State champ Makena Houston overcomes odds at Columbia Christian
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect more accurately Houston's healing relationship with her father.
Hot cocoa and a conversation weren't always that easy to come by for Makena Houston.
Now it's part of the daily routine in East Portland for the senior from Columbia Christian School — which serves only 60 high school students —and her best friend, Angie Siler, the K-12 school's librarian.
"When you come across a person who's been through the same kind of pain you've been through, there is almost an immediate bond," Siler said.
It'd be hard to tell that there is any pain with Houston.
Back in November, the senior from Boring easily won the OSAA Class 3A/2A/1A state cross country title, becoming the first girl to win the state title from Columbia Christian and only the second winner ever from her school; the last coming in 1964 from Roland Havens.
There were plenty of people along the way to doubt Houston. To infect her mind to the point where she believed she was worthless.
There is plenty of pain when one looks behind Houston's crystal blue eyes.
She was a distance runner trying to run from emotions that will always catch up, no matter how fast your mile split may be.
Behind a school community and a drive to not repeat the mistakes before her, Houston has faced those internal conflicts and has become someone who reflects so much of her mother.
Someone Wendy would be proud of.
A tough beginning
Houston describes her mom as a "spitfire" and talks about how stubborn she was and how she always tried to be there for her friends, whether that's giving advice or just listening.
Above all else, Houston believes her mom, Wendy, passed down an important trait: The will to never give up. And Wendy never gave up on her children. Even at a time where her marriage was taking a difficult turn.
Houston talks of emotional and physical abuse her mother took at the hands of her father, eventually leading to a split.
The Tribune spoke to Houston's father, who neither confirmed nor denied her version of her story.
At the same time, Wendy was battling with an extremely invasive cancer that couldn't be operated on because the tumor had grown so deep into the lobes of her brain.
Witnessing the spiral caused by the cancer wasn't an easy sight for someone not even in grade school yet.
"With that kind of cancer, it is degenerative obviously, so it almost acts in a way like Alzheimer's, where that person forgets pretty much everything, motor skills are gone," Houston said. "So just witnessing that as a child, there's really nowhere to hide from that. Sometimes if a family member passed away, you can explain to a small child in nicer terms what's happening, but when you're there to witness it, there was no escape at that time."
Wendy eventually passed away when Houston was 5 years old.
"Kids need their parents," Houston said. "You're never ready for the loss of a parent, whether they die when you're 5 or when they die when you're 45 or any age whatsoever. So it was definitely something that I internalized very much."
Following her mother's passing, Houston went back to live with her father.
Houston's father continued on with the same abusive tendencies, she alleges, this time directed at Houston.
"I really bore the brunt of that growing up," Houston said. "Practically, outright being told that I was useless, that I was worthless. I was really defined by what I could accomplish and how much I could do and if I could do it well. If I wasn't performing to standards, whether that be household chores or schoolwork, there were pretty heavy punishments for that."
The effects of Houston's home life were evident when it came to school time.
Houston wanted to be alone, away from anyone else who might judge her the same way she was feeling at home. No desire to express any emotions as they were being taught as a sign of weakness at home.
"Very depressed, very sad, very within herself," Siler, the school's librarian, recalls of Houston. "It was rare to see a smile from her … very much a loner."
Coming into sports
Despite the troubles at home, Houston still went out for track and field and cross country at Columbia Christian. Her mother had been a sprinter during her time at the school.
Joining the sport wasn't something Houston really sought out, though, and did rather to appease her family's encouragement.
"It seemed easy, maybe half jog, half walk," Houston said. "Show up to a few places once a week and run around and then go home. It really wasn't something that I was expecting that would turn into, like, a commitment."
Going through the motions wouldn't last too long though. Athletics were in her blood.
Quickly, something clicked inside Houston. She wanted to put in the effort to be the best she could be.
But for Houston, that drive to be better was fueled by anger and fear.
"Not having any self-confidence, being absolutely totally devastated if I didn't have a good training run or a good race, it all went back to, if I failed at something before, I was told that I was worthless, that it defined me," Houston said. "And I was terrified of it because I didn't wanna come in conflict with those negative emotions anymore. I just wanted to completely distance myself away from that and not deal with it at all."
Off the track, Siler still remembers the first time she met Houston. And the librarian recalls how Houston wasn't fond of her either when they first met when Houston was in fourth grade.
That wasn't going to derail Siler, who lost her mother when she was only one year old.
"Just because she was not liking me didn't mean that I didn't like her," Siler said. "It was just kind of a, I don't really care that you don't like me, I love you. It's just how it was and has always been. Makena has needed somebody to be on her side. And so I've just tried to be that for her."
Houston would push past her limits though, creating injuries that threw off her training.
When she was running, any success was blinded by the smallest of mistakes and looked under a harsh lens.
"I would dwell on every single race, even if it were a good race," Houston said. "Only think about the things that went wrong. And it's just so exhausting to live that way."
Something had to change.
Everyone has a breaking point, and Houston's finally came when she was 16.
Another aggressive outburst from her father led to Houston finally leaving for good, she said.
This time, she had somewhere to go.
In Wendy's will, she had directed any insurance money to go toward Houston's grandparents so they could build a home for Houston and her older brother, Brett.
Houston moved into that home with her brother and finally had a chance to reflect on all that had happened in just 16 years of life.
"That house was built and I moved into there with my brother and it was really surreal because it was the first time in my life that anything was ever just given to me," Houston said. "Nothing like that had ever happened before."
Houston and Siler started to bond more and more at school. At long last, Houston had someone who was truly in her corner and encouraging her in the right ways.
"It's just that feeling of being able to say to a person, I know how you're feeling and really mean, I know how you're feeling," Siler said. "Like you can't know unless you've been through it. And I feel like, even though that was a painful time for me, and it was probably, I don't know, 15 years of holding onto it, I'm grateful for it because I've been able to be there for Makena and I've been able to be there for her brother and just let them know, I know what you feel, and this is how come I know what you feel."
A fresh take on life opened up a new mentality and approach to the track as well.
Instead of picking at all the negative, Houston sets a goal for herself with each run to help measure exactly where she's at.
"I made it my priority to know as much as I could about myself and what I needed to know to keep running healthy," Houston said. "So having every run have a purpose and saying, 'OK, this is what I'm gonna run, this is why I'm running it and this is what it's gonna help me accomplish.' And kind of coming into every workout with that mindset, even just in an easy base run, I'm like, 'OK, I need to have a goal in mind.'"
The goal in mind
Like many stories from the past few years, the kicker has been the same: And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. The virus wiped out all 2020-21 OSAA official seasons and left Houston without much of an end goal in her junior season.
Still, Houston went to work and saw her biggest improvement come during the time of quarantine.
Kevin Yaws, the Columbia Christian cross country and track and field coach, said Houston put in tons of work on hills, and was smart with taking care of her body throughout the training in order to build herself into a better long-distance runner.
Most importantly, Yaws saw the drive that Houston's mother had passed down.
"A lot of that is inward making, 'I will not stop and I can take anyone on'" Yaws said. "If she wanted to be a pro boxer, MMA, she could do it. Just because she would not stop."
Houston's times were something one might expect from a 6A school runner, certainly not 2A.
For one virtual meet, Houston posted her personal best time of 16 minutes, 58.4 seconds. That eventually turned into an unofficial state title later in the spring when a "state championship" meet was held.
Houston finished in 18:24.33, nearly a full minute and 20 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.
However, doubts from the outside started to creep back in. This time, it was people who didn't believe her splits on some of the posted times.
How could a 2A runner be finishing so fast? Are those times legitimate?
Those doubts weren't anything to Houston. She's been through a little more than just second-guessing of times.
"Those people, they just wear themselves out saying the things that they say and it really only affects them," Houston said. "It doesn't really get to me too much, but it was definitely hard because I feel like, when people were saying 'this is not legitimate.' it felt like it was very much writing me off."
Figuring out life
At the same time, Houston began to learn how to take control of her life off the training course.
She may have a home to herself, but that still means bills to pay, transportation to take care of and plenty of other expenses.
When Houston isn't training, she's either working her janitorial duties at school or working at her other job to make ends meet.
"I've always believed in Makena's ability to kind of just take control of her life," Siler said. "I think she's figuring it out and it's so good to watch her. Once upon a time, it was a rare thing to see her smile. Now it's a rare thing to not see her smiling."
Houston is quick to recognize that her success isn't something that has come alone. She's needed help to pull herself from the dark space that encapsulated her for so long at home.
"They just never gave up, even when I was just pushing them away and pushing them away," Houston said of her support system at Columbia Christian. "They didn't see any of what other people saw. They just saw something there that was stronger than all the anger and all the fear and just needed a little help revealing itself."
There's still plenty of emotions to be sorted out for Houston, who everyone who knew her mother thinks looks just like Wendy.
Guilt comes around while living in the house her mother gave her as it took her passing and many other circumstances to get to that point.
On top of that, there's still the pain felt toward her father and the damage she says he left behind. But Houston doesn't believe that should be the end of her father's story.
Houston still talks with her father and thinks their relationship can be mended. The two talk and spend time with one another and continue to heal from past altercations.
"I like to think that I'm a person of second chances," she said. "If you can own up to what you've done and you can come to someone honestly and say that you need a redo, then I can accept that."
Houston learned to control those anger issues that have been seen throughout her father's family and she did it at an age where the normal life subjects are school dances or college entrance exams.
Now she uses that knowledge and wants to help others, just like her mother would do when she invited her friends over to talk and be an "amateur therapist,' as Houston described.
"If it comes to volunteering, if she's needed, we ask and she'll show up," Yaws said. "She shows up to help others … She's part of my family and she knows that. Part of the Columbia family, we will do anything for her."
Thanks to all that success and hard work, Houston will run for College of Idaho, where she was offered a scholarship.
To think of where Houston started her life to now have a pathway to higher education and the chance to continue her passion is a story that Siler and the whole Columbia Christian community has been so proud to witness.
"Five years ago, maybe even two years ago, she had so many ups and downs to actually say that she would be at the position she's in right now," Siler said. "It was, 'I don't know where you're going to end up.' But look at her. She's just amazing. And I think she is just gonna be so successful in whatever she does."
Leaving behind the community she's come to know won't be easy for Houston, but she's happy to be leaving with a strong message for them. And, really, for anyone in her position.
That message being: It doesn't matter the size of your school or what your past may be. Anyone from anywhere can be great.
"I think that hopefully, just me coming from where I come from, shows people that athletes can come from anywhere," Houston said.
It's the morning of the 2021 OSAA state cross country championships on Nov. 6. Schools from across all of Oregon have made the trek to Eugene and Lane Community College.
Up first is the Class 3A/2A/1A girls race. Houston is the only runner there from Columbia Christian.
For the first time, the Knights have put together a bus carrying members and supporters from Columbia Christian, all there just to see Houston run one final high school cross country race.
Siler is celebrating her 39th anniversary with her husband, so she drives separately. Some traffic keeps her away from seeing the start of the race, but she'll be there to see Houston cross the finish line. She wouldn't miss it for the world.
In typical Oregon fashion, a sunny morning turns into rainy overcast right before Houston's race is set to begin. Not a problem for Houston, who trains within the forest near her home in Boring.
The weather doesn't matter much anyway. The 85 other runners all know they're running for second place behind Houston.
With that in mind, she takes a second to reflect on the race coming up.
Houston knows she's going to win. There's a confidence and comfort there that has been so hard to come by her entire life.
It's there because she knows how much work she has put in, because she knows she has a whole community behind her on the bus to cheer her on, no matter what.
She knows there is someone who has been in her corner her whole life.
For the first time, Houston puts a photo of her mother into her shorts. At least for one race, Houston wants to feel like her mom is there.
The runners take their mark and the starting gun fires.
Houston is off, but it isn't about winning. She takes her time to relax and enjoy the beauty of the course in front of her.
And this time, she's not running alone.
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