Digging Deep

—By Alex Linden (’03)

Running has been both cruel and kind to Mike Morgan (’03). As a Prairie Wolf, he ran his way to two conference championships and was named a three-time NCAA All-American in cross country and track.

His 2003 graduation was hardly the finish line of his running career. In fact, Morgan has made his living as a professional athlete with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project competing against the top runners in the world. He has raced in Korea, Japan, Europe and nearly every state in the U.S.

Even when you’re as gifted an athlete as Morgan is, training—especially marathon training—isn’t easy. Morgan logged thousands of grueling miles in training in the last year. “Marathon training is brutal,” he said. “I had seven straight weeks of 130 miles or more. A typical day involves a 14-mile morning run and a six-mile evening run.”

That work ethic has brought Morgan an impressive three bids to the World Track and Field Championships. And in September, Morgan’s 31st place performance at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, made Morgan the top marathoner in the United States.

Coming off that outstanding performance, Morgan set his sights on the 2012 Olympics. Standing between him and a ticket to London were 26.2 miles of Houston, Texas, pavement and 84 of the country’s best marathoners at the U.S. Olympic Trials in January. Of the 85, only the fittest three would qualify for London. Morgan would have to dig deep to be one of them.

Dig deep he did, surpassing even his performance in Daegu, with a personal best time of 2:14:22. But, sometimes, even Morgan’s speed isn’t quite fast enough. Morgan placed 17th in Houston, 4:36 away from a qualifying spot. It was the first time in American Olympic Trials history that four men eclipsed the 2:10:00 mark.

Marathon training is brutal. I had seven straight weeks of 130 miles or more.

Morgan left Texas with mixed emotions. “Finishing the Olympic Trials left me with a bittersweet feeling,” he said. “While I didn’t make the team, I still walked away with a personal best time, so all was not lost.” He was also happy to see his Hansons-Brooks teammate Desiree Davila qualify for the U.S. women’s marathon team.

Head Track and Field Coach Ted Bulling (’80) has been around long enough to see many runners reach certain goals while missing others. He knows Morgan is a competitor, and competitors don’t dream of finishing 17th. But Bulling also knows that no athlete should be disappointed with the best they’ve ever done.

Morgan is grateful for Bulling’s enduring support. “Since 1998, Ted has not only been my coach, but a personal mentor and a role model, providing advice and encouragement in my running and personal life,” Morgan remarked.

Bulling didn’t picture Morgan as a potential Olympian while recruiting him out of Lincoln Pius X in the late 1990s. But he did see a student-athlete who belonged at Nebraska Wesleyan University. “While I can’t say that I knew Mike was going to be representing the United States in the World Track Championships, I was very excited that Mike chose to come to Nebraska Wesleyan and be a part of our program,” said Bulling.

Nor did Morgan grow up with dreams of being an Olympian or a professional athlete. It wasn’t until after graduation that he decided to give running professionally a shot. He goes back to his days at NWU as the root of this success. “All of my running accomplishments are really just a continuation of the foundation that Ted laid down while I was at Nebraska Wesleyan.”

At 31, Morgan is in the prime of his running career. He will run in a series of shorter races to recharge and refocus. There are new goals to strive for.

“In 2013, the World Championships are in Moscow and I would love to make that team! I am unsure about the 2016 Olympic trials, but right now I feel good and am comfortable where I am personally,” he said. “So if that stays consistent, I might give it a go!”

He’ll be 35 in 2016—“old” by the unforgiving standards of elite athletics. But the man who took the top qualifying spot in Houston, Meb Keflezighi, is 36.

One thing is for sure. Morgan’s college teammates and coaches will be following him every step of the way. He was overwhelmed at the support he received leading up to the trials from coaches, current athletes, alumni and even Head Football Coach Brian Keller.

“It makes me very proud to be a part of the Nebraska Wesleyan family,” Morgan said.