NOVEMBER 17TH, 2018: 11:44AM
Morgan McDonald stands shoulder to shoulder with 254 of the NCAA’s best. The temperature hovers around -2 celsius, and whilst opponents shiver, McDonald waits calmly on the snow covered Zimmer Championship Course.
An eerie silence settles over a national championship race in the moments prior to the start. Bolstered by home-course advantage, McDonald is a young man firmly in control of converting a sophomore dream to tangible reality.
NOVEMBER 17TH, 2018: 12:14PM
Many a race has been lost in the final straight, McDonald knows this. Timing a gradual acceleration to perfection, a brief backward glance confirms Stanford hope Grant Fisher can’t summon a final burst. A wry smile spreads across McDonald’s bearded face, followed by an immediate embrace with Wisconsin assistant coach Gavin Kennedy.
A rapturous home crowd will spend the weekend congratulating McDonald at every opportunity. McDonald covers the snowy 10-kilometre course in 29:08, as the top-40 athletes all break 30:00 – a feat only managed by 13 individuals at the 2018 Australian 10,000m championships for comparison.
JANUARY 6TH, 2018: 12:54PM
A distinctively scruffy McDonald appears via video call, articulate throughout the hour long discussion. The 22-year old phenom assures me the path to an NCAA Championship, Commonwealth Games and World Championships has been anything but conventional.
Reflecting on the months that have followed his historic NCAA Cross Country title, McDonald is quick to note, “It’s been weird”, followed by muffled laughter, a recurring theme.
McDonald’s humble nature can require some encouraging – I prompt him to consider how the victory places him in Wisconsin history, “Obviously Wisconsin is a school with a ton of history, especially in the cross country program, but in my time there we’ve been historically bad”. McDonald is not being melodramatic for effect, Wisconsin have the most NCAA Cross Country National Championship appearances of any collegiate program, having qualified for 57 of the 80 annually held 31-team championship races, including a 43-year streak between 1971-2014.
McDonald bluntly assesses his early years at Wisconsin, “We had some terrible results.”
“In my sophomore year, our team imploded a little and we didn’t qualify for Nationals, which was the end of a historical streak. Similarly, the year before I started, we lost our streak of winning Big Ten’s (Conference)” an 11-year streak of cross country dominance.
In assessing the issues that face a program responsible for producing four individual national champions, McDonald considers the team as a unit.
“I think that was a problem we had initially, people would come to Wisconsin and expect to immediately become really good, because of our history”.
“I think since I’ve been at the school, we’ve had some really encouraging developments in team culture, and now it’s in a great place”.
McDonald follows a number of his responses with small chuckles, remarking “That’s not really an answer to your question… but I always found it interesting”, typifying the considerate nature of the finance student, McDonald speaks without arrogance of any sort.
With a previous winners list punctuated by the likes of Tiernan, Cheserek, Rupp, Ritzenhein, Goucher, Kennedy, Rono and Salazar, McDonald’s feat is momentous.
“It’s not something I think about on a day-to-day basis. But thinking about it, it was very cool to have a guy like Tegenkamp to run over to me straight after the national championship and congratulate me… as it happened I had that “Oh shit that’s Matt Tegenkamp” moment. I’d never actually met him before, but he came running over and i thought ‘damn, that’s pretty cool!”.
One of the many prodigiously talented Wisconsin alumni, a reality of success in such an environment is a congratulatory hug from a two-time Olympian with a 12:58.56 5,000m personal best.
A telling insight into McDonald’s respect for the program follows, “In terms of how I see myself in that position at Wisconsin, as it stands, I still feel I have much more to do, to be compared to those guys… right now I can’t conceive being compared to those guys”.
McDonald mentions the freshman year difficulties of a life transition lived out thousands of kilometres from the Sydney shores he grew up on.
“I was ready to commit and to do everything that was expected… “ McDonald pauses, carefully considering his phrasing, “I’m not sure if this will be interesting… but… In my freshman year I took some time off running. During my indoor season I got really burnt out mentally, as far as I considered, I just didn’t like running all that much for a little while”.
Bitterly disappointed with his World Under-20 Cross Country performance (33rd), ultimately taking additional time off post-event, prior to redshirting (sitting out) his outdoor season.
Irishman Mick Byrne built a dynasty in his 24 years at Iona College (NY). The six years he has spent at Wisconsin have brought continued success. Byrne is renowned as a coach who has an incredible knack for developing athletes throughout their career, placing long-term development above immediate accolades.
McDonald remains thankful for Byrne’s accommodating nature at a program where success is an expectation, “One of the strengths with Mick’s coaching, is that he acknowledges the pressures of being a student, even outside of just schoolwork, he knows it’s difficult socially, meeting so many new people. He knows that in-season, we’re so dedicated, and that’s not always easy, as there’s plenty of stuff we could wander off and be doing instead.”
“When I got back to running, he was incredibly patient with me. He has a busy job, so obviously he had things to deal with other than just me. I wasn’t necessarily a top priority, and I wasn’t really doing anything at all, in terms of running, yet he wasn’t freaking out. He really trusted that I’d find a way to get through it, which was pretty cool”.
McDonald reflects through laughter, “It wasn’t like he was happy with me, he certainly wasn’t happy… but he really stuck by me, he had faith in me that I could get through it and turn it around”.
McDonald interjects, “It’s so difficult to explain how much it means to run for Wisconsin, to express how much it means to everyone from Madison”. Elaborating, McDonald shows an awareness of the team’s role within the school, “We’re just runners, we don’t bring in money like the football team, but we get looked after so well”.
The 22-year old borders on bashful at times, eventually considering the effect of his own crowning achievement on the team, “Having a national champion does help with recruiting, but I’d hope my actual impact on the program, in terms of the culture… I want to have left it in a better place than when I got there.”
Appointed team captain in 2018, McDonald isn’t one for the stereotypically loud leadership style that accompanies many a sport, “The way I look at it is everyone in the group can contribute, that’s why it’s great to have a diverse group, we get plenty of different areas of knowledge and opinions. I think it’s important for you as an athlete to try and bring the best out of everyone, so that they can contribute their positives to the group in the best way possible”.
“It’s so difficult to explain how much it means to run for Wisconsin, to express how much it means to everyone from Madison.
We’re just runners, we don’t bring in money like the football team, but we get looked after so well”.
Whilst one of the 40 fastest humans globally in 2017 for 5000m, McDonald perpetuates the image of an individual of strong principles and quiet confidence, delivering an assurance that he wasn’t treated differently as national championship contender, “No. I’m pretty close with everyone on the team… I think that’s something that’s always been really hard to express to Australians, how close we are as a group – it’s actually the best fun of the sport – the trips and races. I live with these guys, they’re best friends of mine, so we’re super close as is, so nobody acted any different around me this season.”
“I’m vocal when I need to be, but for me it’s about leading by example.”
Many of McDonald’s remarks are indicative of a team culture that respects the opportunities made accessible by a university synonymous with athletic success, a place where athletes represent something larger than their own ambitions.
“It’s not just the fan support, but the alumni for example – there were hundreds of alumni back at the course to watch. When you’re on that national stage, in the biggest race of the year, you’re definitely running for the guys who have run previous to you.”
“One thing I like to think about, is I’m also trying to do this for the future team members, to try and keep the tradition going, setting the standard. That’s definitely a part of the team when we race, you’re racing for something bigger than yourself.”
A world away from weekly freshman meetings, McDonald fondly recalls informing Byrne that he wanted to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, “He laughed at me! Mick’s always believed that I had the ability to represent Australia, and it really helps that he’s an international, he has a perspective some might not. It’s kind of the pinnacle of this sport, representing your country whenever you can, you only have so many opportunities to do that.” McDonald wasn’t offended at the time, he knew his aspirations were ambitious, “You have to understand, entering that outdoor season, my 5k PB still wasn’t under 14 minutes. Sure, I knew I could run better than that, but the qualifier was something like 13:25, and whilst I didn’t qualify, I did end up running 13:29 that season.”
The 2016 season sparked a change in attitude and expectation from McDonald, as a difficult 2017 season begun, “It was a pretty tough year, I got a stress reaction in my foot during indoors, so when I came back for outdoors, I didn’t actually qualify for NCAA Regionals (laughs)…I only had to run 14:05 to qualify for the 5k, but we had left it to the last minute, as with my injury, I just hadn’t had enough time to come back and get fit enough to race prior to that. It turned out on the day, it was super super windy, and whilst I won, I only ran 14:14… at which point I thought “well, shit, that’s my season done”. It sucked, but I still had a goal of qualifying for the World Championships.. So I thought, well, lets try get that done!”
A 13:23.28 performance at the Portland Track Festival provided the confidence McDonald require to venture internationally for one final attempt. With one day remaining to post a qualifying time, McDonald lined up in a stacked field in Huesden, Belgium.
In a race remembered for torrential rain, McDonald entered a new stratosphere, “It was an absolute grindfest, I swear, that period of time, all the 5k PB’s I ran, I’d be hurting from the second lap… so badly, whilst running along thinking “shit, I’ve gotta try and hang on here.”
Roughly an hour after the race, McDonald battled through a language barrier and a dysfunctional mobile phone to discover he had qualified for the 2017 IAAF World Championships, a 13:15.83 personal best opening the door to a debut senior national team berth.
McDonald is aware of what the professional world holds following the end of his indoor and outdoor seasons, the extent of his remaining athletic eligibility at Wisconsin. A professional contract can be financially impacted by success at an NCAA level, thus McDonald is clear in his objectives to be competitive both indoors and outdoors over the 3000m and 5000m distances respectively. Whilst a lifelong goal, McDonald is wary of an existence revolving around an often solitary pursuit, “The way I look at it, there are really only so many hours of a day in which you can run, at some point, there has to be an element of diminishing returns. I think it becomes really important to have something else in your life, a little like school, where you can put time and attention into something useful.”
“I’m cognisant of those elements of professional running, so I am a little bit worried about becoming a professional runner and just turning into someone who’s involved in nothing but running. I think it’s good to put running in its place, it gives the task perspective – when your whole life becomes running-related, it’s very easy when running is going well, but when it’s going badly… you can’t live your entire life with that level of attachment.”
McDonald notes an ideal career projection would mirror the Nick Willis’ of the world, a gradual development that allows for personal bests and professional success into an athlete’s thirties.
Keeping coy on his professional options, McDonald admits there are a series of options available to him at the end of the season, politely passing comment on the Wisconsin-heavy Bowerman Track Club, containing Badger alumni Evan Jager, Mo Ahmed and former coach Jerry Schumacher.
“When your whole life becomes running-related, it’s very easy when running is going well, but when it’s going badly…you can’t live your entire life with that level of attachment.”
Referencing the stretch of time prior to the 2019 IAAF World Championships, McDonald admits “I’m trying to be as chilled as possible with indoors, the last two years I’ve managed to get injured around the February-March point. I’d like to try and do my best, but I have to try and keep the rest of the year in perspective at the same time and not go too crazy.”
“I think you have to realise, there’s only so much you can do, and you have to be ok with that. It’s not something I’ve done very well in the past, but I think that’s my big challenge this season.”
The six months between a disastrous 10th place at the 2018 Big Ten Championships 5000m and an NCAA Cross Country title tested McDonald to the extreme, as noted in the post-race press scrum “I’ve honestly put my heart and soul into this.” A poignant victory with family present, giving McDonald a moment to reiterate the motivating factors behind his success, “When I run, obviously I do want to do it for myself, but I really want to do well for my Mum and my Dad, it just makes them so happy when I run well, so that’s a big motivator for me.”
“It’s something that I’ve consciously thought of when I race. I remember Ashton Eaton, setting the decathlon world record, he had the win in the bag – but he pushed himself incredibly hard in the 1500m to set the world record. What drove him was thinking of all the kids he’d be inspiring, he mentioned how thinking of other people that you care about can really drive you. After I read that, I did start consciously thinking of people I cared about as I raced.”
McDonald’s altruistic nature was most evident in the emotional press conference of coach and mentor Byrne, on the now historical cold day in Madison, “On a personal level, when you coach someone for five years, someone of his level, you help them through this journey. The last five years have had a lot of ups and downs. That is a world-class athlete.” Byrne’s voice falters slightly as he pauses, “His (Morgan’s) hopes have been dashed many times in the past, I’m just so proud of Morgan and all of the kids.”
McDonald is a realist as to what the future may hold, “I’m pretty happy right now. Obviously I’m just a runner and a normal person, so, sometimes I get super caught up in the short term, the ‘here and now’ of it all, but I’m happy.”
In a quiet moment the day prior to McDonald’s collegiate crowning, 1985 NCAA Cross Country Champion & Wisconsin Badger Tim Hacker encouraged him to forget the pressure of the event, “All of the alumni are excited to see you race, so just get out there and enjoy it.”
If 2018 is anything to go by, the cities of Doha and Tokyo may bring further joy to a wise Irishman, a loyal support team and a fiercely pragmatic Morgan McDonald.