Chasing Greatness

Elite athletes are hidden among us. They have day jobs and bills and homework. But they also have something that makes them a little different, something that pulls them out of bed at 4 a.m., that pushes them to embrace pain, something inside them that never rests.
Let’s find out what it is. 

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Mandy Mohler
Makena Morley is a world champion. The rest of us? Not so much. We aren’t all built to hoist trophies. But when spring comes, we start circling 5K races on our calendar and filling our mountain bike tires with air. We head for the trails and take to the streets.

We aren’t Makena Morley, but we can be the person we want to be – the one who finally achieves that elusive fitness goal, the one who discovers that working out can be fun or even a passion, the one who finishes a 5K, in the middle of the pack but slightly faster than last year, and walks away flashing a gold-medal smile.

To be that person, we don’t need to transform into Makena Morley, or Ben Parsons, or Emily von Jentzen, or Scott Gaiser, or Rose Grant. We don’t have to win an international running title, or swim the length of Flathead Lake, or rise to the upper echelon of Ironman Triathlon competitors, or climb the national rankings of professional mountain biking and ski mountaineering.

No, we don’t have to be elite athletes, but it couldn’t hurt to learn from them. As we embark on our personal roads to fitness, their stories might give us that extra nudge of motivation we need to shave a few seconds off our personal bests or a few pounds off our winter frames.

And who knows? With a few more nudges, some of us could become them. After all, during the workday they look a lot like us: a high school principal, a former bank teller turned full-time mother, a firefighter, an attorney, a student.

It’s what they do when the workday ends that separates them from the pack.

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Makena Morley // 18 // Bigfork

In the span of a month, beginning Jan. 10, Makena Morley outpaced the best under-20 female runners from the U.S. and Europe to win the Great Edinburgh XCountry International Challenge in Scotland, was featured in Runner’s World magazine, and broke the all-time two-mile meet record at the New Balance Boise Indoor track meet. Not a bad offseason for a high school senior waiting for spring track to begin.

Morley will graduate from Bigfork High School in May as the greatest female distance runner in Montana high school history. But her goals extend well beyond state borders, and she’s already proving to be a force on the national and world levels, as she demonstrated in Scotland and at a number of regional and national meets where she placed first or near the top.

Morley has also finished in the top 20 out of nearly 30,000 women in consecutive years at Spokane’s 7.46-mile Bloomsday Run. Her 2014 time of 42:54 was more than seven minutes faster than her next 16-18 age group competitor, and the small handful of older women who beat her largely consisted of premier Kenyan and Ethiopian runners.

But even if Morley’s ambitions are global, her heart remains in Montana. She turned down offers to some of the nation’s most prestigious running schools in favor of attending the University of Montana, where she will compete in cross country and track. She likes the coach and campus, and she relishes the opportunity to put the Grizzly distance program on the map.

“I’m excited to be a part of building the team,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know Coach (Collin) Fehr, but he’s going to be really amazing.”

There’s no doubt that Morley has innate athletic gifts. It runs in her blood, with her father, sister and brother all superb distance runners in their own right. But you don’t rise to national renown without an unflinching mental drive to accompany the natural talent. Even as she blew away her high school competition, winning by absurdly large margins, her desire to improve never waned. It only grew stronger.

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU

“I want to see what I can be, see how fast I can run, see where I can go with my running. And, obviously, I want to be the best.”

In her senior year, Morley has upped the ante on her training regimen. Guided by her father’s coaching, she has increased her weekly mileage from 50 miles as a junior to at least 60 this year. She’s also added more upper body weight lifting and a few brutal speed drills, including a track routine in which she sprints 400 meters and then jogs 400. She does that 16 times – eight sprinting and eight jogging – without stopping.

“I wanted to see how much it could hurt, how much I could push myself in workouts,” she says. “People probably think that’s weird. But I was just thinking, ‘What are you going to do to get stronger?’”

This spring track season, Morley hopes to finish under 10 minutes in the 3200 meters and break the national high school record of 9:48, though that might have to occur closer to sea level. She also wants to finish under 4:40 in the 1600-meter race.

Then her goal is to become a multiple national champion at UM. Beyond that, a professional running career, maybe the Olympics. The sky’s the limit only if you think the sky is limiting. When Morley looks up, she sees opportunity.

STATS

Four-time Gatorade Montana Cross Country Runner of the Year and four-time state champion; all-time state three-mile record 16:34; two-time state champion in 800, 1600 and 3200; personal best two-mile 10:15; personal best mile 4:50

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Scott Gaiser // 52 // Columbia Falls

A lot of people think of a superhero when they hear the word Ironman. They probably don’t think of Scott Gaiser, but maybe they should: unassuming high school principal by day, wetsuit-cloaked Ironman by night.

Over his 26 years in the Columbia Falls school district, Gaiser has become a recognizable face in his community. His face is just as recognizable in Montana’s ever-growing community of endurance athletes. Now in his 50s, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, even coming off a 2014 that was plagued by painful plantar fasciitis.

The plantar fasciitis kept Gaiser out of races and eventually shut him down. But he’s not one to treat injuries as burdens or deterrents. Instead, he has interpreted his nagging foot pain as a chance to rethink his training approach and running style. This year is shaping up to be a return to form.

In the past, Gaiser found a way to squeeze 20 or more hours of training per week into a busy school schedule, working out at 4:30 a.m., late at night, whenever he could. Those 20 hours only included time spent actually engaged in Ironman’s three disciplines: running, swimming and biking. He spent many more hours lifting weights and doing other exercises such as push-ups and ab workouts.

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU

“I appreciate pushing your body to its limit. When you’ve pushed yourself, the feeling you get, both mental and physical, is a reward in itself. And I like the discipline of having a regimen of training. I enjoy having that rhythm to life.”

Ironman competitions consist of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles, a full marathon. The world championships are held in Hawaii every October.

Since becoming Columbia Falls High School principal three years ago, however, Gaiser’s busy schedule has gotten busier, and his training windows are even smaller. But his training is evolving as well. He now places greater emphasis on strength workouts, as a response to both his injury and his age. He’s feeling better. He’s finding a way. He might find his way all the way to Hawaii again.

STATS

Four-time Ironman World Championship qualifier and four-time All World ranking in his age group; two-time Pacific Northwest Triathlon age group champion; 2013 masters champion in Bangtail 38K, Elkhorn 50K and Bozeman Marathon; 2013 senior masters champion in Le Grizz 50 Mile Ultramarathon

Rose Grant

Rose Grant // 32 // Kalispell

Rose Grant won a few mountain bike races in high school but chalked it up to poor competition. After drifting away from the sport, she picked it up again as an adult and went right back to winning. It occurred to her that the success probably had less to do with the competition than with her. She was just a really good mountain biker.

In 2011, her first year with Kalispell’s Sportsman & Ski Haus Cycling Team, Grant went undefeated in local races, cruised to a Montana state championship, and won two national titles. She turned pro the next year.

With a coach and a structured training plan, she finished sixth at last year’s USA Cycling nationals for cross country and first for marathon, her first national title as a pro. She also competed in her first two Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) World Cups. It was a quick ride to the top.

“You start climbing the ladder and it’s addicting,” she says. “You continue to go through the open doors. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

While adjusting to the demands of a professional athletic career, Grant has also been adapting to new responsibilities at home. Her daughter, Layla, was born in March 2013. She left her job as a bank teller to fully dedicate herself to being a “Professional Mom Athlete.”

Grant calls her husband, Nelson, her biggest sponsor for enabling her to pursue her cycling dreams while fulfilling her motherly duties. Other relatives help out, too. For a Professional Mom Athlete, it takes a village.

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU

“I function better and I’m happier when I’m on my training plan. I thrive off it, really. And racing makes you train on a whole other level. I’m curious to see what my potential is. I haven’t found it.”

Grant is excited for 2015. She’s in her first year racing for the Stan’s NoTubes elite women’s team, which consists of professional female mountain bikers from Vermont to New Mexico to British Columbia.

As the snow melts, she is transitioning away from winter’s cross-training activities, such as backcountry skiing and Nordic skiing, into an exclusively mountain biking routine, accompanied by plyometrics and strength workouts. She’ll be ready on race day. And so will little Layla, who will be cheering from the sidelines, along with the rest of the village.

STATS

USA Cycling national marathon mountain biking champion in 2014; sixth at cross country nationals; amateur cross country national title in age division; amateur marathon national title; multiple Montana state championships

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Ben Parsons // 34 // Kalispell

Ben Parsons knows he’ll have to choose someday. New domestic responsibilities will arise and priorities will shift. He won’t have time for two full-time racing schedules. But that day hasn’t come yet.

Parsons acknowledges an “internal debate” between focusing more on ski mountaineering or mountain biking, or maybe less on both. At his best, he’s a top-40 mountain biker and top-10 ski mountaineering racer in the country. He loves them both.

So, for now, he’s sticking with them both. But when the day comes that he has to gear down his competitive racing, he’ll still get out on skis and a mountain bike when he can, and he’ll be as happy as ever.

“More than the racing, I’ve always just loved being able to move through the mountains, whether that’s on skis or on foot or on a bike,” Parsons says.

And he moves pretty fast, up and downhill. Parsons, a full-time firefighter and paramedic for the city of Whitefish, has placed high among the world’s elite at ski mountaineering competitions across the globe, including a first-place finish in his backyard at the 2012 Whitefish Whiteout.

In ski mountaineering, participants wear climbing skins made of fabric on the bottoms of their skis, providing friction that allows them to climb up the mountain. When they reach the top, they peel off the skins and ski back down through difficult terrain.

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU

“It’s the medication for me to get relaxed and be present in the moment. And there’s definitely a part of me that wants to find OUT what I’m capable of, both physically and mentally.”

During spring, Parsons combines his two passions by biking with skis on his back into the mountains. Then he ditches the bike, hikes or skins farther up the mountain and skis back down to his bike.

Parsons focuses on mountain biking in the summer, dedicating many weekends to races just as he does with ski mountaineering races in the winter. When fall arrives, he incorporates more running into his workout routine. He bikes into the mountains with his running shoes, goes on a long run – maybe bags a few peaks in Glacier – and then bikes back home.

Parsons spends 16-20 hours each week between the three disciplines, climbing an average of 30,000 vertical feet. And with a decision looming, he’ll keep heading to the mountains. That’s where he’s always found his answers.

STATS

Three-time Montana off-road mountain bike champion; two-time national 24-hour mountain bike champion in men’s duo; first-place finishes at ski mountaineering Canadian Alpine Cups in Fernie and Lake Louise; top-ten finishes at U.S. Ski Mountaineering Nationals

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Emily Von Jentzen // 32 // Kalispell

If you’ve been in the water for 24 hours, you probably need a search and rescue crew to save your life. But when Emily von Jentzen is in the water that long, she has someone else’s life on her mind. And the only crew she needs is her support team, boating alongside her with supplies and encouraging words.

Von Jentzen, a Kalispell attorney, became the first woman – and third person overall – to swim the length of Flathead Lake in 2010, traversing 30 miles of open water in 18 1/2 hours. The feat raised $9,500 for the family of a Flathead girl with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Since then, von Jentzen has completed three more endurance swims to raise funds for the families of children with serious medical problems. Her nonprofit organization, the Enduring Waves Foundation, is now mapping out her next expedition for a good cause: 30 Northwest Montana lakes in 60 days this summer.

“To be able to do something that’s a passion and be able to make a difference like that, I don’t know why someone wouldn’t do that,” says von Jentzen, who also deals with children’s issues professionally by running the Attorney General’s Northwest Montana dependent neglect office.

Von Jentzen swam competitively as a kid all the way through college, participating in the distance events. But it wasn’t until she began entering triathlons while attending the University of Montana School of Law that she fully realized the wonders of open water swimming.

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU

“I don’t feel normal without athletics in my life. It might sound weird, but I get a little depressed. Also, I’m motivated by coupling my goals with raising money for families who need it. Sometimes, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.” 

Open water endurance swimming requires meticulous planning, with the implicit acknowledgment that a swimmer can’t prepare for everything. Weather hits. The water gets cold and choppy. The body remembers that it would rather be dry next to a fireplace and sends a message to the mind. Nature happens.

With each swim, von Jentzen has gleaned tidbits of insight to better prepare her body for the next outing.

But in the end, it’s all about the water, and von Jentzen spends hours upon hours in pools each week until the lakes start to warm. Then she dips her toes in the still-chilly water, thinks of a child who needs her, and dives in.

STATS

First woman to swim 30-mile length of Flathead Lake (18 1/2 hours); first person to swim 50-mile length of Washington’s Lake Chelan (36 1/2 hours); completed 32 miles on Canyon Ferry (24 hours)

 

Let us know what motivates you in the comments below.