He had just 12 days to prepare — being call as a last-minute alternate — but Blair Morgan overcame a quick turnaround to compete at the World University Cross Country Championship in Entebbe, Uganda on March 22.
Canada’s six-man team was initially selected in November, with Morgan on the outside looking in. But, with the Marauder and his teammates on the indoor track and readying to compete at the Ontario University Athletics championships during February Reading Week, one of the chosen runners withdrew due to injury.
Morgan was earmarked as the second alternate, with the first being his teammate Lionel Sanders. However, the event conflicted with Sanders’ Ironman training stint in Arizona, leaving Morgan to replace the injured runner.
Whether or not he would make the trip then became an administrative matter. Canadian authorities rushed to clear Morgan through a registration process that had already, technically closed. When the Marauder was finally given the green light to compete, he had less than two weeks to transition from the track — and three-kilometre races — to the trails and a 10.5-kilometre distance.
“I didn’t make the CIS (Track and Field Championships), so that was the end of my season,” said Morgan. “But I was doing a study for one of the guys on the team and that kept me training. I found out a few days later that I was most likely going, so I immediately talked to (Mac head track coach) Paula (Schnurr) and we made the adjustments to training for the new distance.
“It was a quick turnaround. It would have been nice to have maybe even two more weeks to get ready.”
When he did arrive, Morgan was impressed with the scene in Entebbe, where the people were friendly and the conditions were well suited to the occasion. But at over 1,100 feet above sea level, the one challenge the location did present was altitude. That had never been a consideration in competition for Morgan before, and he admitted that he was still coming to grips with it on race day.
“A lot of [performance] had to do with the altitude,” Morgan explained. “I’d never competed at altitude before. The first day that we were there, you could really feel the difference. But two days to prepare like that isn’t enough.”
In the end, Morgan finished in the middle of the event’s 61-man field, fifth of six Canadians entered. It wasn’t the result that the Marauder wanted, but it was one he could understand given the situation.
“It wasn’t the best performance I could have had there, but given the circumstances it was a respectable race, I think,” he said.
“If I could do it again, I probably would have taken things a little bit easier in the first couple of laps. We started out slowly as it was, but I think that even slower would have been better. My second lap was the only one that was faster than the previous one.”
The 10.5-kilometre event is something of a blip in the schedule for Morgan and his fellow runners, for whom the spring is generally a time to transition to the outdoor track and the annual series of road races. He’ll introduce another wrinkle, the triathlon, into his routine as he enters into May and the water warms enough to allow swimming outdoors.
But the Ugandan race was also another important step in the cross country career of a man who will be looked to as a leader of the Marauder men’s team going forward. After a breakthrough season in 2013, in which the men brought home their best national performance in a decade, McMaster will return all but one of its scorers in 2014.
Even now, months removed from the onset of the fall season, Morgan is anxious to hit the trails once again. The excitement is mutual among the Marauder men, who are no longer the also-rans of the McMaster program.
Morgan laughs as he mentions the nickname that the women’s team had playfully given the men in years past.
“They used to call us the water boys,” he said. “We are the water boys no longer.”