If the cinematic Roy Hobbs tale seems unlikely or even far-fetched, consider the story of ultrarunner Mike Morton—a story of prodigious talent befallen by injury, of disappearance from the sport, of a jaw-dropping comeback.
|L-R: Courtney Campbell, Dave Horton and Mike Morton.|
Mike and Courtney had many epic battles back in the mid 1990s.
June 28, 1997. To those closely associated with the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, that day is summed up with one name: Mike Morton.
Going into the ’97 Western States, it didn’t matter how talented this 25-year-old kid was, or even what he’d done back East at races like the Old Dominion, Massanutten and Vermont 100s. This was the Western States 100, where only Californians won. Or so went the conventional wisdom of the day—conventional wisdom Morton, despite a serious hip injury, stomped all over with near-reckless abandon.
As Morton, a Navy diver from Stevensville, Maryland, blazed through the hot, arid canyons, no one thought the 5’4”, 145-pound speedster, who’d dropped from the previous year’s race, could hold his breakneck pace. Morton will be toast on the California Street trail, they said. When that didn’t happen, they said he’d be done by the river crossing. But Morton wasn’t listening to his naysayers—not on California Street, not at the Rucky Chucky River, not anywhere.
“I was fortunate enough to watch Mike come through highway 49 and then again at No Hands Bridge,” recalls Craig Thornley, who’s been involved in Western States for several years. “He looked so fresh as he pranced across the bridge in daylight. It was beautiful to watch.”
When Morton ran his victory lap at Placer High School and then blew into the finish line first overall at 8:40 PM that Saturday night, he did so in a most spectacular fashion. Not only had he broken Tom Johnson’s course record by 14 minutes with a stunning 15:40:41, but he became the first non-Californian to win Western States.
Just when it seemed Morton had reached the top of his sport, it all came crashing down.
“Morton would never return to Western States again,” Thornley reflected a few years ago. “Where are you, Mike?”
|Morton and Campbell in a race back in their primes.|
Last weekend, Mike Morton let the world know where he is--and that he's back and maybe better than ever. Now 40 years-old and 14 years removed from his epic Western States record-setting win, Morton ran 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic, a hilly trail race in North Carolina with 16 bridge crossings. He came within 1.8 miles of the American record, held by Scott Jurek, who set the record on a flat, hard-surface course. Morton battled 90-degree heat and heavy congestion in spots. This wasn't his first big 24-hour performance. Last year, he nailed over 153 miles at Hinson, but it wasn't until last weekend that the ultrarunning world really took notice of his return.
I'm excited to have caught up with Mike for this interview.
WH: Mike, thanks for talking with me. I first heard your name in 2007 or 2008, a few years after I took up ultras. During a Sunday morning run with the Cleveland Southeast Running Club, I remember Mark Godale and Tim Clement talking about your legendary 1997 Western States 100 win. On that day, you not only broke Tom Johnson's record, but also became the first non-Californian to win Western States, a once unthinkable feat. What was that day like, and did you realize at the time the magnitude of what you'd just accomplished?
MM: To be honest, the non-Californian stat was not really something I concerned myself with. I didn’t see how it could be such a large factor. It is not like going to altitude or to run an unmarked course. East coast weather is always very humid so I think going West made it easier really. That was an amazing day--one of the rare times when everything just goes well. I had some great folks crewing me and helping and that made it even more memorable. I’m still very proud of that day and the work that went into making it all come together.
|Morton en route to his 163.9-mile performance at the 2011|
Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic.
MM: I had been having some hip issues that caused some pain. I dealt with it as long as I could but it became very hard to train. I eventually had a bursectomy of the right hip as a last ditch effort to relieve some of the pressure and hopefully resolve the nerves from being pinched. It didn’t work, and still to this day I have to make sure I warm up and not start out too fast. I have issues when I increase my stride length or run at a faster pace. At the time, I decided to accept an overseas tour (in the Navy) and focus on healing and see what would happen.
WH: Now, 14 years after your historic Western States win and at the age of 40, you've busted out an amazing 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic, a trail loop course with some 16 bridge crossings and more than a few hills. I also heard the heat index was around 90 degrees. Tell me about what went down at Hinson Lake over the weekend--because I think a lot of people are quite interested.
MM: About two years ago I decided I wanted to set a goal for myself and pick a race/run to focus on. About the only thing that lined up with my schedule and was close to home was Hinson Lake. I switched from the Navy to the Army in 2001 and have been very busy. I’m gone a lot and, when I’m home, I don’t have the chance to travel much, so Hinson Lake was the perfect venue for me to focus on. Last year I learned a lot about the miles later in a 24-hour run! This year I was able to be prepared mentally for the challenge of telling myself after 120 miles that I still had 30 more to meet my goal. This year I didn’t focus on what was left to meet my goal; I just focused on what was working and keeping me moving forward. Also last year I was over-trained. I had been running 150-mile weeks for about 5 months. This year I didn’t plan on running anything. I came home from overseas and had the chance to enter Hinson Lake again and I took advantage of it. I had been getting in about 70 to 90 miles a week for the last 5 months. I was in better shape last year but on the fine line of being injured due to overuse. I think the body responded better this year later in the run. I think I could train a bit more if I planned another race. Between the two Hinson Lake runs I have learned a ton. I think it was just one of those days where things go good.
WH: You seem to have evolved into a runner who, like Matt Carpenter, excels on just one or two big races a year; whereas many elites are running in six or seven big events annually. Do you plan to stick with this approach or maybe start racing more often?
MM: I would love to make it to races more often! The problem is balancing a military career, a family, and everything else we all deal with. The military has been my priority. It has been a tough decade for our country and that [military service] was and is more important to me. In the near future, my family and I are moving and I will have a more 9-5 job. I think it will give me the chance to look into the future and feel comfortable committing to a race. I dream about doing some of the 100s. I have always loved the challenge of 100-mile trail runs! The guys that are running at the top these days are amazing. I’m always shocked at the depth at races all over and the number of races. Maybe when I retire I will have time to get back into more races, but, until then, I will just take advantage of the chances I do get.
WH: Getting back to your hip injury, was it the result of over-training or an injury?
MM: I fell while at work and that was the start of it all. In hindsight, I should have taken more time to recover from the fall but I got back to running when I thought I was ready. I think there was a lot of compensating going on and it just took its toll.
WH: Were there ever moments when you thought your running career was over? I guess what I’m wondering is if what we’re seeing now is a story about beating the odds.
MM: I never really thought I would come back to a high level. Every time I tried to increase my mileage my hip and back would hurt. I think what helped me was being preoccupied with new challenges and the focus I was giving to the military. I wouldn’t call it beating the odds. I’m at a time in my life when I want to focus on running again. I never thought running would be as fulfilling as it was back in the 90’s, but I now know never to take a run for granted, because you never know when it will be your last run.
WH: If you’re able to at this point, can you tell me where you’re planning to move?
MM: We are moving to Lithia, Florida, which is just east of Tampa. Our plan is for three more years in the Army and then I will retire with 25 or so years of service. We all like the weather there and it is a great place for our daughter to grow up.
WH: Are your best years as an ultrarunner behind you…or ahead of you?
MM: I think it is all relative. It is hard to compare what I did 14 or 15 years ago to anything I’ve done lately. I had it made back then! The Navy was great for having time to train and it was easy to predict when I could go to a race. That is not the case now! I recognize that my obligations to the Army are the priority. So with changes in the near future I think I will have time again and also some control over my schedule. I hope the best years are ahead!
WH: Is a return to Western States on the table? If so, describe what you think it would be like standing on that starting line all these years after the record.
WH: I would love to go back. I can’t tell you how many times I have been overseas in June and tried to convince myself I’m on the course there instead of some .9-mile dirt road or a treadmill. Western States is a special place because it is the father of all the 100’s. I have been trying to work any 100 in but timing has not let it happen yet. The sad thing is I don’t even know what the qualifying requirements are!
WH: All you have to do is just finish a 100 or a 50 to qualify for Western States. With your Hinson Lake time, I would imagine you're qualified! But you have the lottery to deal with--the odds of getting in these days aren't so good! More relevant to your abilities, though: You can also get an automatic bid into Western States through a win at one of the Montrail Ultra Cup races.
Let's talk about racing. When you’re in a big race, what’s going through your head?
MM: I have learned a lot about myself in the last ten years. I know not to focus on the big picture in a race. I focus on what I can affect and control what I can control. Sadly, I have learned to always plan and expect the absolute worst conditions and you will never be disappointed and you will be adequately prepared. I’m sure we all think about the same stuff when we're in the “doldrums”: family, work, guys who have had their last run, politics, humanity….
WH: One last question. Looking at the rest of 2011 and into 2012, what’s your race schedule look like? Would you consider joining Team USA for the 2012 24-Hour World Championship?
MM: I committed to the team last year but the lack of fidelity of when and where brought the support I was getting at work to an end. I’m sure with the position I’m heading to that any opportunity to represent our nation will be embraced. I would make it my mission to prepare for that run. Last year I was very motivated with the idea and that helps when you need to run twice a day and get in 150 miles a week. It is hard to sustain that effort without the motivation of a race, so the two complement each other.
WH: Mike, thanks so much for this opportunity!
MM: I've enjoyed this opportunity. Thanks!
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