Battling snow and sleet which had hit American over the weekend, Sydney’s Morgan McDonald has become just the third Australian in 80 years to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 Cross Country title in America.
Continuing her great year, Wollongong’s Jessica Hull has placed third in the women’s race after earlier winning the NCAA 1500m title in June.
During his teenage years at Newington college in Sydney, McDonald was a regular in cross country for his club Randwick Botany – one of the finest harrier clubs in Australia. As a junior he twice ran at the IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships, placing top-40 on both occasions. He combined that with a tremendous 10th in the 5000m at the 2014 World U20 Championships.
He started college in the US in 2015 and in his first year placed ninth at his regional cross country. In 2016 he progressed all the way to the finals, placing seventh, as he watched countryman Patrick Tiernan (QLD) win the title. After missing the 2017 NCAA cross country title and later running at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, he was looking good for a podium at this year’s event.
As the host college, Morgan McDonald, from Wisconsin, trained regular on the course which would certainly give him an advantage. Throughout the final on Sunday there was always a large pack in contention over the 10km journey. At the 8km mark, just one second separated the leading 12. But in the last straight he successfully kicked away.
“I was scared as I had guys all around me, but I knew I had a pretty good shot and a pretty good kick, so I went for it,” said McDonald.
“It hurt really bad but in my head I was thinking I’ve done this so many times. Every session we finished by doing the straight.”
McDonald held on to win by just half a second from Grant Fisher (Stanford) and Edwin Kurgat (Iowa State) with just nine seconds separating the top-10 finishers.
It has been a tremendous 14 months for McDonald running 13:15 over 5000m and competed at the Commonwealth Games, but how did this rate?
“This is the best. This is crazy. I have a lot of fans out here and I can’t wait to celebrate with them. I’ve been looking forward to this for a very long time. This is definitely my proudest moment.”
He defeated some handy distance athletes, Grant Fisher (USA) who was fifth last year and was third in the NCAA 5000m and Kenyan Edwin Kurgat.
“I knew Grant was there all the time. He is a very savy and smart racer. I saw Kurgat early on and knew he was going to be a big danger. So I was just trying to watch those two guys and base my move on them.
“The plan was to stay relaxed for as long as possible, then make the move and that is how it played out.
Did he feel pressure being a podium hope and on his home track?
“Doubts did creep in a little earlier in the week. I was nervous. The season has some ups and downs. I got sick mid-way through for about 10 days and I didn’t know how that would affect me.
“These last couple of days, the nerves just turned into excitement and confidence. Having my team around me really helped. By the time I got to the start line is was about enjoying the experience.”
It was also an historic inaugural win for his coach Mike Byrne.
“He has been a great coach and he deserves it. Surprised he didn’t have one (a champion) already but to be the first one for him, as he has don’t so much for me, feels very special.”
McDonald follows Randwick-Botany legend, Al Lawrence (1959 and 1960) and Queensland’s Patrick Tiernan (Qld) in 2016, as the only Aussie winners of the title.
Women’s 6km event
What a year it has been for Jessica Hull. On the track, she has lowered her 1500m personal best by five seconds and won the NCAA 1500m title in June.
She had looked strong in the leadup to the national cross country, placing second in her regional race. But for the finals in Wisconsin, a snow storm across American brought in bitterly cool and challenging conditions for the event.
“It was super cool and I’ve never seen conditions like this with snow on the ground, let alone run in it,” said Jessica Hull.
“I didn’t pay any attention to the snow I just put my head down and worked hard to score as well as I could for the team.”
Similar to the men’s race, there was a large pack of women early. Through 4km, there were still 17 athletes within three seconds.
“There was a lot of congestion at the start with a lot of women. It was an honest start which I like but with a mile to go it got really hard when you run like that,” said Hull, who had expected that Colorado’s Dani Jones, who has a 1500m PB of 4:07, and Eritrean, Weini Kelati, a 15:22 5k athlete, would break away earlier, but remained in the pack at 4km.
“I was surprised (with their tactics) but the longer they stayed around the better and better it felt for me and I thought I can do this. I looked at the clock with about nine minutes to go and thought you can be tough for nine minutes then it was down to five minutes then the break started to happen.”
Dani Jones sailed home for a three seconds victory ahead of Kelati, with Hull a further five second back but with a comfortable five seconds on the remainder of the field.
How does Hull explain the improvement from 93rd last year.
“I just stay in the process and didn’t listen to any noise. Last year wasn’t ideal but we just stuck to it and didn’t put any limits on it.”
She led her Oregon Ducks team to a bronze medal.
“We have been together for 10 weeks and I am so proud of the team and we couldn’t hope for more, we are happy, we are excited. And excited to build off it into indoor and outdoor.”
Some other Aussies were:
Women - 32rd Jessica Pascoe, 65th Clio Ozanne-Jaques, 89th Maxine Paholek, 116th Lucinda Crouch, 129th Sophie Eckel, 131st Maudie Skyring, 161st Clare O'Brien.
Men - 17th Oliver Hoare, 42nd Cameron Griffith, 162nd Josh Phillips, 182nd Charlie Hunter, 198th Jordan Hewitt, 209th Mick Stanovsek, 210th Ed Trippas.
David Tarbotton for Athletics Australia