Moakler's transition from soccer to running helped lead him to Morehead State
Growing up in the Great White North, Justin Moakler recalls that when he was in elementary school, he was one of the few kids who didn't play hockey. In his hometown of Brampton, Ontario, Canada - about a 40-minute drive from Toronto - young Moakler was interested more in soccer.
In the fall of his freshman year at Brampton Centennial High School, he tried volleyball.
Then, by chance, his athletic endeavors took a turn that would eventually lead him to Morehead State University, where he now captains the men's cross country team.
"I was in the changing room and I saw a little guy I knew from elementary school," Moakler said. "He said I should come out (for cross country) because I was pretty good endurance-wise. So I said, 'yeah, sure, I'll come out. Just tell the coach I'll come out.'
"Eventually, a week goes by and I actually go to the cross country team practice, and we just go for our normal run. And my high school coach at that time actually recognized the potential I had within the sport. So he talked to me seriously and I contemplated about running, and I slowly transitioned ... into running at that point."
He ran 1,500 and 3,000 meters as a high school track freshman, then switched to the 800 and 1,500 for the rest of his high school days. He wound up winning nine regional championships and becoming a five-time regional runner-up in cross country and track.
When the time came to think about college, Moakler went through a recruiting web site - NCSA - to connect with American schools and coaches. He posted his times, grade-point average, a list of accolades and a video of himself in action.
Online, he was searching for schools "in the upper right quadrant of the United States; I didn't want to go too far away from home."
When he stumbled across Morehead, Moakler was intrigued. He made contact via email, then by phone and finally came on a visit.
"Being from the city, I really fell in love with the town of Morehead itself," he said. "Because, back home, I always run on sidewalks and stuff, in the roads. So it's much nicer being down here, running on all the trails in the Daniel Boone National Forest. I really enjoyed that. And I really loved the team atmosphere."
Moakler became part of the first class recruited by Stephen Picucci, who is now in his fourth year as coach of the Eagles.
"He's been an integral part of what we've done since he walked on this campus," Picucci said.
As an MSU freshman, Moakler recorded a season-best 25 minutes, 36.30 seconds for 8,000 meters at the NCAA Pre-Nationals. Last year, as a sophomore, his 8K time dropped to 24:48.43, the seventh-best time in school history. And he ran the second-fastest 10K ever by an Eagle, 30:14.90, at the NCAA Southeast Regional. He also earned first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors, placing sixth overall.
He's expecting even better things this season.
In the recent Eagle Opener, he placed second on the team and eighth overall with a 5K time of 15:30.8, one spot behind fellow Canadian Farah Abdulkarim.
The second test of the season will come Friday, Sept. 15, at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational.
"I strongly feel I am farther along the line than I was last year," Moakler said. "Coach, he's bumped me up a little more mileage than I was last year, so I'm totally progressing. And, on all the workouts we do, I feel a lot stronger than I did last year."
Moakler says he is running about 80 miles a week. If that seems like a lot, consider the pace. It's not just long, slow distance.
One recent practice, he and Abdulkarim were basically side-by-side for twenty-eight 400-meter runs - the distance of one lap around an outdoor track. The first eight were to be run at 72-to-74-second pace, the next eight at 70-to-72. Then came four times at 68-to-70, with a final four paced at 65 seconds.
"For each one, we were hitting roughly one second below what we should be doing," Moakler said. "For our last one, we hit a 59. So we had more in the tank. We weren't exhausted."
And, remember, Moakler is a middle-distance runner in track, his best distances being 800 and 1,500 meters. So how does he manage to excel at longer distances in the fall?
"He's a competitive person. He just hates to lose at anything," Picucci said. "He one of those guys that he accepts that (long-distance) may not be his forte. But, for him, it doesn't matter. He wants to be good at cross country as well."
His middle-distance speed is a confidence builder near the end of a cross country race. When a close finish is imminent, Moakler believes he has the speed to outkick most opponents.
"In my head, I tell myself that. And I know I have the ability to," he said. "I know Coach trains me well, so we can have that extra kick at the end. So I always tell myself 'I can't let these guys pass me,' and that 'I can catch the guys ahead of me.'"
Moakler says he wants to improve on last year's finishes in the championship meets. He took sixth in the OVC and 29th in the NCAA Southeast Regional. He wants a top-five OVC finish this time, and a top-20 regional spot.
"In our conference, everybody and their brother seems to be going to get Kenyans and East Africans, so you never know who's going to show up," Picucci said. "But it's not really going to change our goal, and that's to be first-team all-conference again."
Moakler wants to reach one other goal, too.
"Team-wise, we want to win the OVC," he said. "We don't have a lower goal than that. We believe we have the ability to. We just have to show up on race day."