(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
Terre Haute, IN, November 22, 2013 -- Boise State's Emma Bates sat in the bar area of a downtown hotel here, her old and badly scratched mobile phone on the table in front of her. Sitting with her coach of just three months, Corey Ihmels, she told a reporter that her out-of-date phone was a constant source of amusement for her Bronco teammates.
"On the team they call me 'Granola,'" said Bates, the recently crowned NCAA West Region cross country champion and a contender for the individual title at tomorrow's NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships here.
Bates, 21, a junior from Elk River, MN, is enjoying the best running of her bumpy collegiate career which has been hampered by both illness and injury. Coming off of a third place finish in the 10,000m at last June's NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships, Bates has been among the top collegians during this year's fall cross country season. In five starts, she has recorded four victories, including the all-important Pre-Nationals meet held here last month where she prevailed on the same LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course she will run on tomorrow.
"I didn't think this season would go this well," Bates told Race Results Weekly. "I hoped for the best, but you never know how it's going to go. I trained really hard during the summer. I wanted to make the national meet but I didn't know I'd be a solid competitor at the national."
The "Granola" moniker probably stuck also because of Bates's diet. She's a vegetarian by choice, but like Paula Radcliffe and Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, she suffers from celiac disease, a serious digestive disease, and has to eat a gluten-free diet to stay healthy. Her college career was nearly derailed by the condition from the start.
"Freshman year I couldn't get through a single run without having to go to the bathroom," said Bates, who explained that she eats very carefully and even makes her own bread. "Every time I ate my stomach hurt so bad, I was on the ground in the fetal position every day and my stomach didn't know what was going on. So, I started talking to my family about it and they were like, we know a few people who have gluten intolerance, so let's try you not eating anything with gluten. So, I just went on the diet for like two weeks and I felt immediately better."
But her troubles weren't quite over. Plantar fasciitis sidelined her for last year's cross country season, but that problem cleared up, opening the way for solid track seasons in 2013, both indoors and out. She got her 5000m time down to 15:50.78 (indoors) and her 10,000m time to 33:37.13, a mark she achieved during last year's NCAA Championships. That race convinced Bates, who said she was often short on confidence, that she could now think of herself as a national class athlete, something that Ihmels got her to focus on from the beginning of their association.
"I can't remember the exact conversation, but I remember asking you, 'How good do you think you can be?'" Ihmels recalled asking Bates last September during a meeting at his office. After Bates hesitated and began mumbling her answer, Ihmels cut her off. "'I think you can win nationals,'" he recalled saying, "not knowing if she could or not yet. She had the potential to do that, I think. From that point forward, I said, 'All right, let's get to work.'"
Under Ihmels--who coached for 11 years at Iowa State and shepherded the careers of Lisa Uhl and Betsy Saina-- Bates's confidence has risen.
"He's just straightforward, you're going to win," Bates said, looking at her coach. "That's really nice to have somebody with that kind of belief in me. It really helps me to believe in myself."
She continued, "Winning all these races I've won so far, it's a huge confidence boost. I owe a lot to him for that."
For tomorrow's race, Bates will face a strong field, including Dartmouth's Abbey D'Agostino, Kentucky's Cally Macumber, Duke's Juliet Bottorff, and Providence's Emily Sisson. The rain-soaked ground is expected to freeze tonight, and race-time temperatures will hover near the freezing mark. Bates, who endured Northern Minnesota winters as a child, thinks the tough conditions could play to her advantage.
"I think I can run in anything," Bates said. "Everyone keeps saying that mud is the equalizer, and I think that. It just comes down to who's tough enough, really."
In order to run her best, Bates said she likes to be as relaxed as possible before her races, and tries not to get too amped up. Here in Terre Haute, she's still wrapping her head around the fact that she's a favorite for the podium, something she could hardly imagine a year ago.
"To get in here this weekend, I just want to have that confidence and think of myself as one of the best in the nation, for me to really believe that I am, just because I haven't been up there yet," Bates concluded. "This is my first national meet, so it's a little intimidating, but more excited than anything. It's going to be really tough."
Photo: Boise State's Emma Bates relaxes before the 2013 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, IN. Photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly.