Track & Field

McLeod ready to write final chapter at Big Sky Outdoor championships

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Ten seconds can be an eternity in track and field, and 10 seconds away from a conference championship, nobody gave Erika McLeod a chance.

The sophomore from the University of Montana had started the 2016 Big Sky Indoor Championships poorly. She posted a ninth-place finish in the 60-meter hurdles in the first event of the pentathlon. She recovered to place fourth in both the high jump and the shot put before winning the long jump to get herself back in the competition.

But, as her coaches scrambled to calculate the numbers, it became quickly apparent that she would need an incredible performance in the last event, the 800 meters, to catch Montana State senior Danielle (Muri) Rider.

“She needed to beat a girl by 10 seconds. Ten seconds in an 800, it doesn’t happen,,” Montana head track and field coach Brian Schweyen, a former record-setting multi-event standout during his career at Montana State, said. “And that other competitor had a 2:24 or 2:23 PR, so Erika’s thinking, well, I’ve got to go at least a 2:13 or 2:14, and if that girl decides to run a 2:21 today, then what? And our conversation was, you’ve got to go out, and you’ve got to stay in tune, and you’ve got to shut everything out and you’ve got to put your body through hell for two minutes.”

For two minutes, McLeod did, sprinting out to an early lead. As the Montana group anticipated, Rider tightened up on her home track, dropping a few seconds off her PR.

And McLeod?

“I knew she had it in her. I didn’t know how long she would stay in tune during that 800 to accomplish that,” Schweyen said. “But it’s a 200-meter track that she ran it on, and as she came around on that second lap, the look in her eyes, I said, she’s going to do it.”

She finished in 2:14, beating out Rider’s 2:27 and claiming her first conference pentathlon championship with 3,882 points during those 2016 indoor championships at Montana State in Bozeman.

“I think from that moment forward, everything kind of came full-circle for me in understanding why I had put in that work, and good things do happen when you’re consistent with your work ethic and the things that you care about,” McLeod said. “I think I’ve always kind of held on to that, and that’s been kind of my driving force these last five years. Even when I think there’s not much to give, I’ve always got a little bit more in me.”

Montana State University hosts the 2019 Big Sky Conference Indoor Track and Field Championship Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Bozeman, Mont. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

McLeod runs the 400 in 56 seconds, long jumps nearly 20 feet, and throws a javelin over 120 feet. Her personal-best marks would be good enough to score points at the conference championships in the 100 hurdles, the high jump and long jump. She’s also a key member of UM’s long relay team.

It’s a resume that makes the Butte native the best female athlete in Montana and potentially the best in the entire Big Sky Conference with one guaranteed performances left to affirm her place among the greatest track stars in Big Sky Conference history.

At the Big Sky Indoor Championships in February, McLeod finished first or second in all five events to win the pentathlon with a dominating Montana and Big Sky-record 4,128 points, qualify for the NCAA national championships for the first time in the process.

The title was McLeod’s third Big Sky pentathlon championship, adding to a resume that also includes the heptathlon crown she won outdoors as a sophomore in 2016. She was the first female Griz athlete to qualify for indoor nationals since Katrina Drennen in 2011, although a calf injury kept her from competing on the national stage.

Standing on the track after a recent workout, McLeod, with her black hair tied up and multiple earrings dangling, didn’t look like the top athlete on a Griz women’s team that has designs on the Big Sky team championship this week.

She’s not as tall as the distance runners, or muscled-up like some of the throwers.

But her teammates describe her in simple terms.

“Erika’s a beast,” men’s 400-meter runner Sterling Reneau said admiringly. “There’s no way around it. She’s a monster of an athlete.”

At the Montana athletics banquet in late April, McLeod was awarded the Grizzly Cup as the top female athlete across all sports in 2019.

Now, with the Big Sky Outdoor Championships in Missoula this week for the first time since 2009, McLeod will have a chance to stock her trophy case one last time.

Although she’s coming off the calf injury that she suffered after indoor conference championships, she’ll be the favorite in the heptathlon. She could also score points in the long jump, the high jump and the 4×400-meter relay.

“I’ve never been injured,” McLeod said during the ESPN Roundtable on ESPN Missoula. “It was unfortunate but it was important for me to navigate through that. It helped me grow as an athlete. It put a standstill on my indoor and I felt a little behind going to outdoor.

“But I’ve learned in my five years more than anything, it takes a lot of confidence, trusting yourself and not doubting yourself. I’ve just tried to hold on to that as much as I can.”

This week could be the crescendo to an incredible career. Like all of the seniors on the track team this year, the opportunity to go out on her home track adds another layer of emotion to the event.

“I just keep having these bittersweet feelings of it hitting me that it’s winding down, and just wanting to make the most of it and soak every bit of it in,” McLeod said. “I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m so excited it’s in Missoula. I hope to see a lot of people out here supporting us because it’s a pretty special thing to have it here, and there’s going to be a lot of incredible performances throughout the team. Just to have that one last hurrah with everyone, it’s going to be fun.h

To make sure she keeps progressing, McLeod keeps a journal.

Everything, from the bad performances to the great ones earn entries.

When she came to Montana, just a few months removed from winning the 200 meters, the 300 hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump at the Montana AA state championships as a senior, Schweyen wanted her to try the multi-events.

Before her senior year — she signed with UM before her final prep track season — McLeod said she didn’t know anything about the multi events. But she knew about Lindsey Hall, the former Missoula Big Sky and Montana standout who’s pentathlon McLeod broke earlier this year.

“We have a lot of heart here in Montana,” UM senior record-setting thrower Hannah Feilzer said just hours before claiming her seventh Big Sky weekly award this season. “We want to work hard, we want to do our best. I think it started really coming along with Lindsey Hall when she was here. Everybody was just like, ‘Dang, I want to be just like Lindsey Hall. I want to go out and compete like her.’ It’s really pushed the rest of us seeing how well she did and how far her career progressed.”

“I know Lindsey influenced me,” McLeod added during a group interview as part of the ESPN Roundtable with Feilzer, senior hurdler Morgan Sulser and junior middle distance specialist Carly Smiedala. “Since being at Montana and being around Lindsey, she really did set such a big tone for the multi-events specifically and I just feel really lucky and grateful to be able to follow in those footsteps.”

According to McLeod, keeping a record of what her daily work helped her pick up the technique for events like the javelin and shot put that she never competed in before college.

Montana track & field athlete Erika McLeod in 2016/by Brooks Nuanez

“I always write down what I’ve worked on, or what we’re trying to work on, so I don’t forget, and then just to remind myself things that I’ve gotten better at and kind of pat myself on the back for stuff like that,” McLeod said. “It still is a process. I’ve gotten a lot better, but there still is, everyday, something that I’m trying to work on.”

Not everything that went into the journal that freshman year was positive.

After coming into college with high expectations after her incredible senior year of high school — “We were lucky enough to sign her before she started her senior year,” Schweyen admits now — she struggled, finishing 14th in the pentathlon at the indoor championships and then 11th in the heptathlon in the outdoor season.

“I will never forget the indoor championships and Erika and I were both on the verge of tears looking at each other wondering what are we doing? How are we going to figure out how to do this for five more years?,” Sulser said during the ESPN Roundtable. “You really lean on each other and you have to find a new support system. Our relationship in particular has been really special freshman year until now and it helped us reach this point.”

McLeod had a hard time picking up the high jump, although the discipline has become a strength. Her season-best jump of 5-foot-6 at the Brian Clay multis ranks ninth in the Big Sky despite being her only official mark in the event this spring. She still laughs and says she struggles with the throwing events. But that’s a far cry from her first years as a Griz.

McLeod says now that she hadn’t quite grasped the commitment needed to compete in college track. It was a tough pill to swallow.

“I was really naive my freshman year thinking, you come to track, you do your workout, you do your lifting, and you’re good,” McLeod said. “And there’s just so many other things and areas of track and field that I don’t think other people realize.”

Poor results followed and her confidence took a hit. For a time during the summer after her freshman year, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue competing.

But, like she did in that breakthrough 800, she found that she had just a little bit more to give. She came back, putting her trust in Schweyen and assistant coach Adam Bork, also a former All-American multi-athlete at UM.

Schweyen likes to say that, for one of his athletes to get the most out of their training, they need to be able to work long, work hard and work smart.

Anybody around the team will gush about McLeod’s ability to do the first two, but she had to learn how to work smart.

She started paying more attention to her nutrition, spending more time in the training room, and thinking more about the mental side of competing.

“There’s this big puzzle of training, and training is not only the academic, but the weightlifting piece, the nutrition piece, the rest and recovery piece,” UM sprints coach Paul Reneau said.

By the indoor championships of that sophomore year, McLeod finally had all those pieces in place. All that was left to do was run down Rider in that 800-meter finale.

She went on to win the heptathlon at the outdoor championships to cap an incredible breakout year, narrowly missing qualifying for nationals in a year when the national competition was extremely steep.

The gold medal in Bozeman completed a transformation from her nightmare freshman year.

Montana track & field athlete Erika McLeod in 2018/by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez Montana State

“It’s funny for me to reflect back on that,” McLeod says now. “I really was just in such in place where I had lost so much confidence, and I think the hardest look for me to take was in the mirror. It’s the best thing I’d ever done for myself.

“It forced me to take a look at some areas I had neglected … because it’s just a completely different world in college, and just because you’re working hard in high school doesn’t mean you stop working hard. It’s a whole different level of hard work. I was willing to do it, I just had to grind through it more than anything.”

Track is a sport of specialization, except when it comes to the multis.Other members of the Griz team are sprinters or distance runners, throwers or jumpers.

McLeod has to be all of those at once, honing her athleticism in a variety of fashions. Instead of running one race, she has to keep her focus over multiple events and multiple days.

It leads to a considerable mental challenge.

“The difference is, in a heptathlon or a decathlon, you’re competing for five to eight hours a day for two days,” said Schweyen, a former decathlete who competed in two U.S. track and field championships and formerly held several Big Sky records in the multi events. “It’s learning how to be in tune with your body through your mental side, learning how to not interfere with the process of technique, and not put extra effort in, because that screws with getting to the final result. Every event you have to do that, but in the multi you have to do it in several attempts per event over a two-day period, and that’s where it gets more difficult.”

When she’s competing, McLeod said, she has to be able to block out what happened in the event before and not let her mind wander to the next event.

The margins are so small and the events require so much talent — in both pure athleticism and hard-won technique — that a brief mental lapse can have big consequences.

McLeod’s method for avoiding those costly lapses is perfectly simple.

“We start out with the hurdles, so I always tell myself, when I’m hurdling, I’m a hurdler,” McLeod said. “Then we go to high jump, so now I’m a high jumper. Not looking back on what happened or what could have happened, not looking forward. Just being really present in what I’m doing in that moment and taking each event as it comes, not anticipating it or dwelling on it. Just being as present and as mindful as I can throughout the whole competition.”

That sounds simple, but according to the people around the team, McLeod’s mental strength is a huge part of what’s made her so dominant.

Montana track & field athlete Erika McLeod in 2016/by Brooks Nuanez

“One of the things that impressed me most about Erika throughout her career is, she’s a great person, she’s a very nice young woman,” Paul Reneau said. “[But] when she puts her uniform on, and when she puts her spikes on, get out my way. Right? Not everybody can make that switch, and it’s served her well, because that just makes her tough, that makes her competitive, and I’m not making excuses and I’m not going to lose.”

Now, with everything that she’s accomplished, McLeod is the frontrunner for another championship, the athlete with the metaphorical 10-second lead.

But to close out her career with the storybook ending this week by winning her last conference championship in front of family and friends at Dornblaser Field, she’ll have to grind through one last obstacle.

Atypically in a sport as physically demanding as track, McLeod’s calf injury after this year’s indoor championships was the first one she’d ever experienced.

It came right after she had wrapped up that dominating performance at championships, one of the best of her career. She was out for six weeks.

“More than anything, I don’t think I thought it would take as long as it did, and so that was tough for me,” McLeod said. “But I just kind of tried to stay consistent with my mood throughout the whole process, and take whatever positive I could from the day, and acknowledge that there were a lot of things I was used to doing in my routine that I just couldn’t do.”

When the diagnosis came down, Schweyen said that he saw the lack of confidence that plagued her freshman year coming back, along with fear about letting her team down in her last semester.

McLeod herself admitted that, even just a few short years ago, she likely wouldn’t have handled the injury as well. Her return has been slow, winning the long jump, her signature event, at the Cat-Griz Dual two weeks ago before finishing seventh in the 100 hurdles, shot put and javelin in Bozeman last week.

Montana senior multi-athlete Erika McLeod/ by Kelly Gorham, Montana State athletics

But this Erika McLeod has worked through crises of confidence before. She’s learned how to work smart, and how to keep her focus.

“Even getting back into it, my times and marks weren’t exactly what I was hoping,” McLeod said. “But more than anything, I think I was just being nice to myself and not putting so much pressure and expectations. From the get go, I told my trainer, I said, I’ll do whatever I need to do, because I want to do it the right way, I don’t want to have any more things coming up trying to rush it.”

That mature approach is what turned around her career. But, if she needs to put the hammer down in an 800 one last time this week, just know that she’s ready for that too.

“I was patient and I did what I needed to do when I was told, and I took breaks when maybe I didn’t want to,” McLeod said. “But, ultimately, I think it’s put me in a good position going into next week. I feel good. I’m ready.”

The women’s pentathlon begins at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

“I’m at peace with however it does end,” McLeod said. “I feel lucky to look back on the career I had. That’s more important to me than anything.”

Erika McLeod/ UM athletics

Photos attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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