team

Former Bigfork cross country star will represent Team USA in Australia next month

By Micah Drew
Makena Morley runs on the Bigfork High School Track on June 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A characteristically bubbly Makena Morley could barely keep the excitement out of her voice about her latest achievement on a cross country course, despite having just finished a workout that would leave an average runner gasping for air. 

Morley, however, is no average runner. 

On Jan. 21, Morley competed in the USA Cross Country National Championships held at Pole Green Park in Richmond, Virginia, finishing as runner-up and earning a spot on the national team to compete at the World Cross Country Championships in February. 

At the national meet, Morley ran in a pack of the top women for most of the five-lap course before the eventual winner, Ednah Kurgat, pulled away with a kilometer to go. Kurgat completed the 10k course in 32:07, with Morley in second place in 32:24.

“I’ve wanted to do cross country champs for months, even when I had other races I was training for at the time,” Morley told the Beacon. “Cross country is where I got my start running way back at the beginning, I was just so excited to be back racing on the grass.”

Morley began running cross country as a middle school runner living in Bigfork. She was easy to notice as a competitor, because even back then she was at the front of the pack. 

In high school, Morley recorded four straight individual state titles in cross country, culminating in an all-class state record (her second) with a 16:33.20 three-mile as a senior. She only lost one race in Montana in four years. 

In 2015, as a freshman at the University of Montana, she won the Big Sky Conference, and was one of four individual qualifiers from her region to make the national championships. 

After transferring to the University of Colorado for the remainder of her collegiate career, Morley helped the Buffs take third place at the national meet twice, and win the NCAA championship in 2018. That was the last time she raced on grass. 

“I ended my cross country “career” on a good note with Colorado, so I was hoping that success would carry over from four year ago,” Morley said. “I knew that I was fit enough to place in the top six [and qualify for Worlds], but it’s so different from what I’ve been training for that I wasn’t sure how it would feel to race.”

Makena Morley ties her shoe on the Bigfork High School Track on June 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since college, Morley signed a professional contract to represent Asics and has competed primarily on the roads. Two years ago she won her first national title at the U.S. 25k Championships, setting a half marathon PR en route, and in October made her marathon debut at the Chicago Marathon, placing 10th against an international-caliber field. 

Morley characterized her debut marathon as a learning experience, having been on pace to run 2:25 through 20 miles before fueling issues lead to “bonk city,” and a final time of 2:30:28. She considered racing another marathon in the winter or spring before deciding with her coach to focus on shorter distances. 

Currently a Bozeman resident, Morley trains under Lyle Weese, the head track and field coach at Montana State University. She works as a volunteer coach with the Bobcats, as well as works at the local running store. 

Living year-round in Montana as a professional runner doesn’t always provide ideal opportunities for training, and Morley said the last few months have been a struggle as she’s worked to gain cross country fitness. 

“I was in the Flathead for the holidays and there was a long run where I just sat down and cried for a minute because it was so hard,” she said. “It was 20 miles and totally flat, but I felt like I was running through sand because there was so much snow.”

With a focus on that national cross country meet however, Morley had to run fast and being outside wasn’t often an option. She ended up doing a majority of her workouts up through the middle of January on a treadmill, with the belt ratcheted up at an incline. 

“I was a little panicked because I’ve only been doing treadmill workouts, but then I remembered I’ve basically been running uphill all winter,” Morley said. “Running hills is really what you do to get ready for cross country.”

Morley will be in Hawaii for much of the time leading up to the World Championships, allowing her ample opportunity to acclimate to both heat and running on solid ground before she lines up against the best runners in the world where she hopes to be competitive with her U.S. teammates. 

The World Athletics Cross Country Championships will be held in Bathurst, Australia, on Feb. 18. To learn more visit https://worldathletics.org/competitions/world-athletics-cross-country-championships/bathurst23

Makena Morley runs on the Bigfork High School Track on June 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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