Makena Morley ran her final prep cross country race Saturday. And boy did the Bigfork senior go out in style.
Morley finished third at the 36th annual Foot Locker Cross Country Championships at Balboa Park in San Diego in 17 minutes, 29 seconds, her top time and placing in four tries at the national meet.
"I was really happy; I raced as hard as I could," said Morley, a track and field recruit for the University of Montana. "I wanted to be relaxed and smooth and be able to run my race. It can be tough (on the national stage)."
Morley finished 16 seconds off the pace of Anna Rohrer of Indiana, a two-time champion now.
Close behind the Bigfork senior was a pair of fellow Flathead Valley girls. Kalispell Glacier freshman Annie Hill finished eighth while Morley's freshman sister, Bryn, crossed in 26th place.
"I didn't know exactly what I could do so I just wanted to go out and run hard," said Hill, making her first nationals appearance. "I wanted to be in the middle for the first mile, then I wanted to start picking people off the last two miles."
Hill posted a time of 17:52 on the sunny Saturday morning with temperatures in the high 60s. Bryn Morley ran an 18:33 in the race of the nation's top 40 high schoolers.
Makena Morley won the West Regional last Saturday in San Diego and entered this week's event as one of the front-runners for a national title. But the four-time Montana Class B cross country champion slowly fell off the pace beyond the race's half-way point.
"I tried to hold on, but by the two-mile marker my arms were just dead," said Morley, who fended off Texan Paige Hofstad for bronze by four seconds on the 5-kilometer course.
“It’s a big compliment to her fortitude," said UM cross country and distance coach Collin Fehr, Morley’s primary recruiter and future coach. "It’s easy to say you want to win, but when it’s clear you’re not going to, it can be easy to kind of let it go and drop way back. But she didn’t. She stayed in it and kept giving it everything she had.”
She trailed only Rohrer, who also won in 2012, and Ryen Frazier of North Carolina. The Montanan finished six seconds behind Frazier.
Morley, a two-time West Regional winner, placed eighth at nationals last year, 23rd as a sophomore and ninth as a freshman. She owns 10 State B championships across cross country and track seasons, including the top two times at the state cross country meet in Montana girls' history.
She broke her own mark in the 3-mile race in 16:33.20 this fall.
She'll pass the torch to a pair of capable Montanans in Hill and Bryn Morley now. The senior said she loved to have one national race with them first, with her whole family and new coach in attendance.
"It was so nice having Bryn and Annie here," she said. "I've been talking to (Bryn) about this experience all the time and it was great for her to experience this."
"It was really awesome, the whole experience," Bryn added, "even if my race didn't go as well as I planned."
Grant Fisher of Michigan won the boys' race in 15:03. No Montanans competed in that race.