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Olympics

Australian 5,000m Olympian Morgan McDonald Steps Up to a New Level

After a year of tumultuous changes, the former NCAA champion talks about his switch to the ON Athletics Club ahead of the Tokyo Games, the intensified training he’s undergoing, and his Olympic goals (and beyond).

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In 2016 when Morgan McDonald sat down to discuss his running goals with his college coaches Mick Byrne and Gavin Kennedy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he said he was aiming to make it to the Olympics. 

“They kind of, like, laughed at me,” recalls McDonald. 

But that hackneyed saying about “shooting for the moon” is a cliché for a reason. That year ended up being a breakthrough season for McDonald, skyrocketing him from a very good runner in the Big Ten conference to nationally recognized name in the NCAA underscored by a 5th-place finish in the 5,000-meter at the NCAA Outdoor Championship. 

He ended up missing the qualifying time for the Australian Olympic team in the 5,000m by a mere 4 seconds, smashing his previous PB by over 30 seconds with a 13:29. (He needed 13:25 to qualify.) 

Despite falling short of making the 2016 Rio team, it was a far cry from failure. McDonald went on to qualify for the IAAF World Championships in 2017 after running the sixth fastest 5,000m time in Australian history (13:15.83). He’s qualified for Worlds every year since, won the 2018 NCAA cross country championship and the indoor and outdoor 5,000m titles — and signed with Under Armor in 2019 after graduating from UW-Madison.

Now, five years later from falling short of making the Australian Rio team, McDonald was officially picked to represent his home country of Australia in the 5K at the 2020 Tokyo Games earlier this month after running a 13:13.67 qualifying time on June 12 in Nice, France. 

“That was pretty sweet, it’s been my goal for obviously a long time.” 

Morgan McDonald runs in ON gear on the track.
Back in June, McDonald announced that he was leaving his group, coach, and sponsor to join the ON Athletics Club coached by Dathan Ritzenhein.  Photo: Joe Hale

A Turbulent 2020

McDonald, now 25, admits that, no, it hasn’t exactly been an easy transition to life as a professional athlete. In particular, the past year and a half has been full of major transitions. In the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 had pushed back the Olympic Games and forced the racing season to shut down for nearly a year, McDonald moved from Madison, Wisconsin — where he was still being coached by Byrne — to Boulder, Colorado, to join Team Boss led by Joe Bosshard. 

Initially, he used the off season to come back slowly “like, very slowly,” from an injury he was dealing with at the start of 2020. 

“Then I used it to build volume,” says Morgan. “I have some regrets that I didn’t take advantage of it more. I saw a lot of people around me take really big steps for it in 2020. Like they’ve just kept pushing. I felt like maybe I did kind of take it a little too easy.” 

Partially, he says, this had to do with the adjustment to being a professional runner with an intensified new schedule. Furthermore, he was essentially on his own for workouts until very recently. 

“I had a really good training set up on Team Boss,” McDonald explains. “I mean, you can see in the results that I’ve had, but the one thing it was lacking was just like male training partners, which was something that I definitely struggled with more as a pro than I thought I would.”

That said, there were some benefits to training alone. For example, McDonald notes that it made him stronger by having to be mentally switched on leading himself through every repetition in workouts. 

“It challenged me in ways that I hadn’t really challenged myself before,” says McDonald. “But, yeah, at some point it is very difficult to push yourself to levels that you didn’t think were possible unless you have other people.” 

But, despite not being, as he says, in “the best shape” at the start of the 2021 track season, and not “killing it as much as I’d like to be killing it,” McDonald ran new PBs across the board including in the 5,000m — the 13:13.67 in France and his ticket to Tokyo. 

“I’m extremely happy with where I am now, and it feels like everything that happened is what’s gotten me here.” 

Making the Pre-Olympic Switch to OAC   

But there was still one more major change to come. Back in June, just before Australia released its Olympic Team selections, McDonald announced that he was leaving his group, coach, and sponsor to join the ON Athletics Club coached by Dathan Ritzenhein. 

While a few months before the Olympic Games seemed an odd time to sign with a new sponsor and team, like most professional arrangements, the reason boiled down to a series of complicated contract details. To make a long story short, earlier this summer Under Armour had given its athletes the option to freeze their contracts and look at other brands to sign with. 

“I thought it was the best thing for me to try to look for another brand locally and ON was pretty interested,” explains McDonald. The choice was somewhat obvious: McDonald was familiar with the group, having lived with OAC and fellow Aussie runner Oliver Hoar for a long time (the two were teammates at the University of Wisconsin together) and rooming with two other members of the group since moving to Colorado: “I’ve been running with them every day. And so I kind of knew it would be a good fit.” 

Out of the Pan Into the Fire: “I’m just, like, experiencing pain on a new level right now.”

Now with familiar training partners, McDonald says that he’s been able to elevate his training to a level he hadn’t quite been able to achieve solo.  

“It’s very fun, it’s very hard,” admits McDonald. “It’s actually very similar to what I was doing with Joe [Bosshard] and Team Boss, but the big difference is like, I’m just kind of able to do the harder workouts a lot better because I have the training partners.” 

It’s been helpful, he says, to be training with athletes like Joe Klecker and Hoar who are no strangers to vigorous training. McDonald, who notably under-trained throughout his successful college career to avoid injury, confesses this is different for him. 

“It has been a new thing to me, I’m constantly tired,” says McDonald. “My legs are always sore, but I think it’s something that I kind of always felt like I needed to do at some point… At this level, I think if you want to make it, you have to lift the bar in training.”

For example, a day before talking to PodiumRunner last week, McDonald noted that the team had done a 3K time trial in Boulder — a distance he felt was “very odd” and “very painful.” (McDonald completed the trial in 7:56.) 

While McDonald is the sort of person who enjoys a variety of training, asked his favorite workout he deadpans that he currently “kind of hates them all,” though typically he enjoys long runs and a variety of speed work. 

“I’m just, like, experiencing pain on a new level right now that I’m trying to get comfortable with.” 

The Workouts

That, of course, begs the question: Just what kind of excruciating workouts has he been doing? According Ritzenhein, these are the three hardest workouts McDonald has done since joining the OAC. 

1. The Michigan

This notoriously difficult workout was done in Eugene, Oregon, during the hottest day of the Olympic Trials with OAC member Hoar, who will represent Australia in the 1500m (and thus, as you can imagine, is pretty swift). “We did this right away when [Morgan] signed to see where he was at,” noted Ritzenhein. 

Each segment was preceded with a two-minute recovery; the fast segments were on the track, the 1600m tempos were run on the Amazon Trail. They ran the workout like this: 

  • 1600 meter in 4:18 on the track
  • 1600 meter tempo on the Amazon Trial at 5:00 pace. 
  • 1200m in 3:11 
  • 1600 tempo in 4:58
  • 800 in 2:03
  • 1600 tempo in 4:54
  • Finishing with 400m in 54 

2. 400 / 200m + tempo (run at altitude in Boulder, Colorado)

  • 5 x 400 / 200m sets with 400m / 200m jog recoveries matching the distance. 
  • 5 minute jog recovery
  • 3 mile tempo @ 4:48 per mile pace

3. 3 x 600m / 400m / 300m / 200m

They ran this count-down ladder three times, with a 600 meter jog recovery between sets: 

  • 600m averaging 1:26 (400m recovery) 
  • 400m averaging 55 seconds (300m recovery) 
  • 300m averaging 41 seconds (200m recovery)
  • 200m averaging 26 seconds (600m recovery before beginning next set)

Because Bosshard had developed his foundational strength, Ritzenhein decided instead to use the 6-7 weeks leading up to Tokyo to focus on honing McDonald’s closing speed. (Hence, the strenuous, speed-focused workouts.)

“Honestly, Morgan has so much room for growth in training with the other OAC men, and he is going thrive,” says Ritzenhein. “He is going to run very fast in the coming years but we are just focusing on being able to mentally focus and close fast now. We chose to just work on his ability to squeeze the pace and close fast to get to the finals. After this season we can make bigger changes and get his volume and strength even higher, but there was not time to do that before Tokyo.”

What’s Next for McDonald

Despite the changes and challenges over the past year, McDonald has arrived in Tokyo for the Olympic Games with self-described lofty goals and a level-headed approach. (And fresher legs after taking it easier for the past week and focusing on recovering well.)

“My goals have been the same for a long time now,” explains McDonald “It’s to make the Olympic final, and then place 5th or better in the Olympic final… That’s definitely gonna be difficult.” 

The immediate, primary the goal is straightforward: Make it through Tuesday’s semifinal and be in that final on Friday, something McDonald has missed out on twice in the World Championships. Of course, he notes, once the final is made, anything can happen.

McDonald’s career goals extend beyond the upcoming Olympic Games: he’s looking forward to future championships and he also hopes to break 13 minutes in the 5,000-meters at some point. 

When discussing his running plans his vision is remarkably far-sighted for an athlete about to compete in his first Olympic Games. Now that he’s found a promising new training group that will hopefully lift him to the next level in professional running, he’s judicious and optimistic about the future. 

“Going forward to next season and the season after that, like I’m working to stay healthy and let the training compound and just get better and better.”

McDonald will compete in the 5,000m on Tuesday, Aug. 3 at 6 a.m. EDT (7 p.m. local time)