Lake Oswego's Marks, Milam and Heninger head to Olympic Trials in marathon
There must have been something in the water.
Maybe there was something in the air.
Whatever the reason, there's clearly something special about three former Waluga Junior High School students who will compete this weekend for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in the men's marathon.
Those three — Dave Marks, Julian Heninger and Willie Milam — all attended Waluga Junior High back in the day and all three will run in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at 12:08 p.m. (EST) Saturday, Feb. 29, at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia.
How they got there and what they hope to accomplish, however, are as individual as each of the three men themselves.
Marks, 29 and a resident of Denver, Colorado, was the first to showcase his ability. A 2008 graduate of Lakeridge High School, he made his senior season a memorable one, running to 12th place in the Class 6A state cross country meet, then adding a runner-up finish in the state 3,000 meters and a fifth-place effort in the 1,500.
He went on to run at Lewis-Clark State College and graduated with a degree in sports administration and a minor in marketing in 2013. While there, he finished fifth in the NAIA Men's Cross Country National Championships as a senior. He now works as a Regional Associate for Stego Industries, is married to his wife, Victoria, and runs for The Good Boys (an unsponsored team of college graduates in Denver).
Milam, 27 and a resident of Louisville, Colorado, came through next. A 2010 graduate of Jesuit High School, he ran to sixth place in the Class 6A state cross country meet as a junior — a year that saw his Crusaders post one of the lowest team scores in Oregon big-school history — then took fifth at state in the 3,000 meters as a senior.
He went on to run at Gonzaga University and graduated with a degree in business administration (with concentrations in finance and economics), followed by a master's in business administration, While there, he set personal bests of 4 minutes, 1 second in the mile and 13:53 in the 5K. He now works as a Project Manager for a website development and online marketing company based out of North Boulder, and runs for the Roots Running Project, a professional team based out of Boulder.
Heninger, 25 and a Lake Oswego resident, was the last of the trio to spread his wings. A 2013 graduate of Lakeridge, Heninger ran to third place in the state cross country meet as a senior, then won the state 3,000 and finished second in the state 1,500.
He went on to run at Dartmouth College and graduated with a degree in English, with further studies in design thinking. He eventually earned first-team all-Ivy League honors, all-Ivy League academic honors and qualified for the 2016 NCAA Division I National Cross Country Championship. He now works as a Quality Engineer at Nike - NRC Mobile App, and runs for the Bowerman Track Club Elite.
Grad Year: Lakeridge High 2008
College: Lewis-Clark State 2013
Occupation: Regional Associate for Stego Industries
Team: The Good Boys
Grad Year: Jesuit High 2010
College: Gonzaga 2015
Occupation: Project Manager for a web development and online marketing company
Team: Roots Running Project
Grad Year: Lakeridge High 2013
College: Dartmouth 2017
Occupation: Quality Engineer at Nike - NRC Mobile App
Team: Bowerman Track Club Elite
New to the Marathon
While each of the three men has approached the summit of marathon running, all three are relative newcomers to the event.
For Marks, his post-collegiate running career was anything but smooth. After a year off for work, Marks began to train again but fell into a four-year period that pretty much went like this — injury, time off, recovery, repeat.
But finally, after he moved to Colorado and took a new job that allowed him to work from home and better focus his training, Marks began to come back. As his own fitness, consistency and health returned, Marks learned that one of his regular training partners qualified for the Olympic Trials back in April.
"I think that kind of motivated all of us because we thought 'If this guy did it, there's no reason we can't do it,'" Marks said. "I had a couple guys here in Denver and we all met at the right time and decided we all wanted to go for the qualifier."
Marks then competed in the California International Marathon in Sacramento, California, on Dec. 8 — his first-ever marathon — and finished the event in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 11 seconds to qualify under the Olympic Trials time standard of 2:19.00.
"Having a race plan and trusting my fitness, I hit mile 20 and I felt fine and it was all positive vibes the last 6 miles or so," he said.
Milam, like Marks, took some time away from serious training following his graduation from Gonzaga. But a year working in Portland showed Milam just how much he missed running and training, so he quit his job, moved to Boulder in 2016 and began to focus anew.
After a couple years, Milam began to return to form, began to increase his training and set his sights on the Olympic Trials in the marathon.
"The end-of-the-cycle goal was to run at the Olympic Trials," he said. "It was a big goal, but I decided to give it a try."
He first qualified for the Olympic Trials by running a 1:02.28 in the Houston Half Marathon in 2019, ran Houston again in 2020 and went 1:01.46 (the 26th best mark all-time for American runners), then qualified again, running 2:14.54 in the Chicago Marathon in October.
"My first marathon was in June of last year and I still feel like I'm getting the hang of, not only the training, but how to race it to the best of my abilities," Milam said. "I feel like the marathon, given how much of a monster the distance is, will still take a while to figure out how to best approach it."
Heninger didn't have the kind of break that Milam and Marks did, but it still took some time for him to transition from the Dartmouth running community to his current place with the Bowerman Track Club Elite.
And despite what his new training partners thought, the marathon wasn't in his plans.
"A lot of other Nike employees and some non-Nike employees … set this precedent of chasing goals together and one of those huge ones was to qualify for the Trials," Heninger said. "A lot of those guys are a little older than me and they were all marathoners. Quite personally, I was against the idea of doing a full (marathon) this year."
Just the same, Heninger's longer workouts were going well, his training partners kept leaning on him — gently — and his coach played a role in his eventual decision to run the marathon, too.
"(There) was sort of this undeniable momentum that the workouts are going well, there was a great group mentality around that goal so there was a little bit of peer pressure … and my coach, Elliot Heath, he's sort of a schemer and I think he was just letting the workouts speak for themselves," Heninger said. "He let me arrive at the conclusion that I should try a marathon and see what happens. With this sort of collective goal set by my peers and the training going really well, it all just sort of came together."
He then competed in the California International Marathon — his first-ever marathon — and finished the event in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 23 seconds to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
Not that it was easy.
"I was very much discovering that all the rumors that people say about the marathon are true in the sense that, once you cross that line or hit that wall, your body just shuts down," Heninger said. "It's unlike anything I've ever experienced before."
While Marks, Milam and Heninger share a lot of background and areas of interest, they weren't close growing up. Marks ran in high school with Heninger's older brother, Max, and followed Milam's career at Jesuit, but didn't know him particularly well.
Milam, two years younger than Marks and three years older than Heninger, followed Marks through his high school career, but didn't really become aware of Heninger until he started winning state titles in high school and making a name for himself in college.
For his part, Heninger grew up hearing stories about Marks' accomplishments as a runner, then went out and bettered many of them during his career as a Pacer.
But even after high school, these three runners — more acquaintances than friends — just kept "running" into each other.
Marks and Milam ran against each other during their college years at Lewis-Clark State and Gonzaga. Heninger and Marks had a chance meeting in Denver a few years ago when both were testing Nike prototype marathon shoes. And most recently, Marks and Heninger met during the California International Marathon.
"(Marks) passed me in the last mile at the CIM," Heninger said. "Sure enough, there was Dave passing by me. At that point, I had enough time in the bank that I thought I was going to get (the qualifying) time anyway, but he kind of towed me in while I was in the grave a little bit so that was cool."
Now, Marks, Milam and Henninger are preparing for the biggest meet-up of all — the 2020 Olympic Trials for the men's marathon on Saturday, Feb. 29.
While the three former Waluga students will line up together for the marathon on Saturday, they each bring with them their individual hopes, dreams, goals and expectations.
According to Milam, the favorites for the event will likely be former Central Catholic and University of Oregon star Galen Rupp and Jared Ward — both Olympic marathon runners in 2016 (Rupp placed third and Ward sixth) — and Leonard Korir, the third-place finisher from the '16 Olympic Trials for marathon. The top three finishers will earn berths on the U.S. men's team.
"They're probably the top three, but there's a lot of guys around 2:10 or 2:11 so they're pretty close to those top three," said Milam. "The great thing about this race is it's just one day and you have to be 'on' that one day and not everybody is 'on' the same day so anything can happen."
Marks, for one, is a believer in Milam's ability.
"I think Willie is in the next echelon," he said. "There's a handful of guys who will be fighting for the top three positions and I would definitely put Willie up there. He's a stud."
"(My personal best) is between 20th and 25th on the rankings list, but I really feel like I'm better than that," Milam said. "I've been talking to my coach (and) on my best day, I want to be in the top 10. … That's what I'm shooting for and that's kind of what I'm psyching myself up for, but it really varies because you never know how your legs are going to feel on that day."
For his part, Marks is determined to enjoy the experience and take his best shot.
"In my tier of people, it's going to be a good experience and we don't have anything to lose," he said, adding that he's aiming for a top-75 or top-100 finish at the Trials. "I'm going to trust my fitness. It's going to be two hours of pain, but we'll see how we manage it."
Heninger, with the least distance experience of the three, plans to soak up every moment of the experience, but at the same time, is determined not to discount the competitive aspect of the event.
"I just want to run at my limit as long as I can and the place will take care of itself," he said, saying his ultimate goal would be a top-50 finish. "I'll try to find Dave or somebody else I know … and pack up and then try to create the positive energy that CIM was all about. But it's a championship race. At the end of the day, it's everyone for themselves over the last five miles."
The Finish Line
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, Marks, Milam and Henninger know they'll always be able to say that they ran in the U.S. Olympic Trials. They'll know that they took their best shots at something big. And they'll know that the three of them — once just youngsters from the south side of Lake Oswego — had their paths cross once more in an extraordinary place.
"It's feels surreal and special," Milam said. "I think the gravity of the situation hasn't really set in for me yet with how unlikely it is to have the three of us qualify for an Olympic Trials from not only the same city, but in such a relatively close area.
"I haven't done my research, but I doubt there are many instances like this with other cities, and it's comforting and exciting knowing that I have these two guys from the same hometown that I'll be lining up with on the start line in Atlanta."
"It's cool seeing everyone have their own goals and seeing especially Willie running ungodly fast," Marks said. "They are cool dudes and it's hard not to root for each other."
"Now we're going to race the Trials together and it's kind of interesting how our paths have kind of meandered together," Heninger added. "It's really cool that since freshman year of my high school career, we've been building to this moment more or less to rep the Pacers."
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