RCW: Team Melgares: A family's running tradition
Family traditions often include Sunday dinners, board games or movies nights; but for the Melgares family, tradition lies in one thing: running. Junior Chris Melgares, sophomore Michael Melgares, and their parents, Pat and Susan, have all competed in cross country and track at the collegiate level, and continue to build upon the family’s legacy that centers around spikes, cross country trails and track ovals.
Chris and Michael are both on the Kansas men’s cross country team. Their father, Pat, ran at Adams State University and their mother, Susan, competed for Emporia State University. Besides sharing the bond of being a collegiate athlete, Pat and Susan have also spent many years coaching.
Pat organized the Manhattan (Kansas) Cross Country Club, which gives kids around the community an opportunity to run together and compete in a few races throughout the year. The main goal of the club is to get kids out of the house, be active and have fun with some friends.
While Chris and Michael got an early start running for their dad’s club from elementary through middle school, it wasn’t always cross country all the time. Both of them played various sports such as basketball, football, golf and baseball throughout their youth.
“Chris and I played a lot of other sports growing up,” Michael said. “But we found that we loved running the most, so we ended up putting most of our time and effort into it.”
Chris, Michael and Pat scaled Manitou Incline in Colorado.
Parent pressure is something many children experience, so one might think that as avid runners themselves, Pat and Susan may have pushed their sons into the sport. However, that was not the case.
“They’ve always been really good about letting us come into running on our own terms,” Chris said. “They never forced us to run and they let us set our own goals as opposed to setting our goals for us; they’ve just been really encouraging.”
It was surprisingly easy for Pat and Susan to stay neutral and let their children decide for themselves which sports and activities to pursue.
“From our perspective, we had a chance to do sports that we enjoyed and so we want that for our kids,” Susan said. “As a parent, you hope your kids can find something that they can be successful at that they love, and we always told them, ‘We’ll be excited for you no matter what it is.’ So it’s fun to support them no matter what they’re doing, but this has made it really special since they chose running.”
After middle school, they graduated from their dad’s Manhattan Cross Country Club. It was then time to compete for Manhattan High School, where Susan is the head cross country coach. Although both of their parents have experience with the sport, their coaching styles differ.
Chris and his mother Susan
“My mom is a lot more intense. She’s a very competitive woman,” Chris said with a smirk. “My dad is a lot more laid-back, an easygoing guy. My mom is the type of person that wants you to step on someone’s throat if you can when you’re running, whereas my dad is like, ‘Have fun, get what you can out of it, enjoy what you’re doing.'”
Regardless of how intense she was as a coach, the Melgares’ family dynamic never suffered.
“We got along pretty well,” Michael recalled. “For some people it might cause tension (having a parent as your coach), but for us I feel like it was a healthy relationship. Both my mom and dad did a good job of keeping the coaching side separate from the parenting side.”
The Melgares family was successful at balancing their roles between cross country and their personal lives, but Susan admits it was sometimes hard to put her motherly instincts aside and just be a coach.
“Of course my heart is out there for all of the kids I coach, but you know as a parent, it just takes it to another level,” she confessed. “It increases the nerves a little bit on my part, but it also adds to the enjoyment when you see them succeed and reach their goals.”
Due to the objectivity of cross country, it made it fairly easy to avoid being accused of playing favorites or treating anyone unfairly.
“I think it’s easier in running than it would be in a more subjective sport,” Susan explained. “With cross country, your times and your places help decide the varsity team and it’s your performance that speaks for itself, so that helps keep the parent part out of it.”
In addition to not letting cross country negatively affect their relationship with their parents, Michael and Chris also did not let the sport come between them. It is natural to have a sibling rivalry, but even throughout competition, the Melgares brothers have remained close.
“In high school I definitely struggled with thinking I had to be a step ahead of him every time we ran and hoping he wouldn’t break my records,” Chris admitted. “But at the same time, he’s my brother and it’s a team sport. It’s nice having him on the team because I’m confident all the time that he’s going to take care of business and go out there and run as hard as he can. Michael always gives it all he’s got, so it’s one less guy I have to worry about because he’s usually consistent.”
As the younger brother, Michael has always had to follow in Chris’ footsteps, but he has recently started to catch up to him.
“We do joke with each other sometimes about running,” Michael confessed. “Not too much though because 99 percent of the time he’s beaten me, so there’s not as much back-and-forth, but I think we’re getting to a point where it is going to be him and I more together. As I start to get up closer to him, we can talk a little bit more trash.”
Despite cross country being such a big part of their lives starting at an early age, neither Chris nor Michael grew up knowing that they would pursue running at the collegiate level.
“It wasn’t until I made the decision to stop playing baseball (after freshman year), and instead focus on just cross country and track that I knew I wanted to run collegiately,” Chris reflected. “Growing up, I was like, ‘I’m going to be a pitcher in college. That was my goal.’ Having college athletes as parents definitely made my expectations higher, not that they pressured me to be an athlete, but that’s just the identity that I took with my family.”
Michael, on the other hand, did not have collegiate aspirations until halfway through his junior year. After overcoming self-doubt about his ability to compete at the Division I level, his passion for cross country grew even more and made him realize he wasn’t ready to be done running.
“Going into my junior year, I didn’t think I was going to run in college,” Michael said. “I thought it was something I would just give up. I might run on my own, but I wasn’t going to run competitively. It was partially a confidence thing because I didn’t know if I would actually be able to run at the next level, but eventually I gained more confidence in myself and realized that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Once I discovered I would have the ability to, I knew (a collegiate career) was the path for me, so I followed it.”
Upon deciding to pursue cross country in college, the Melgares brothers had to decide which school to attend. As natives of enemy territory (a.k.a. Kansas State country) it might seem unusual that both Michael and Chris chose to become Jayhawks.
“Our family was always an anomaly in Manhattan because we were the lone KU fans there,” Michael said. “We grew up as KU fans.”
However, just because they were fans doesn’t mean they were prematurely set on making Lawrence their collegiate destination. For Chris, the two biggest deciding factors were the team and the coaches’ expectations.
“I always thought it would be cool to go to KU,” Chris said. “But I also wanted to compare different running programs. I looked at other schools in the Midwest and I just couldn’t see winning on a national or even regional level. I’m pretty competitive, just like my mom, and I didn’t want to go to a school where I didn’t feel like we would have a shot to compete at any meet we went to. When you talk to Coach Whittlesey and Coach Redwine here they say, ‘We want to win on the national level.’ I think it’s really important if you’re going to reach your highest potential that you’re aiming for the top.”
Likewise, Michael’s decision to join the Jayhawk men’s cross country team also revolved around the team and coaches.
The Melgares brothers with Billy Mills.
“Going into the recruiting process, I actually wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to come here, partially because Chris was here and I kind of wanted to do my own thing at that point,” the younger Melgares said. “But after I went on my visit, I was completely sold on KU. I knew it was the right place for me and I knew that I felt more at home here than I did anywhere else, even in Manhattan, ironically. I knew I loved the team and coaches, so it was the perfect fit for me. Everybody is here to win and we’re all going to help each other become the best runners that we can be.”
Even though Chris, who is serving as a team captain this year, expected cross country in college to be more advanced than high school, he underestimated just how much tougher it would be.
“I came in expecting it to be harder (than high school), but I didn’t know the nature of how hard it would be. It’s really been a huge progression of consistent commitment and changing my lifestyle to be as good as I can be,” Chris said. “You’re always thinking about nutrition, training and recovery, whereas in high school I would only try to eat semi-healthy. When you’re constantly prioritizing running, that’s when you’re going to see success.”
On top of trying to navigate the transition from high school to college as a freshman last year, Michael also faced challenges with keeping his body healthy. Injuries bothered him for five months out of the season last year – something he had never dealt with before.
“There were a lot of obstacles last year,” Michael said. “It was really tough because I didn’t expect that (getting injured) and it really took me for a loop. I couldn’t run for four weeks straight, which was the longest I’d ever gone without running in my life. The level of intensity is so much higher in college and there are so many more things you need to take care of just from a mechanical, treatment and rehab perspective.”
Overcoming those hurdles has helped prepare Michael for his sophomore year. He now feels better than ever and is ready to conquer the season.
“Going through that made me a lot stronger and I’ve definitely grown a lot more as a runner and as a person,” Michael said. “This year I think there’s nothing I won’t be able to handle.”
One of the million-dollar questions that is often asked of cross country athletes is how they can enjoy so much running. Typically, athletes of other sports agree that conditioning is one of their least favorite parts, so what makes someone love cross country?
“Honestly, you hate it, but you love it,” Chris acknowledged. “If it was just an individual sport, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s definitely the teammates that make it doable. I feel like when you go out and spend hours on the roads with people, it’s just a crazy, indescribable bond you form.”
It also helps that while cross country is a team sport, each individual is in control of his or her own performance.
“You can still have a good day regardless of what anyone around you does,” Chris said. “Not that you aren’t worried about the team, but you can have a good race even if other guys don’t, so you can still find a positive with it.”
Michael also appreciates the team aspect of the sport, but his love of cross country stems from more of a physical standpoint. Looking at the big picture, he is grateful for the opportunity to be able to run.
“It’s the feeling you get afterwards,” Michael said. “During, it’s never really comfortable. But there’s something about just going out and running for an hour or more with your teammates, who are your best friends. There’s a sense of fulfillment from that, knowing you’re testing your body to its limits pretty much every day.”
It’s not common for a family to have such a strong tradition of running. Following in the footsteps of successful parents could make some children feel more pressure when they compete, but sharing the same passion has its perks.
“I have other friends who are runners and a lot of times you’ll hear them speaking running lingo to their family, and their family just has no idea. They’ll say, ‘I ran a 16-minute 5K,’ and their family is not going to know if that’s good or bad,” Chris explained. “But I can go tell my mom, ‘I just ran a tempo run or did a fartlek run and it was a pretty good workout,’ and lots of families aren’t going to have any clue what I just meant. But my family understands that and I think that’s really awesome. I don’t have to bottle up my running, I can talk about it and ask my parents for advice.”
The Melgares family also has fun comparing times and exchanging stories with each other.
“Back in my dad’s college days, they had some really good teams, so it’s cool to hear about the types of teams that he had and see how that compares to now,” Michael said. “My mom also has tons of stories from being both an athlete and a coach, so it’s a neat tradition that we have going.”
For Susan, it has been a little bit of an adjustment to watch her sons run as solely a parent and not their coach anymore.
“It’s so fun to go watch them run. I love that you can just be there as a parent,” she said. “In a way that’s fun, but in a way that’s a challenge to take a step back and not be the coach and just be there for support.”
Sometimes the fact that all three of their kids have continued the cross country tradition still seems surreal to Pat and Susan.
“I just can’t hardly believe the blessing of it,” Susan said. “I really feel lucky to share this experience. As a parent, I’m always excited about whatever they do, but it really is unbelievable when you think back at how amazing it is.”
While they want to see their sons excel in the sport, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any consequences for surpassing their personal-best times. Chris learned that the hard way after running a 10K in 29:56, beating his dad’s 10K record (29:59) from college.
Chris poses with the family after the 10K at the Big 12 Championship.
“This past spring after I broke my dad’s 10K PR, I had to take him out to dinner,” Chris laughed. “I don’t like the logic there. I think I was owed the dinner by him, but I came through and went ahead and bought it for him.”
Chris might not have understood the reasoning behind having to buy his dad dinner (instead of it being the other way around) but Susan came to her husband’s defense and confirmed there was a rational reason behind it.
“It was something we read out of a Native American book, that if somebody breaks your record then you should be gracious to that person because he or she set the bar so high and that helped you to reach your goal,” Susan clarified. “So it would be your honor, and then you pay them back by taking them out.”
With the 2016 cross country season already underway, the Melgares brothers are looking forward to adding another year of history to their family’s tradition. And perhaps another complimentary dinner or two paid for by Chris and Michael.