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There was a time when McKale Montgomery ran to win shiny prizes at local road races: a laptop; a bar tab; cash. Things that were especially desirable to a young graduate student trying to establish herself in the world. (And things she did actually win.)
“If there was a hundred bucks to win that 5K, I was running that 5K,” recalls Montgomery, a former collegiate distance runner who ran her debut marathon at the 2011 Chicago Marathon, running a solid 2:48 and setting the stage for a decade-long quest to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
These days, the 36-year-old mom, researcher, and nutritional sciences professor is not motivated by prizes but a relentless drive to see how fast she can be.
“I just don’t think I’m done yet,” says Montgomery, now a 2:34 marathoner. “I might as well keep going.”
Like other great distance runners of her generation, such as Keira D’Amato and Roberta Groner, Montgomery is the running the fastest times of her life well into her 30s and while balancing the demands of a family and career.
In addition to being a certified dietitian and teaching nutritional science at Oklahoma State University, Montgomery conducts research on how normal and cancerous body cells use iron. She hopes someday her work will improve treatment strategies for cancer patients.
Back when Montgomery was an aspiring scientist and professor, she put pressure on herself to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials because it seemed like the right time in her life.
“I was 27 years old and finishing grad school and I said, ‘Well, I better do this before I start my career,’ and then in 2016, I said, ‘Well, I better do this before I have a family.’ And (now) I’m blessed to have a family and career. It’s just icing on the cake.”
After falling short of qualifying for the 2012 and 2016 U.S Olympic Marathon Trials and just 10 months after giving birth to her first child, Montgomery finally nabbed the standard, running 2:40 at the 2019 Chicago Marathon and cutting eight minutes off her personal best.
Photo: Courtesy McKale Montgomery
Although her life was busier than ever, Montgomery was also more committed than ever to being a good role model for her students and daughter.
“I didn’t want to be that ‘do I say, not as I do, professor,’ so I started holding myself more accountable,” she says. “And then when I had my little girl, Logan, in 2018, that accountability came home with me. I started wondering how good I can be. She was every reason I ever needed to be my best me.”
Motivated by her new outlook, Montgomery showed up at U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2020 and delivered a stellar performance. Despite a tremendously difficult course and windy conditions in Atlanta, Montgomery finished in 2:38 (another big PR) to take 30th place.
Happy and exhausted, Montgomery thought she left all she had on the course. Her training partner Bryant Keirns convinced her otherwise.
“He was the one who asked: ‘Don’t you want to find out what you can do on a fast course on a good day?’ And I did,” she recalls.
The pandemic canceled major marathons in 2020, but Montgomery, who creates her own training plan based on workouts other runners post on social media, continued to plug away.
“McKale is a very determined person,” said Keirns, a graduate student at OSU and Montgomery’s training partner since 2019. “Between running 90 or more miles a week, having a young daughter, and all the pressure that comes with being a pre-tenured professor, I’m really not sure how she does it all.”
Montgomery’s determination and patience paid off last fall at the Prairie Fire Marathon in Wichita, Kansas, where she outran everyone, men and women, to win the race in 2:39. Although she didn’t beat her personal best, she ran the fastest marathon ever by a woman on Kansas soil.
Once again, she felt like she had more to give, so she was elated when she was accepted into the Marathon Project in December.
Montgomery knew she wouldn’t be running stride for stride with the top Americans (Sara Hall won the race in 2:22, the second-fastest marathon time ever for a U.S. woman), but she kept her focus. Running mostly solo with no cheering spectators, she crossed the finish line in 2:34, another big PR.
“I think she is a great example to myself and others that running is more about the ‘long game’ and one important part is to keep showing up,” says Keirns, who again convinced her she could knock more time off her PR.
As she plotted her next move, Montgomery discovered—thanks to calculations from her nutrition students for an assignment—that she wasn’t eating nearly enough protein.
“I had worked so hard to make sure I’m getting in all my fruits and vegetables and whole grains and dairy that I had overlooked that someone who runs as much as me and the protein I need,” she says.
With tweaks to her diet (oatmeal with added protein, Greek yogurt instead of regular) Montgomery was ready for another big breakthrough race in 2021. But instead, she faced heartbreak at the Woodlands Marathon in Woodlands, Texas this month.
On pace to run another PR and claim victory, Montgomery and a dozen runners were directed the wrong way by the lead cyclist about halfway through the race. Looking at her GPS watch, Montgomery knew something was amiss, but didn’t know what to do.
“I still didn’t quite understand what was going on,” she recalls. “I just knew my watch was short. As as we are getting very close to the end, I remember thinking, ‘Do I just keep running through the chute?’”
At the finish line, where the clock read 2:30, she learned from officials that she and the others who were misdirected ran 275 meters short of the marathon. Ultimately Montgomery was disqualified, though she still received prize money.
“I would give them that check back if they could give me back those 275 meters. I would love to say I’m a 2:32 marathoner,” she says, noting that’s the time she probably would have nailed without the missed turn.
But true to her ‘might-as-well-keep-going’ attitude, Montgomery is already looking ahead to her next opportunity: Grandma’s Marathon in Minnesota in June. If everything goes according to plan, Montgomery aims to run under 2:30 and prove that she’s a serious competitor here to stay.
“I’m ready to show everyone, myself included, that these fast times aren’t flukes,” she says. “That I really can perform at an elite level.”