NCAA National Cross Country Championships Set For Saturday

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Thanks to a dietary change and a push from a coach, Boise State junior Emma Bates has transformed from a good cross country runner to an elite one.

Bates, the 2013 Mountain West Women’s Student-Athlete of the Year, has won four of the five events she’s entered this season, including the NCAA Pre-National Invitational, the 2013 Mountain West Cross Country Championship and last week’s NCAA West Regional.

The latter victory earned her the USTFCCCA West Region Athlete of the Year award as she blazed through the six-kilometer course in 19:11, which was nearly a minute faster than the 20:09 time she posted at Pre-Nationals, and more than 90 seconds ahead of her 20:48 time at the MW Championship.  

She will look to cap off her stellar season with a strong showing at Saturday’s NCAA National Cross Country Championships, hosted by Indiana State University at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course at the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center in Terra Haute, Ind. The women’s 6K race starts at 11:15 a.m. MT/10:15 a.m. PT, while the men’s 10K race starts at 10 a.m. MT/9 a.m. PT. You can watch both races live here:

“I am just trying to stay healthy, consistent and recover from regionals,” said Bates earlier in the week of her preparation for nationals. “I’ll stay on top of eating and my sleep. My goal is to get in the race early and be contending for the win. Pushing for the top spot is what I need to do.”

Bates’ first two seasons competing for the Broncos were hampered by her yet-to-be-discovered gluten intolerance. Once Bates learned of her dietary restrictions, she changed her diet, first eliminating gluten completely and then eventually becoming a vegetarian.

“I noticed an immediate difference,” said Bates, who did not compete in cross country in 2012. “Once I stopped eating gluten, I had more energy. I couldn’t get through some runs before, or would feel sick when I ran and now I feel cleaner and can get through runs easier.”

Those training runs have also been eased by Bates increasing her mileage in track and field. Originally, Bates thought she’d just be a 5000 Meters runner, but a coach at Boise State encouraged her to give 10,000 meters a go.

“I wasn’t thrilled about the move at first,” Bates admits. “But he was smart and my times definitely improved. I upped my mileage quite because of the 10K training and getting my fitness level up. That’s been the biggest aspect in my cross country training.”

The winner of the 2012 and 2013 MW Indoor Track and Field Championships 3000 Meters, the 2013 MW Outdoor Track and Field Championships 10,000 Meters and 2012 MW Outdoor Track and Field Championships 5000 Meters, Bates has established herself as one of the nation’s top runners.

“I never want to be satisfied,” said Bates, who is the first Boise State women’s runner to qualify for nationals since 1999. “I always want to shoot for higher goals.”

One of those goals could be realized Saturday, but Bates knows that the competition for medalist honors will be strong. Dartmouth senior Abbey D’Agostino enters the race as the heavy favorite, having finished third in 2011 and second in 2012 at nationals. A three-time Northeast Region Athlete of the Year, D’Agostino has won all five events she’s entered in 2013. She won the 5000 Meters at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, in addition to the 3000 and 5000 Meters at the 2013 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.

“The regional was some tough competition, with pre-nationals as well,” Bates said. “But, either race didn’t have Abbey there, the clear favorite. (On Saturday), I will wait for her to make her move and try and make it to the finish line with her.”

Bates will not be the only Boise State representative to run in Terra Haute on Saturday, as Jeff Howard earned an at-large bid to the national meet on the men’s side, thanks to a seventh-place finish at the West Regional. Wyoming’s Garrett Zans qualified via an at-large bid out of the Mountain Region with a 14th-place finish.

Four teams from the MW will also compete at the National Championships. New Mexico’s women’s team (ranked No. 11) qualified for its sixth-straight NCAA meet with a second-place finish at last week’s Mountain Regional, while the No. 6 men will compete for the fifth-straight year after receiving an at-large bid, thanks to a third-place finish in a Mountain Regional that featured six teams ranked in the USTFCCCA National Coaches’ Poll. New Mexico swept its fifth-straight MW Championships on Nov. 1; the women have now won the MW Championship six years-in-a-row.

“I think it’s something we are really proud of,” New Mexico senior Luke Caldwell said. “When you are in the moment, you expect it, you don’t feel like you’ve achieved anything, but when you step back, you realize there are not many teams that have had its men and women make it to nationals five straight years.”

Air Force and Colorado State’s men’s teams, ranked No. 24 and No. 27, respectively, in the latest polls, also received at-large bids. The Falcons finished fifth at the Mountain Regional, with the Rams one spot back in sixth.

Caldwell, the 2013 MW Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field Student-Athlete of the Year, said that the Lobo men are confident as they head into nationals, based on their recent performances.

“We’ve got an idea of what we’re capable of,” said Caldwell, who finished second to Air Force’s Isaiah Bragg at the 2013 MW Championship, and was sixth at last week’s Mountain Regional. “We’re one of those teams that if everyone runs well, we are capable of keeping up with anyone. There are some strong teams, but they don’t necessarily have a strong six runners, so anything can happen. We’ll look to get our one-through-five as far down as possible, and then we can be in that three-through-six range in the standings if we all run well.”

Even with the strong field at regionals, New Mexico had five runners place in the Top-25 (Caldwell, sixth; Adam Bitchell, eighth; Pat Zacharias, 17th; Sean Stam, 23rd and Elmar Engholm, 25th).

“It took a few races to get everyone together at the same time, but we’re feeling really good and counting on carrying that momentum with us,” Caldwell said.

Also looking to carry momentum with her into nationals is New Mexico junior Sammy Silva. Silva has strung together two quality races in November, as she finished second at the MW Championship, then won last week’s Mountain Regional in 20:29.3, on her way to being named the 2013 Mountain Region Athlete of the Year.

“It’s definitely exciting,” Silva said. “Team-wise, I have very high hopes. Our regional performance might’ve been off from what we’re capable of. Terra Haute is all that matters and we’ll be ready for that.”

As for how she will do personally, Silva said she won’t spend too much time worrying about that.

“I am probably not going to think about the race until race day,” said Silva, a transfer from Harvard University. “I don’t want to dwell on projections or looking at stats. It works for some people but for me, I’d rather not know and get out there and get good advice from Joe (Franklin) and do that.”

No matter what happens on Saturday, Silva is happy that she was able to contribute to the New Mexico cross country legacy with her Mountain Regional victory and subsequent Athlete of the Year award.

“It means a lot to contribute this to the program,” Silva said. “The UNM program here has such a strong legacy. I am glad I could contribute my part to it."