Winding Road Leads O'Donoghue-McDonald Back To The Start

Oct. 1, 2009

By Joe Darda

No college career is perfect. Even the most durable and fortunate athletes are susceptible to the occasional injury, illness, or untimely off day. The best--the All-Americans, the conference champions, the school-record holders--are experts in perseverance. They have to be. Few, though, have been through what Max O'Donoghue-McDonald only half-jokingly calls his 'year of hell.'

As a 2007 graduate of Seattle Prep, O'Donoghue-McDonald was a four-time state champion, a Foot Locker All-American, and one of the best prep distance runners in Washington state history. Arriving on the UW campus two years ago, he made an immediate impact on the cross country team, competing in every varsity competition including a 46th place showing (second on the team) at the Regional Championships. That winter, O'Donoghue-McDonald went on to post a personal best mile time of 4:11.13 at the season-opening UW Indoor Preview. He was having a near-flawless freshman year and progressing rapidly when, only days after the opener, his tailbone began to ache.

It would be the beginning of a yearlong battle with an injury that, to this day, he can only define as 'that weird tailbone thing.'

'I saw tons of doctors. I can't even remember how many,' O'Donoghue-McDonald says. 'And I got a lot of diagnoses, different diagnoses. It was really frustrating because it wasn't just affecting my running. I was in pain in everyday life.'

What was eventually determined to be inflamed tendons adjoined to O'Donoghue-McDonald's tailbone would prevent the promising young runner from competing for more than a year and in every way test his dedication to the sport.

'It was really pretty depressing. I'd be out for four months, and then start running, and then get hurt again,' O'Donoghue-McDonald recalls. 'The coaches were really helpful though. I came to UW because I'm from Seattle and I've always been a Husky fan, but also because the coaches pump me up. They were really supportive and recognized what I was going through. Without them, I don't know what would have happened.'

Thirteenth-year head coach Greg Metcalf has seen few injuries as difficult and puzzling as O'Donoghue-McDonald's, but, he notes, even fewer runners as gifted as the now redshirt sophomore. 'I just had to remind Max that talent doesn't disappear, and sometimes you have to take a step backwards to take a step forwards,' Metcalf says. 'I told him that I still needed him, we still needed him, and he remained a great teammate throughout.'

Now, after an almost two-year absence from competition, O'Donoghue-McDonald is back on the cross country course. On Sept. 19 at the Sundodger Invitational, he ran his first fall race since the 2007 Regionals, finishing tenth overall.

'I didn't really know what to expect, and I could tell I was a little rusty, but it was a good race,' he says. 'It was a stepping stone and I feel more confident as a result.'

Returning to running in June, O'Donoghue-McDonald steadily increased his weekly mileage throughout the summer and has, in the past four weeks, logged some of the best training of his career--certainly the best of the past two years.

Metcalf is encouraged by O'Donoghue-McDonald's progress and sees big things ahead for his athlete. 'I'm excited by his first race, but more than anything I think it's a preview of coming attractions,' he says. 'When it's all said and done, Max thinks like a superstar. He's a gamer. The bigger the meet, the better. He's definitely one of those guys.'

Perhaps more valuable than fast times and high finishes, though, is what O'Donoghue-McDonald has contributed outside of racing. Now in his third year at Washington, the affable O'Donoghue-McDonald has become a leader and source of enthusiasm at practice.

As Metcalf puts it, 'Any team is going to have a handful of leaders that all lead in different ways, but, that said, Max is the emotional leader of our team. His teammates feed off his energy. He plays a special role in the daily function of this team.'

Senior Colton Tully-Doyle says O'Donoghue-McDonald's ability to lead is intrinsic, evident from the day he arrived on campus. 'Max is a natural born leader. I think anyone can see that,' he says of his teammate and roommate. 'It's to the point now where everyone just expects it from him.'

Tully-Doyle, like O'Donoghue-McDonald, has faced adversity over the past few seasons, his performance greatly hindered by a nagging calf injury. At Sundodger, however, he had one of the best races of the day, finishing third overall. 'Being out there again with Max, it was like a reunion,' Tully-Doyle says, 'and it was a great start for the team, but I think the true test will come this weekend.'

This weekend, the 22nd-ranked Washington men are headed to South Bend, Indiana for the Notre Dame Invitational, where they will face a handful of top-30 teams. O'Donoghue-McDonald is with the team and likely to run, though a slight unrelated foot issue could possibly make him hold off until Pre-Nationals. The issue is nothing to be concerned about, not after what he has already overcome to return to his passion.

'Being away from running for a full year taught me a lot. I've refocused on appreciating running for what it is,' says O'Donoghue-McDonald. 'I'm really blessed to be in this situation, running with the guys. I missed it so much. Everyone has scars in their lives, but this one has made me stronger.'

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