Chasing Legends

Updated: Jun 6, 2019

In December, I wrote about the dominance of Edward Cheserek and how we haven’t seen anyone like him since. I don’t know if I jinxed it, but as it turns out, Morgan McDonald has become that iconic collegiate star that King Ches once was.

When I wrote about the former Oregon Duck, no one would have guessed that McDonald was on track for Ches-like superiority. Sure, he had just won the national title in cross country, but it was a close race, and he had the advantage of competing on his home course. Plus, it seemed like Grant Fisher was primed to beat him once they hit the track.

This past winter, there was a wide range of expectations for the Badger senior. He was the favorite to win the 5k, and probably the 3k, but had lost to Grant Fisher at the Millrose Games in the 3000 meters, 7:42.62 to 7:42.76. Was the rivalry between these two domineering distance runners closer than we thought?

Without Fisher in the 5000 meters at Indoor Nationals, McDonald cruised to the win with all-too-familiar finishing speed that Cheserek had honed (and mastered) during his time in the NCAA.

Yet, what the crowd really wanted was a rematch between McDonald and Fisher - a rematch that would come at the 3000 meter distance. After all, Fisher was the only man who had defeated McDonald the entire year.

However, not even the Stanford ace could keep up with the Aussie’s potent kick. McDonald controlled the race from the front, dictating the pace and implementing surges that shook off some of the nation's top talents. The end result was a convincing win for McDonald which completed the first 5k/3k double gold since Cheserek did it back in 2017 (a meet where he also finished 2nd in the mile).

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As he approaches the tail-end of his college career, McDonald has amassed three national titles this year (cross country, 3000, and 5000), but no one seems to understand just how impressive that is. With one more national title left to secure, the Wisconsin veteran has a chance to put together one of the greatest years from a distance runner that the NCAA has ever seen.

A few weeks ago, I asked TSR stats expert Sean Collins to look up how many times an individual has won a cross country title, and then three track titles, in the same year.

The answer: six times by three men.

Sulemian Nyambui completed this four-title accomplishment during the 1980/1981 academic year by winning the cross country title, the indoor mile, and then winning both the 10k and 5k outdoors. And Gerry Lindgren? He achieved this feat two years in a row! In the seasons of 1965/1966 and 1966/1967, Lindgren won the cross country national title, two indoor mile titles, and then the six mile and three mile titles during outdoors (yes, those were the exact distances).

But recently? It's been a different story.

The only one to accomplish this amazing feat in the last 25 years is Edward Cheserek who did this an astounding three times in his first three years as a collegiate. If McDonald can manage to win one final title at the Outdoor National Championships, then he will join this exclusive club of men who have won three track titles and a cross country title in the same academic year.

But what if McDonald had decided to run and win both the 5k and 10k at Outdoor Nationals? Having completed this double, he would have joined very rare company. Lawi Lalang almost pulled off this historic accomplishment during the 2012/13 season when he won the mile and the 3k indoors followed by victories in the 5k and 10k during outdoors. Unfortunately, he finished 3rd in cross country that year. Only Cheserek has won four track titles and a cross country title in the same year. The former Oregon Duck won the cross country title, the 3k and 5k indoor titles, and then the 10k and 5k outdoor titles during the 2015/2016 academic calendar. It was a stunning display of dominance from Cheserek and one that we came close to seeing this year.

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This season has been a strange one for our top contenders in the 5k and 10k. McDonald has yet to run anything notably fast. Instead, he has quietly earned his regional spot by running 13:50 at Bryan Clay in the second heat which was followed by him winning the 10k at the BIG 10 Championships in 29:26. Fisher, on the other hand, ran a blistering 13:29 at the Cardinal Classic, but just lost in both the 1500 and the 5k at the PAC-12 Championships. To make matters even more perplexing, top distance running challengers like Joe Klecker and Amon Kemboi will be absent in the postseason as Klecker deals with an injury while Kemboi is redshirting.

Regardless of the irregularities, there's nothing to say that the final battle won't be exciting. McDonald may have approached this season with more caution than usual, but I believe we will still see some version of the runner who dominated the indoor national meet in the coming weeks.

While the dream of Morgan winning the 10k/5k double and becoming the second person to ever win a cross country title along with four track titles is over, the Badger still has a golden opportunity to put his name (and his season) in the record books.