On May 20th as the XTERRA Oak Mountain 20K race took off, the one question in everyone’s mind was, “Who is that girl in second place?”
In first place was Lesley Paterson, the two-time XTERRA Off-Road Triathlon World Champ who won the XTERRA Oak Mountain 20K in 2013. In third place was Jennifer McGranahan, who won in 2017. But in second place, holding her own against these accomplished runners was just a kid, barely old enough to drive.
That kid – whose name is McKenzie Hogue – is accomplished in her own right. An equestrienne for years, she began competing in triathlons when she was only 11. Her transition to cross-country and track happened in 2016 when the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) approved a measure – known as the Tim Tebow Law – that allowed home-school students to participate in high school sports at the public school for which they are zoned.
In the past year, when Hogue competed as a junior for the Thompson Warriors, she won the 1600 and 3200 meter runs at the AHSAA Indoor Track Championship and then repeated her performance at the AHSAA Outdoor Track Championship.
This is kind of like winning the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship and then continuing on to win the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.
Even Hogue is a bit surprised by her success. She lives on a 37-acre farm with two thoroughbreds, an appaloosa, a few ponies, and some dogs and cats.
“It’s our little haven,” said Hogue, who credits her time on her horse with making her strong.
Initially, Hogue began competing in three-day eventing, which is the triathlon of the horse world. It consists of a day of dressage, which tests how well rider and horse communicate. The second day is a cross-country event that tests speed and endurance as the horses are asked to jump a demanding course as fast as they can while not knocking over any fences. The third day consists of stadium jumping that ensures that horse and rider have the stamina and suppleness to execute a complicated course of jumps in an arena.
Hogue’s mother, an accomplished equestrienne, is Hogue’s trainer and teacher as she both rides and completes her homeschool requirements. But even with riding and taking care of a farm, Hogue was never tired.
When Hogue was 11, her soccer coach noticed that Hogue’s energy level surpassed most of the other players on the team.
“My soccer coach recognized that I was always running,” said Hogue, who is remarkably self-possessed for her 17 years. “He told my dad that he had never seen a kid who ran as much as I did and suggested that I try a triathlon.”
Shortly after, her dad took Hogue to the Buster Britton Memorial Triathlon at Oak Mountain State Park.
“I just started shaking,” said Hogue. “I was so excited and I told my dad that I really wanted to do one of these.”
A month later, Hogue, who was already on her local swim team, participated in a sports festival for kids. It wasn’t long before Hogue was competing seriously in triathlon.
“My dad really stepped up,” she said. “He knew nothing about triathlon but researched and found all these training tools and became my training partner and coach.”
After about five years though, Hogue was a bit burned out and was looking for something new.
“Running has always been my favorite part of triathlon and I wanted to try it at the high school level,” said Hogue.
Unfortunately, in her first year out as a sophomore, Hogue fell off her horse, who then stepped on her leg and cut short her indoor season. Her bone was severely bruised, and while it took a few months to heal, she came back for her outdoor track season. But it wasn’t until her junior year that she began to shine. She credits her teammates with keeping the sport fun.
“My team is like my family,” she said. “We know how to work really hard for workouts and when it’s time to get serious, we are there. But we also know how to make it fun. We encourage each other and crack jokes all the time.”
After her track season, Hogue decided to run in the XTERRA Oak Mountain 20K just to say she had done it.
“I wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, I did a half-marathon,’” said Hogue. “But I didn’t take into account how difficult the trails would be. It was really hard.”
Nevertheless, Hogue went after Lesley Paterson, who led for most of the course.
“I could see Lesley through the trees on the first lap, and coming onto the road, I got fairly close to her. But then Paddy came out and she was gone,” said Hogue, referring to Paterson’s alter ego, Paddy McGinty.
Like Paterson, Hogue is interested in a career in sports psychology in college. Already, coaches are interested in this distance running phenom, and it would be understandable if Hogue felt pressure and anxiety from the attention. However, she remains calm, easy going, and confident about her future and all that is waiting for her.
“There’s always going to be the pressure of wanting to be better and beat the competition, but I’ve been able to balance that with the fact that I run to glorify God,” she said. “I use the talent I’m given. I don’t compare myself to anyone else because I know that I’m already enough.”