Running: Matt McElroy near a transition

There are many races, and even workout sessions, that Matt McElroy has learned from. But there was one, back in December 2009 that sticks out and provided him with a great deal of confidence. And, he didn't even win.

McElroy, a former standout runner for Edison High, was competing in his final high school race for cross country. It was a big one: the Foot Locker National Championships at Balboa Park in San Diego.

Going in, he had heard all the stories and fascination about then-sophomore sensation Lukas Verzbicas.

McElroy's coaches told McElroy that it would be impossible to beat Verzbicas. That just drove McElroy to train harder.

"I trained a lot in the pool," said McElroy, who is in his final season at Northern Arizona. "I got second to Lukas in the national meet. Since then there's been this chip on my shoulder. This guy was one spot ahead of me at Foot Locker. It's motivated me. He went on to become one of the top athletes in triathlon."

McElroy now believes he too can become an elite triathlete. He's been training as a triathlete, and plans to immerse himself as a competitor when his final year is complete at NAU, he said.

At 22, he is concentrating on his final year with the Lumberjacks, yet he also knows there is not much for him as a pro runner after college.

He says Nike has a monopoly on sponsorships for runners and those opportunities are hard to attain with the Kenyans dominating distance running.

But triathlon offers a whole different set of opportunities. Plus, McElroy's talent as a runner gives him a great advantage. Cycling is not really a struggle for McElroy to thrive during competition and training. Swimming can prove difficult.

But McElroy is a natural when it comes to the ocean.

He has been surfing since he was 5 and loves the sport. He competed on the surf team at Edison. He looks back on those days with fondness, when he would catch waves in the morning and train or compete as a runner later in the day.

McElroy's talent caught the eye of Barb Lindquist, a pro triathlete who has competed in the Olympics. McElroy recently went to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. on her advice, McElroy said.

He also visited his hometown, Huntington Beach, during the summer and trained with Mike Collins, who also knows Lindquist well.

"He is just a phenomenal runner," Collins said. " What blew me away was how fast he picked up swimming. It's his weakest link of the three (running, cycling, swimming). But he has a natural feel for the water. Learning how to swim fast doesn't come easy. It seems especially challenging for a high talent runner. Not much upper body strength. I didn't have a lot of expectations for a month. But he's really come a long way in a short amount of time."

Collins coaches Novaquatics Masters swimmers and also runs his Multi Sports Orange County training program. He had also trained Julie Swail, an Olympian in water polo and triathlon.

Collins admits the 2016 Olympics doesn't seem like a realistic goal for McElroy as a triathlete. But the runner from H.B. does have the skills to contend to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

"It doesn't happen overnight," Collins says of becoming an Olympic triathlete. "I don't think he'll have enough time to qualify to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials. It's a tight timeline and they take so few athletes … I think he has a good shot in 2020. I think that's a realistic timeline for him to be shooting for."

Collins sees great potential in McElroy, who really wants to achieve his best at NAU before turning his attention toward triathlon.

"Once he can commit to triathlon, he has a real good shot of being one of the top American men out there," Collins says.

McElroy is eager no doubt. While in Orange County this summer, he competed in the Cove-athlon Series. He won the final race (1K swim, 5K run) Aug. 31 at Crystal Cove before leaving for Arizona.

It was another race that provided confidence for McElroy. It also gave him motivation to continue to train harder.

The 2016 Olympics aren't realistic? That doesn't mean he'll lessen his training any.

Most of his days consist of up to 3,000 meters of swimming, an hour of cycling and a 10-mile run. He enjoys training with the Lumberjacks and he loves NAU. He had started his college running career at Oklahoma State, where he says he became injury prone.

The training at Oklahoma State proved difficult for McElroy, he said, and took a toll on his body. Transferring ultimately made sense, even after running for the national championship Cowboys as a freshman.

But his situation actually improved at NAU. And now with this new goal and direction to become a pro triathlete, he is in a good spot.

McElroy also has the support of his girlfriend/high school sweetheart, Hillary Hayes, also a standout runner, who competes as a pro in Arizona, where she also works.

"She's super supportive," McElroy said. "She goes swimming with me and will bike next to me. We also run together. It's just great to have her around."

Hayes will also be supportive of McElroy while he competes in his final year with the Lumberjacks. They believe they'll be in contention for the national title, led by McElroy, who won the Big Sky individual championship and earned All-American honors last year.

As a team, NAU finished second in the national championship meet. This year, the Lumberjacks want to win it all.

"The biggest thing is winning a team national title," McElroy said. "We will be up there, top three in the nation. Last year we were runner-up. This year is a whole new motivation not only for me but for the whole team."

McElroy says he wants to finish in the top 10 as an individual and then during the outdoor track season he wants to be an All-American in the 10,000 meters.

Then it will be time to turn his attention to triathlon. Maybe the Olympics.

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