Markham, McDonnell return for Greater Louisville Classic

By Matthew Gertsmeier

At 6:30 a.m., while most Illinois students are still slumbering in dreamland, Liam Markham and the Illini men’s cross-country team have just started practice.

This week, the team’s focus at practice has revolved around the Greater Louisville Classic, scheduled for this Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky.

“It’s a good field,” head coach Jake Stewart said. “It’s a very big field and we can be right in the middle of it and beat some teams and provide a great opportunity for some of our younger (runners) to get a big race under their belt.”

This Saturday’s 30-team meet will be an opportunity for some inexperienced runners to get exposed to NCAA competition. Four freshmen — Alex Gold, Garret Lee, Alex Notton and Joe Cowlin — and sophomore Ryan Burgoon will compete for Illinois. Markham, a junior, and senior teammate Brendan McDonnell will have to provide leadership for the underclassmen.

“I think the younger guys are going to do pretty well,” McDonnell said. “Our workouts have all been together, so when we are running, I’m taking cues from them, they’re taking cues from me. I think we will run pretty well together.”

For many of the Illini, Saturday will be their season debut. For Markham and McDonnell, Saturday is more than that: It’s a return.

Both have been dealing with injuries that have postponed their ability to compete early in the season. Markham is recovering from a stress fracture in his left shin suffered at the end of last year’s track season, and McDonnell has been healing a back injury.

“I just got to look forward to controlling what I can control,” Markham said. “It will be a good indicator on how the last few weeks of training have gone and effected how I come back.”

These two runners aren’t the only ones awaiting return to action. Stewart has been looking forward to this meet as well.

“It’s an opener for Brendan and Liam,” Stewart said. “They’re both guys who certainly have the mindset of preparing themselves for November and that’s when we want this program to be running its best.”

With eyes glued to their return, Markham and McDonnell remain calm and unfazed with any pressure.

“It’s just another race,” Markham said. “I won’t make it any bigger than it is, and I’ll just go out there and perform.”

Matt Gertsmeier can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MattGertsmeier