BUTTE, M.T. — When Riley Crissman left to pursue her master’s degree at Montana Technological University, she thought she was leaving her track & field career in Pennsylvania.
Crissman, a 2016 graduate of Bradford Area High School, had enjoyed three successful years at Penn State Behrend before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed her senior season. Crissman left PSUB with school records in the indoor 3000-meter run (10:27), indoor 5K (18:14) and outdoor 3000-meter run (10:21).
Upon arriving in Butte, Montana, the Rew native discovered a first-year program that revived her career.
“I was originally looking for a job out here, but it was hard to find one during (the pandemic),” Crissman said.
She discovered Montana Tech’s new Master’s in Ecological Restoration program, which the university was set to offer for the first time.
“The program was brand new. Last year was the first year that they offered it,” Crissman said. “I kind of just applied on a whim, and my advisor and I just kind of clicked.”
Coincidentally, Montana Tech offered women’s track & field for the first time in 2020-21. Upon learning this, Crissman wanted to assist the university’s fledgling program in some capacity. The decision to run competitively, however, came after she had already settled.
“I had reached out to the coach because I just wanted to be involved with the team, as a graduate assistant or something,” Crissman said. “I just wanted to meet other people that really liked to run.”
With a season of use-it-or-lose-it eligibility remaining, Crissman decided to join the team. And, in doing so, she made the most of her final season.
Crissman qualified and competed at the women’s National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Outdoor Track and Field Championships, held from May 26-28. She and teammate Becca Richtman represented Montana Tech at Mickey Miller Blackwell Stadium in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Crissman ran the 10,000-meter event in a school record time of 36:55.98, good enough for 10th overall.
Though apprehensive about how an altitude adjustment would impact her performance, Crissman “couldn’t have asked for a better race.”
Butte’s elevation (5,538 feet) contrasts that of Gulf Shores (seven feet), a factor that impacts a runner’s performance. The Alabama weather would contradict Montana’s, as well.
“We were kind of nervous going into it because we’re from Montana and it’s cold here,” Crissman said. “It actually snowed a few times the week before (the race), but we were trying to acclimate to the heat in Alabama, training with three shirts on and pants inside.”
Crissman raced at 9:45 p.m., providing a cool running atmosphere that she said made the race more enjoyable.
“A lot of times, it’s hard to find a really competitive 10K,” Crissman said. “This one was really nice because I had a lot of girls to work off of the whole race. I was never alone out there.”
Crissman had eyed a top-eight finish, which would have given her All-American status. She and her teammates had researched previous race results at the competition, estimating the time that she would need to run to achieve that goal.
What they found was a quick field in 2021, however, as Crissman’s 10th-place finish came in 30 less seconds than the time she had projected would be required for a top-eight spot.
This, as Crissman pointed out, could have been a side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many runners and other athletes could focus solely on training. Still, the race provided an opportunity that the pandemic had originally taken away.
“I just feel like I have closure now,” Crissman said. “I don’t really have plans to stop running. I definitely feel like I had a very satisfying last season. (Senior year) was devastating.”
Crissman plans to likely stay in Western Montana after she completes her two-year graduate program, and for reasons other than running.
“Moving out here has kind of focused my interests,” Crissman said. “When I lived in Pennsylvania, I didn’t know exactly what I was interested in. Plants and revegetation and whatnot, but out here, there’s a real focus on revegetation of invasive species, specifically invasive grasses.”
Butte’s mountainous backdrop overlooks a high desert climate, which features abundant rangeland that looks quite different from Western Pennsylvania’s hills. That environment has created newfound opportunities for Crissman that pair with not only her graduate program, but her undergraduate degree in environmental science.
“Right now, my advisor and I are doing a lot of work with invasive grasses,” Crissman said. “Rangeland here is everything. I’m pretty interested in rangeland conservation now, and that would never have happened if I was in Pennsylvania.”
While track & field may not have brought Crissman to Montana, she’s grateful that it found her once she arrived.
“I’ve met so many people through track that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Crissman said. “Not just other people on the team, but the whole Butte running community is so unique, and I feel like I wouldn’t have met as many people without being on the team.”
She wouldn’t have met Montana Tech track & field head coach Zach Kughn, to, in part, whose training methods she attributed to her success. And, she may not have re-discovered her love for distance running.
“Before this season, I thought I’d never run the 10K after I graduated,” Crissman said. “I’d never do a road 10K; that’s ridiculous. Now, I could run so many more 10Ks. There’s like no limit to how many 10Ks I could do.”