(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
At this time one year ago BYU junior cross country runner Kate Bowen was still working to get back in competitive shape after serving an 18-month Mormon mission in Chile. During those 18 months as a missionary Bowen took the first real break since her collegiate running career began.
“I normally take off about one week per year,” Bowen said. “So taking 18 months off for my mission was a real challenge. Coming back and getting into shape was tough, but it was actually harder to get into shape my freshman year because I didn’t know what to expect.”
Bowen’s normal practice schedule includes 60-65 miles of running over a six-day period, with runs broken up between morning and afternoon sessions. During race weeks the amount of running is toned down (40-50 miles a week) in order to be in peak condition on race day, which is normally Friday or Saturday.
Many people can barely manage to run a 5K, which is a little over three miles, let alone run over 10 miles a day. How is it possible to stay motivated and interested when running that often? For the Cougar runners it is all about the comfort of the team.
“Its really easy to stay entertained and motivated during a long run,” Bowen said. “Our team has a lot of fun and a lot of stories get shared. We keep each other going everyday during practice.”
Team running in practice and races is a concept preached by Patrick Shane, head BYU women’s cross country coach. Although the story sharing is held to a minimum during real competition, the motivation that stems from running as a team is one of the biggest benefits of staying in a group.
“It is important that we run as a team,” Shane said. “In order to win conference we need five athletes to finish near or at the top. If we only had one great runner every race then we would never do much as a team.”
So far this season, Bowen has been the leader of the pack for the Cougars. With top finishes in all three races in which she has competed, Bowen is on track to make noise at the Mountain West Conference Championships and possibly at the national level. A few years ago, however, being the lead runner for a nationally-ranked team did not seem like a realistic possibility.
Bowen did not start running cross country until her sophomore year at Lone Peak High School in Alpine, Utah. She primarily focused on basketball early in life, saying she liked to “run for a purpose”. In ninth grade Bowen took up track as a way to get in better shape for basketball and realized she was pretty good at “just running”. That success motivated her to join the cross country team the following year.
For the remainder of her high school years Bowen focused on cross country and track, leaving basketball by the wayside. Her newfound love of running led her to accepting a cross country scholarship at Weber State University.
“Coming out of high school, I never really got an opportunity to talk to BYU,” Bowen said. “I ended up staying at Weber State for three semesters, but only ran one cross country season. I felt like there was somewhere else I needed to be, not necessarily because of athletics, but I needed a change of atmosphere.”
When she decided to transfer, Bowen immediately thought of BYU. The Cougars were happy she did, if only because of the promise she showed as a freshman at Weber State, where she earned a bid to the NCAA Championships and placed third at the Big Sky Conference Championships.
The change in surroundings proved beneficial for Bowen, who expresses no regret in her decision to leave Ogden for Provo. Coaching philosophy and inner-team competition have been the main changes Bowen has noticed since leaving the Big Sky for the Mountain West.
2010 has been the most successful of Bowen’s career thus far but she is not content with what has been accomplished so far. With goals of becoming an All-American and leading her team to nationals, Bowen still has a long season in front of her.
“Kate (Bowen) has really come along this season,” Shane said. “She performed well during our cross country camp early on and has been a leader from this team ever since.”
Shane routinely refers to the upcoming portion of the season as “Championship Season”. This is the chance for Bowen to leave her mark on the Cougar program and accomplish the lofty goals she has set for herself. In the next three races of Bowen’s career, she will compete the MWC Championships, NCAA Mountain Regional Championships and NCAA National Championships.
Sound intimidating? Not for Bowen. Not this season. In the last few weeks, Bowen has prepared in the best possible way for the upcoming championship gauntlet by competing against the best runners in the country.
In two consecutive races Bowen and the Cougars faced off against multiple top-10 teams and held their own, finishing 11th in both cases. The Notre Dame Invitational came first, followed by the Pre-Nationals race, and both serve as indicators for the National Championship meet in November.
“A lot of prayers go into every race,” Bowen said. “I take every race one section at a time, piece by piece. If I don’t pay attention then I can get disoriented in the pack. I have to be focused, especially early on in crowded fields.”
Bowen’s teammates have first-hand experience with disorientation and lack of focus during a race. Earlier this season at a meet in San Diego, two BYU runners took a wrong turn during the first mile of the course and lost valuable time finding their way back.
Getting lost on a cross country course may seem crazy to someone that has never competed in a large field of runners. Imagine lining up at the starting line with nearly 300 other athletes and, at the sound of a gun, merging into a narrow pathway all at once. In those terms, starting a cross country race sounds like a dangerous venture.
“At the beginning of big races it can be scary because it’s similar to a stampede,” Bowen said. “Everyone lines up and merges quickly into one place. The main rule is to watch your footing and stay on your feet. I try to get out fast and get to the front of the pack as quick as possible, but that doesn’t always work out.”
In her last race, Pre-Nationals, Bowen faced off against 260 other athletes. Her 18th – place finish was best among BYU runners and a big reason for that finish was getting out fast early in the race.
Nervousness and excitement also play a part in Bowen’s ability to get out fast in a race. Like most athletes, Bowen has specific methods for dealing with the jitters that often arise just before a race.
“I always have to have gum during a race,” Bowen said. “It really calms me down. When I don’t have it, I start to feel stressed and lose my focus.”
Earlier this season, Bowen had a gum scare just before a race. As she was warming up before Pre-Nationals Bowen realized she did not bring any gum. As panic set in, she began searching for teammates who may have an extra piece lying around. Just before start time teammate Katie Cox’s mother came to the rescue and “saved” Bowen by supplying her with her pre-race requirement.
While Bowen may attribute her ability to stay focused throughout a race to a piece of chewy, mint-tasting deliciousness, her coaches may deserve some of the credit as well.
Coaching athletes during a cross country race can be a difficult and tiring venture for dedicated coaches. Unless they have access to a golf cart or some other mode of transportation to take them around the course, coaches often run nearly as much as athletes in order to wait and coach them at certain points in the race.
“It is sort of funny getting coached in a race,” Bowen said. “They might do just as much running as we do, trying to get from point to point to coach us. I can always tell my coach’s voice from the crowd, which is nice because I don’t have to look around or get distracted.”
Bowen’s ability to avoid distraction will be especially important in the coming weeks as her cross country season, and maybe career, comes to an end.
With three major races remaining Bowen has a major decision to make: whether or not to fight for another year of cross country eligibility. Her second season at Weber State, when she competed in only one race before being injured, counts as a year of eligibility. Because of the injury, however, she can appeal to the NCAA for one more season of competition at BYU.
Before making her final decision, Bowen will consider several factors including school, family and the ability to accomplish her athletic goals, primarily the goal of becoming an All-American.
“Personally, I have always wanted to be an All-American,” Bowen said. “I haven’t accomplished that yet but it’s a goal that I am really chasing. If I am not able to accomplish that this season then I may be motivated to put up a fight to come back next season.”
BYU cross country coaches, athletes and fans are sure to be pulling for Bowen to reach her All-American goal, but they would also like to see her back for another season as a Cougar.
Based on the improvement she has made from her last season to the current cross country season, there is no telling what Bowen could accomplish if she wears the Cougar uniform for one more year. Only time will tell if we will get a chance to find out.