- Cliff Pfenning
- Portland Tribune - Sports
• Lincoln High's Mike McGrath hopes to emulate legendary distance runner
He has the top high school time in the nation for 800 meters and is third in the mile ÑÊexploits that evoke comparisons to the late, great Steve Prefontaine.
Can Mike McGrath be the University of Oregon's next great runner, the next Pre?
'I'm all right with the comparison,' McGrath says, smiling at the idea. 'He was a great competitor, someone who wanted to see what he could do in every race.
'That's how I see myself. I want to see what I can do in every race.'
McGrath, a senior at Lincoln High who will attend Oregon, has created some buzz in track and field, a sport that can always use more publicity and excitement.
On Thursday, he will run in the Portland Interscholastic League district meet, trying to qualify for state in the 800. Two days later, he will run the mile by special invitation in the Prefontaine Classic at Eugene's Hayward Field, facing an international field that includes Noah Ngeny, the 2000 Olympic champion at 1,500 meters.
'The crowds at the Pre meet don't usually have too much personal stake in the mile, in the guys running up front, because it's usually Kenyans winning,' meet director Tom Jordan says. 'But this year is going to be different, because Mike is going to Oregon and there's issues of whether he can break state records at a couple of distances.
'And he's running against the No. 1 high school miler in the U.S. (Steve Magness of Klein Oaks, Texas), so can he beat him? I think this race can be a big draw for the meet.'
The gift of speed
McGrath, 18, began his surge onto the national scene in October 2001. That was when his father suggested he begin training with Bob Williams, a former UO runner who has been a private coach for three decades.
McGrath played freshman football and then soccer for two seasons at Lincoln. He also qualified for the state track meet in the 800 as a freshman.
Williams, who lettered at Oregon from 1964-67, got McGrath into more intensive, continuous training and honed him on the philosophy of training hard and then allowing time for recovery before meets.
McGrath also trains at Sports Lab, a North Portland gym that focuses on workouts for specific results such as speed and agility. He often trains with medicine balls or jumps over boxes during workouts at Sports Lab.
The combined training has made him more explosive.
'He's very efficient on the track,' Williams says. 'The workouts help him reduce his ground contact time, help him shift his weight better so that he's faster.'
Williams also points out that McGrath, a runner since the sixth grade, is just naturally fast.
'When he first came to me, he had run 1:56 in the 800, but he was still relatively young in terms of his training,' Williams says. 'But it was pretty obvious that he had a natural gift. We just added some stamina and strength.
'When you couple that with his emotions, the fact he's very stable and a smart runner, that's why he's an elite runner.'
McGrath, who missed his sophomore season because of mononucleosis, says he used to 'fool around' and not train 'all that hard.'
Now, he says, 'I still have fun with running. But I train hard. I take it very seriously.'
A focused season
McGrath's times were at the top of the state in the 800 and 1,500 last season, but he finished fourth in the state 800 in 1:54.19 and second in the state 1,500 in 3:52.38.
Three weeks later, he ran 1:50.48 at a meet in North Carolina, a mark that led to high personal expectations for this season.
His focus this year has been on six meets: the Centennial Invitational, the Oregon Twilight, the Pre Classic, the state meet, the U.S. National championships at Stanford University in June, and if he performs well at Stanford, the Pan-Am Games in Barbados in July.
McGrath set the state high school record in the 800 in his first race this season. And he did it in a manner that stirred a large crowd, including Grant senior Alec Wall, the PIL cross country champion who will room with McGrath at Oregon.
'The way he ran down the homestretch was amazing, he just kept accelerating,' says Wall, one of the nation's top-ranked 3,000-meter runners. 'Obviously, he's got some gears that the rest of us don't have. I know I don't have them, not like that.'
At Centennial three weeks ago, McGrath ran the 800 faster than any Oregon prep ever has, finishing in 1:48.56. A week later, at the Twilight, he nearly cracked the four-minute barrier in the mile, a feat only four American high schoolers have done in the 55 years that Track and Field News, the bible of the sport, has been keeping record.
McGrath, who ran 4:05.28 at the Twilight in what was his first mile, says his times will improve as he matures and learns to run longer distances. He expects to run the 800 and the 1,500 or mile at Oregon.
'What I need to do is just put the miles in,' he says.
Running against the legend
According to the Oregon track and field media guide, Prefontaine 'never lost a race longer than a mile as a Duck' in cross country or track. He did it with stitches in his foot and with last-second rallies.
Crowds loved Pre, who died in a car accident in 1975. He was 25.
'He was a guy who would say he was going to do something and then go out and do it because he was that gifted,' says Jordan, who wrote a biography of Pre. 'The way he did it, those people come along only once in a generation or two.'
At Marshfield High, Prefontaine won three state track titles: the mile as a junior, and the mile and two-mile as a senior. His best time in the mile was 4:06.
Jordan says coaches around the nation await the next running phenom at Oregon with a grin.
'I've been told whenever they hear about the next Pre, they immediately write that guy off because the pressure is just too much,' Jordan says.
The pressure is essentially to win with flair, all the time.
Alberto Salazar, who coaches boys distance runners at Central Catholic and ran at Oregon, says track fans also are forever hoping for that next great runner to arrive at Hayward Field.
'I would hate to put that mantle on (McGrath),' says Salazar, who coaches Central junior Galen Rupp, one of the nation's top runners in the 3,000. 'Pre had great talent, mental toughness and a certain charisma that caught the attention of the crowd.
'It's unfair to put those kinds of expectations on anyone.'
McGrath has great stage presence, though.
'When he took off on the backstretch of the final lap at the Twilight meet, you could hear the crowd take a breath,' Lincoln distance coach Dave Bailey says. 'You could almost hear people saying, 'We want to see more of that, and we will next year because he's coming to Oregon.' '
McGrath says Oregon was his first choice of colleges:
'There's so much history in that program and on that track Ñ that's where I wanted to go all along. They sell season tickets for meets there. How many schools can do that?'
UO track coach Martin Smith says McGrath's enthusiasm was obvious and infectious.
'He understands the tradition of the sport at Oregon, and he wants to be a part of that,' Smith says. 'Plus, he just seems like the kind of athlete you can work with and want to have in your program. You can see it in how he runs.
'Grit and determination is what separates the good runners from the great runners. And that's something I see in Mike.'
Whatever the outcome of McGrath's coming races, people will be watching.
He is aiming for 3:47.06 in the 1,500 and 4:04.9 in the mile, both long-standing Oregon high school records.
McGrath's Pre Classic prep rival, Magness, has run the mile in 4:02.99.
Jordan has invited Dirk Lakeman, who set the state prep mile record in 1977 while at South Eugene, to attend the Pre Classic. Lakeman was interested in seeing the race in which his record might fall.
Jordan will have a camera set up at the 1,500-meter point to record an automatic time during the mile.
'Those are some pretty old records,' Jordan says. 'That says it's been awhile since we had someone of this caliber running in the state.'
Terry McGrath, Mike's father, graduated from Lincoln in 1970 and competed at the 1969 state track meet, Prefontaine's senior season at Marshfield.
'It seems like Oregon got away from recruiting local kids for a while,' Terry McGrath says, 'but now they seem to have a good young bunch of instate kids there, and that'll be fun to watch.'
Mike McGrath is looking forward to years of running before Eugene's big, supportive crowds. The state meet will take place May 30-31 at Hayward Field.
'I really want to win a state title,' he says. 'But if I don't, it's not going to be the end of the world. I'll bounce back and be better the next time.
'The important thing is that I'll be at Oregon. That's a no-lose situation for me.'