CHARLESTON — At first, Riley McInerney never wanted to be a runner. The son of an All-American from Eastern Illinois University, John McInerney, Riley had to be "forced" into running by his parents. Or at least they wanted him to give it a try.
As usual, parents' advice turned out to be right. McInerney found his passion out on the track and cross country courses and became one of the most decorated runners at Charleston.
"It paid off," McInerney said.
His passion then led him to his dream school. Not a Power 5 school or one far away from Charleston. It was the NCAA Division I school that was right in his backyard — Eastern.
After five seasons, McInerney is wrapping up a successful track and field and cross country career at EIU that concluded with his third straight NCAA West Regional on Friday night.
"It's been a great five years," McInerney said. "Great coaches, great teammates, great people. It's a dream come true. Just being to come to EIU and being able to have my name as part of its history is everything I could've imagined.
"I am just thankful for everyone along the way, especially my parents, who are so supportive. Dad has been on the coaching side, but my mom has done everything in the background that never gets seen. They go to every one of my meets. I love them and owe a lot to them."
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For the third straight season, McInerney qualified for the NCAA West Regional in the steeplechase. He just missed in his bid to advance to the NCAA National Championships, placing 16th with a time of 8:47.29 (the top 12 advance). The time set the EIU school record breaking the previous mark of 8:49.37 set by Jacob Stout in 2005.
Before coming to EIU, McInerney had never competed in the steeplechase — a 3,000-meter run that includes 28 barriers and seven jumps into a water pit.
"Only a few high school runners have done them in the summer," he said. "I knew I was a little taller and had some good legs for it, and the 3,000-meter distance is right in my area. Some kids come in and don't want to do it, some kids can't wait to try it. Luckily I was excited to try it, and it's worked out really well. I found my niche."
It wasn't exactly smooth sailing at first. The first steeplechase McInerney ran was his redshirt freshman season during at a meet in Carbondale, which turned out to be a "shock to his system."
"There were only four guys in the race and one of them was my teammate, Joe Calio," McInerney said. "Joe and the guy (from SIU) were really good runners, so I remember going out with them, and they just dropped me pretty hard.
"It was one of those baptisms by fire things. That first steeple you do is one of the hardest races just because it's so awkward because the pace isn't what you are used to and with the hurdling and the water pits, it wears on you a bit."
But that race also gave McInerney a taste of the event, and he wanted more.
"Once we cooled down after the race, I felt pretty good," McInerney said.
Since that first race, McInerney has turned into a decorated runner on the cross country and track team for EIU. In addition to the school record, he was named the EIU Senior Athlete of the Year in 2016-17 (he had a year left of eligibility for the outdoor season), and he was awarded the EIU Athletic Director's Award last year along with the OVC Scholar Athletes of the Year award.
"There's definitely a lot I didn't accomplish that I wish I could, but I've enjoyed my time," he said. "Being a pretty decorated high school athlete, I wanted to come up here and get my name on the record boards. Qualifying for regionals and nationals was something I knew I was capable of, and luckily I've been able to do that. I came in loving the sport and I wanted to represent the school well."
McInerney loves the sport so much, he wants to keep doing it competitively. The next step is running professionally and training for the 2024 Olympics. He's talked to a couple of semi-pro running groups in Colorado.
"(2024 is something that's on my mind and all of the coaches I've talked to, if I am going to try this, don't make it a one- or two-year experiment," McInerney said. "Four to six years of giving it your all and see if you can handle it.
"The more I continue to improve my times, I definitely will look to see if I can earn a sponsorship from a shoe company or for somewhere and make it last. I am willing to attempt it. It might blow up in my face in two years and not work out, but as long as I know I gave it my honest effort."
McInerney already has his degree in teaching and he is certified in health and driver's education. One of the places McInerney was looking at was Boulder, Colo., and he said his mother was already looking for jobs for him there. McInerney is keeping his options open.
"I don't know where it will take me. If I move out somewhere and stay there or if I come back, I love Charleston. I feel fine staying here," McInerney said.
McInerney has the same itch to coach as his dad. For the past few seasons, McInerney could be seen cheering on some runners for the area who he has helped at camps. McInerney did his student teaching this past fall at McHenry High School and helped coach the cross country team. He even recruited one of the runners to EIU.
"I've always worked the EIU running camp and I love that,"McInerney said. "I've talked to my dad about the college coaching world and how to get your name into that and making connections that way.
"Helping with high school coaching or working my way into college coaching world, I just love the sport, and it can have such a good impact on people. I've been lucky, I've had a lot of great coaches over the years, not just with running. My football coaches were some of the best I've ever had. It makes an impact on kids, and if that's something I can do, I would love to help out as best as I can."
Contact Justin Rust at (217) 238-6856. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinRust