MISSOULA — Makena Morley will be the first to tell you the move to Colorado was hard.
An understandable sentiment, considering where she grew up.
Morley hails from Bigfork originally, a beautiful town on the northeastern side of Flathead Lake but home to just over 4,000 people. So after spending one semester at Montana in Missoula, already a sizable jump in population, Morley opted to transfer to the University of Colorado in Boulder, a city that is over 100,000 people and not far from the metropolitan area that is Denver.
“It’s been really fun being here but it’s definitely a lot different from Bigfork,” Morley said. “It was kind of a learning experience when I first got here but I’ve definitely grown a lot being able to be with people who are better than me and can run with me and can have a whole team of support.”
She added with a laugh, “I really like it now that I’ve gotten used to it. The first semester I was like, ‘Huh, this is different.’ Boulder’s not that big of a town but for me it was huge.”
Being away from family was tough. but as most athletes or students learn in college, getting away from parents allows one to grow and start finding oneself.
Once she got used to her new life, Morley found herself growing as a leader while also finding the ability to adapt to certain situations and interact with different people more confidently. She also said she was able to start appreciating everyone’s success rather than being upset if someone was performing better than her.
And to say Morley has adjusted nicely in Boulder is an understatement.
Twice she has qualified for the NCAA DI Outdoor Track & Field Championships, both times in the 10k. This past fall, she reached a peak of sorts after helping guide Colorado to the women’s national championship in cross country. Morley finished in eighth place overall, good enough to earn her All-American honors for the newly crowned national champs.
“That was really amazing. I think we had been favored the two years before that and had not lived up to that and gotten third each time,” Morley explained. “The amount of times we had kind of let ourselves down and then to be able to do that was pretty amazing.
“It’s definitely special. You have to have a huge amount of respect for one another to be able to do that and I think we were all able to bring that respect and love for one another together at the right time this year and that was really special to have as a team.”
Morley said cross country was always her favorite sport at Bigfork, and for good reason. She was a four-time individual Class B state champion in high school and won the Big Sky Conference championship in 2015 in her lone semester as a Grizzly. But once she got to Colorado, Morley admits she was “getting demolished” by her competition.
After so much dominance, getting used to that high level of college cross country and competitors every day wasn’t easy. In fact, her roommate and good friend, Dani Jones, was the national cross country champion. So Morley was literally up against the best each time she laced up her running shoes.
But once she found renewed confidence and comfort, she peaked and broke through at the right time in her final college cross country race.
“That was huge for me,” Morley said. “I think my problem before was I didn’t quite have the confidence in myself and I’m not sure why but I just didn’t. It was definitely nice to have that breakthrough and also then be able to share it with that whole team.
“It was definitely easier to get that place because I was like I have to give it my all for my team. So that was nice.”
Part of that adjustment came from Jones, who helped Morley realize just how good she actually is.
“I learned a lot from Dani,” Morley said. “She’s very down to Earth and she taught me a lot and how to be more confident in myself and my racing. So it’s been nice to be around people like her and then when you’re around people who are so good, you kind of have a higher standard for yourself. That’s definitely been helpful for me as well.”
Morley also ran into both of her siblings throughout the year as well. Younger brother Logan recently transferred to Montana State after two years at Colorado State University-Pueblo and sister Bryn is in her first year at Northern Arizona.
“We’re all in college now and it’s crazy,” she said with another laugh.
Morley has also taken a fellow Montanan under her wing at Colorado. Kalispell Glacier grad Annie Hill, another decorated distance runner, is in her first year in Boulder. Being two athletes not just from the same state but the same corner of Montana has made connecting with the two easy and exciting.
“She’s great, I love her,” Morley said. “She is like my little sister now since I don’t have my little sister here. She is amazing. She’s so similar to how I am and how I was when I came in as a freshman and it’s so funny to watch someone and know that I did that exact same thing.”
Morley has also been a four-time All-American in indoor track and she qualified for nationals in the 3k and 5k earlier in the winter.
For now, Morley’s focus is on this weekend when she heads to Sacramento, California, with the goal of qualifying for the NCAA DI Outdoor Track & Field Championships for the third time in her career. The national meet is in Austin, Texas, June 5-8. Hill will join her there and compete in the 1,500-meter run.
Morley qualified for the NCAA West Preliminary Championships in Sacramento in the 5k and 10k. She comes in with the 10th best time in the 5k at 15:43.37 and 20th best mark in the 10k at 33:37.47. Last year, Morley took 11th at nationals in the 10k, good enough to be named second-team All-American.
“I really like regionals. It is nerve-wracking because you know you have to get top 12 or else you don’t go to nationals,” Morley said. “So I almost think regionals, for me, I get a lot more nervous than nationals.
“I get nervous but I also have to be calm and remind myself I can do this.”
Morley did say she strained her hamstring the other day but is confident she’ll be able to run. The 10k is scheduled for late Thursday and the 5k will get underway Saturday evening. Between the two, the 10k is her favorite.
Morley is done with college cross country but has one more season of indoor and outdoor track eligibility remaining. And with the consistency she has found in going to nationals, she’ll aim to keep that stretch of success going this weekend.
“I think it’s good to know that you’ve done it before. I think that’s a big thing,” Morley said. “Being confident in yourself that you can do it and getting a good position in the race. That’s always important too just to get a good spot. But going in the past is definitely helpful.
“I’m excited and ready to go.”