“Emma Bates’s Forest Fire”

By Mitch Kastoff, @mtchkstff
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved.
September 24, 2014

BOISE, IDAHO — The day after coasting to a comfortable victory at the Utah Open, Emma Bates and her Boise State teammates made their way up to Bogus Basin Mountain for their Sunday long run. Located 16 miles northeast from campus, the team carefully drove up the mountain’s switchbacks to its main base, which sits at 6,150 feet.

It’s here that Bates is in her environment. Not the altitude or running per se, but outdoors in the mountains. Her favorite activity –beside running– is backpacking. One of her most beloved spots is two and a half hours away from Boise at the Sawtooth Mountains.

“You can go running for 20 miles out there and not see a single person,” she said in an interview. “It’s full of amazing views.”

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The Sawtooth Mountains made headlines last year. In a 12-mile area of the region, a forest fire ravaged the area for 24 days. Although it burned 114,900 acres and caused more than $25 million in damage, the fire had a positive impact on the environment. It’s called a disturbance-dependent ecosystem.

There were, of course, harmful effects, but the region eventually recovered from the natural disaster. Despite its negative connotation, forest fires are catalysts for growth. Sometimes, growth can only occur through loss.

Bates isn’t your typical pre-season favorite. Yes, she’s the highest returnee from last year’s NCAA Cross Country Championship where she finished runner-up, and, yes, she’s coming off having won the NCAA 10,000-meter title just a few months ago. But it’s not so simple.

The easiest way to describe Bates is to explain her first interaction with Boise State Head Coach Corey Ihmels. When he and Bates first met, Ihmels asked Bates what she wanted to accomplish that upcoming year.

“She was kind of being nice about it and not saying much,” recalls Ihmels. “Finally, I said, ‘I think you can win nationals.’ She just said, ‘OK.’ I don’t think anybody had ever told her that.”

That meeting let Bates realize one of her fundamental flaws: she belonged with the nation’s best. It’s like she never perceived herself as a champion, and now had to unlearn years of lessons taught by narrow loses.

“I never even had the thought because it was never put into me that I could win,” she says.

A few months later at the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships, Bates pulled up alongside Dartmouth’s Abbey D’Agostino with 1500 meters to go, vying for a national title. D’Agostino would pull away late and Bates would finish runner-up. But even in her first-ever appearance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, the new mentality had already suffused in Bates’s mind.

“I definitely thought I could beat her,” Bates recalled. “But then, she started picking it up and there was that twinge of doubt. When you have that kind of moment, it’s over.”

Though she was only one, albeit seemingly unreachable, spot away from capturing her first NCAA title, this race was another definitive Bates performance. She says that she put herself in position to compete, but not in position to win. This wasn’t the first time this would happen, nor would it be the last.

Back to her redshirt sophomore season, Bates qualified for the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships at 10,000m. She stunned the field and finished third in 33:37.13. Wichita State’s Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton finished second and Iowa State’s Betsy Saina, who at the time was being coached by Ihmels, took the win.

“I could have been up with Betsy [Saina] and Aliphine [Tuliamuk-Bolton], but I didn’t have that mentality. I was shooting for top ten. I didn’t think I could be top five, or even top three.”

So after last fall, one could assume, as one does with assumptions, that finishing runner-up at nationals would instill a new sense of confidence in Bates. But assumptions don’t necessarily work that way.

“I have a lack of confidence,” she says. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot better about it, but I think that’s big for me: the mentality of knowing that I can put myself in position to win.”

Her next test of will was at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Championships. Bates was slated to run both the 5000m and then the next day, compete in the 3000m.

In the 5K Bates was amongst the leaders with 400-meters to go, looking perhaps the smoothest of the medal contenders. But 200 meters later, D’Agostino injected a clinical surge, and broke the field. Bates would finish fourth in 16:25.66.

The next night in the 3000, Bates led early, but would lose contact with the leaders with 600 meters to go. She finished fourth in 9:17.37.

“Looking back, I’m really mad at myself about how I went into both of those races. I was initially OK with it, but then I started talking to Ihmels, and told me that I was better than that.”

“She was fourth and fourth, which was awesome, but she’s capable of more,” Ihmels says. “She’s doesn’t like hearing me saying this, but you get to a point where you’re tired of getting beat all the time.”

If you keep thinking a certain way, eventually, it becomes a self-evident truth. Bates was a contender, but never a champion. That had become her cruel narrative that she was doomed to repeat.

To change that, she had to start from scratch. She just needed to let the forest burn so that new life can grow in its place.

“I’ve learned a lot from that experience,” she reveals. “I think it was really important for me to be in that position and have that lack of confidence and mentality. I think that was good for me.”

A year’s worth of maturation culminated at the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Championships. Last spring, Bates and University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Elinor Kirk came off the final curve shoulder to shoulder in the 10,000m final. With 100 meters to go, Bates, on the inside and leading, could see Kirk swing wide and start to inch past her. You thought you knew how this race would end.

But Bates found a hidden gear, rallied on the inside, came back on Kirk, and passed her to take the win in 32:32.35, the second-fastest winning time in NCAA history.

“It’s hard to say what exactly went through my mind or what got me to the finish line,” she says. “When I crossed the line, everything came into perspective. It was a flood of emotions.”

When he searches for an explanation for her win, Ihmels again says that Bates was tired. But this time, it wasn’t from losing.

“She’s tired of never being satisfied. She’s capable of winning more than she thinks.  And when you get a taste of winning an NCAA title, you want to do it again,” he adds.

Building off her breakthrough performance, Bates heads into this cross country season as an entirely different competitor. It took a whole year to get her to think she could win. Now she knows she can.

“If there is somebody in front of me this year, I don’t think I’ll be the type of person to settle for second,” Bates says. “I’m not that type of person anymore. I’m not a bridesmaid, I’m going to be a bride again.

“I’m not going to lose again.”

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