For Wisconsin Badgers’ Morgan McDonald, NCAA Cross Country Championship has long been the target
Morgan McDonald shared part of a diary entry this week, and it brings you into his world in the days before a long-awaited moment.
The University of Wisconsin hosts the NCAA cross country championships on Saturday at the Zimmer Championship Course, an event so important to McDonald and his team that they altered his career to accommodate it.
McDonald could have run his fourth and final cross country season for UW in 2017. Instead, he used a redshirt season to line things up for him to lead a strong Badgers team on its home turf.
The final race of this season has been so encompassing to the Badgers since training started in July that McDonald said it feels like they’ve barely gotten started.
Or, as he wrote in his diary: “The season starts and ends on Saturday.”
“This has been our focus for so long, and everything has been leading up to it,” McDonald said. “It’s not like everything has been perfect, but it’s been good enough. I think we’ll be ready to go.”
Don’t, however, be fooled into thinking that McDonald, the No. 2 runner in the country according to FloTrack, has been going through the motions up to this point.
He finished first in his first race of the season, the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on Sept. 28, and won his second straight Big Ten Conference championship — sandwiched around last year’s redshirt — a month later.
Last season, with McDonald healthy and watching from the sidelines, the Badgers didn’t qualify for the national meet for the second time in three seasons.
With a lineup built to do more than just put them back in the field, they cruised to victory at the Great Lakes Regional last Friday.
UW is ranked third nationally in the coaches’ poll behind two-time defending champion Northern Arizona and BYU. It’s fifth according to FloTrack. Being a contender going into Saturday’s race has been the goal all along.
“I think we’re in the best spot that we’ve ever been,” McDonald said. “It’s all come together really nicely.”
Former Madison West athlete Olin Hacker, Oliver Hoare, Nekoosa’s Ben Eidenschink and Darlington’s Tyson Miehe join McDonald in the veteran core of the Badgers’ lineup. The experience from two runners in their fourth collegiate season and three in their third has been valuable.
McDonald’s savvy in reading the nuances of a race and adjusting his strategy is what has set him apart from other runners, Badgers director of cross country and track and field Mick Byrne said.
“I don’t think Morgan’s any different from any top athlete, irrespective of the sport,” Byrne said. “They have a tremendous confidence in themselves, tremendous confidence in their training. And when you put those two together, that’s what separates sometimes the No. 1 kid from the No. 2 kid. They just have that ability to push the nerves aside.”
That’s where experience has made McDonald better. Although it seems hard to fathom now — with two Big Ten titles in cross country and appearances in the Commonwealth Games and the IAAF World Championships on the track — the Australian said he struggled in cross country as a freshman.
And even now, when things look like they’re going well on the outside, he said his mind doesn’t always match.
“It’s always a battle. It’s always a fight,” McDonald said. “Where I’m at right now, I think, is a pretty good spot to be able to have a good idea of how these races are going to go and to know what I’ve got to do to put myself in the best spot for success.”
Three Badgers runners have won NCAA individual championships: Walter Mehl in 1939, Tim Hacker — Olin’s dad — in 1985 and Simon Bairu in 2004 and 2005. The team has won titles in 1982, 1985, 1988, 2005 and 2011.
McDonald said the drive to join them on both individual and team levels isn’t pressure as much as it is something to celebrate.
Fourteen of 16 runners from the 1988 title team are scheduled to be back in Madison this weekend to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that accomplishment. In all, more than 150 former UW men’s and women’s cross country athletes have said they’ll be around for Saturday’s meet.
McDonald will join the alumni ranks soon enough but has one more run left to try to contribute to Badgers cross country history.
“It’s weird to be in this position because I’ve looked up to all the Wisconsin teams,” he said. “I see the stuff they’ve done, and, to me, it’s legendary. It’s tough to comprehend that I could put my name alongside theirs in any way.
“I really just hope to do my best and individually be awesome and do something great. Team-wise, I just want to be able to keep that legacy going that’s already been established.”