By Tomi Thompson
Photography by Justin Eiler
Some people know they were born with certain abilities, and are destined to participate in a specific craft. Mallori Johnson wasn’t necessarily one of those people.
Her interest in cross-country started with a quick trip to the mailbox. “We got something in the mail with the sports at the middle school, and I was like, let’s try cross-country. I almost quit after the first week,” she says. After deciding to stick with it, Johnson fell in love with the sport.
As a senior at Moorhead High School, and standout in the cross country and track and field programs, Johnson now spends year-round on the run. Fall is cross country season in Minnesota’s high schools and spring brings track and field.
During the track season, Johnson competes in the 4-by-300 hurdles and the 4-by-400 meter relay, but she says that’s not necessarily the only events she participates in.
“I kind of get moved around a lot. I’ve done pretty much everything,” Johnson says, noting that her interests and experience in different events and distances make her a versatile competitor. “Because I am a cross country runner, I do the distance, but then I also like hurdles so that’s the shorter stuff. Pretty much all of it works out for me.”
One of the reasons she loves to run is the positive feelings she experiences. “You feel really positive when you get done. I’ve always been really good at it and it makes you feel accomplished.”
While Johnson is running all year round, she said the day-to-day varies depending on the season. “Cross country is simple because I have the same workout as everyone else. Track is a little different because I get split up across three different coaches.” During the track season, Johnson spends two days hurdling and one day each with the middle and long distance runners.
Johnson notes that with each season comes a different team dynamic. “Cross country is more of a team mentality because you have the other runners, and you all push each other through the races. Track is more individual. How it ends up in the end is how it ends up.”
Staying positive is key to Johnson’s success. Even when competing in what she thinks are some of tracks most difficult events, Johnson maintains a confident outlook. “It is a really, really mentally challenging sport. I run the 800, and I think by far that is the hardest event in track. Staying positive mentally and getting yourself through all the races and workouts and everything is a big part of track.”
There is no hesitation when Johnson is asked about the event that is her biggest love in track. “Hurdles. I just love hurdles.”
Johnson isn’t sure why the hurdles have her heart, and her height may make people do a double take. “I’ve always been the super short one on the team too so everybody is like, ‘Wait, you hurdle?’ That’s my best event, it’s always worked out really well for me.”
Hurdles also allow Johnson to take a break from the regular pace of running. “It’s something different. In cross-country, you just run and run, and in everything else you’re running laps, hurdles is something different.”
Johnson is enjoying her final season as a Spud, but the grin that spreads across her face when asked about graduation makes it obvious she’s excited for the next step.
The University of Minnesota will become home for Johnson next year. Feeling a connection to the campus and being to able to run track led to Johnson’s decision to attend the University of Minnesota. “After I went on campus at the U of M, I fell in love with it. The coaching staff was really, really awesome.”
Johnson said another benefit of the U was the effort the staff makes to help student athletes stay on top of schoolwork with their busy schedules. As a lifelong athlete, Johnson chose to pursue a Physical Therapy degree because she’d eventually like to work in sports rehabilitation.
Johnson was recruited by the U of M to compete in her favorite event, the hurdles. “They really want me for 400 hurdles and we run mostly 300 hurdles now so that’s another 100 meters but I’m ready for that. Everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I think it will match better with what I do anyway. I already run the longer distance stuff.”
The transition and adding another 100 meters to her favorite event is just another opportunity for Johnson to push herself in a new way. “The workouts might get a little longer, but the height doesn’t change or anything and all the technique should be the same. It will mean getting used to another hundred meters added onto it,” Johnson said. “Having the distance background and everything, the extra hundred meters doesn’t bug me at all, I’m actually really excited.”
Johnson will move down to the university, start school, and begin practicing in late August. The U of M has two track teams, one that competes locally, and one that travels nationally. Johnson said the top two participants in each event will travel, and she hopes to eventually earn one of those spots. She admits that the U’s roster boasts talented runners, and it will be a big challenge, but that keeps Johnson all the more motivated.
“I’d rather be able to be pushed and be better than start and stay the same.”
Her accomplishments at a statewide level have been recognized beyond Minnesota, and Johnson has earned herself an opportunity to take her running talents down under. “This summer, I got invited to run in Australia for Down Under Sports. They invite 300 track athletes from across the nation,” she noted. The twelve-day trip includes spending nine days in Australia and three in Hawaii.
Johnson says a couple of the first days will be spent practicing with the team and getting used to the coaching staff. She believes running in a different country with different people will bring unique challenges. “It will mean getting used to things being different. I mean its different coaches, and they always have different ways to look at things.” After competing at a three-day meet in Australia, the team will have a few days to relax before heading off to fun in Hawaii.
Despite the exciting adventures ahead, Johnson has some unfinished business as a Spud.
Approaching the end of her high school track career, she hopes to make another appearance at the state track meet. Statewide, she is currently ranked third in hurdles. At last season’s state meet, Johnson had also been ranked third, and ended up falling in the finals. She doesn’t look at her misstep as a mistake, and uses last year’s meet as motivation to end her career on top.
“It’s scary, not wanting to do that again, but at the same time, now I feel like I have something to prove, and it makes me work harder.”