Going the Distance

Life After Lisa: Iowa State’s women’s
distance runners are among the nation’s best


You can learn a lot from your college coach – even how to try to fill his shoes.

Corey Ihmels, the director of ISU’s track and field/cross country program who was a member of the Cyclones’ 1994 national champion men’s cross country squad, says his coach – hall-of-famer Bill Bergan – believed that building the ISU program should start with distance runners. And now, on the heels of Lisa Koll Uhl’s (’08 biology) remarkable run of national titles and record-shattering performances, Ihmels (’97 history) is following Bergan’s roadmap.

Instead of just one distance superstar, the Cyclones now have three: Betsy Saina, Meaghan Nelson, and Dani Stack – a trio of standouts that helped lead ISU to a league cross country title and seventh-place NCAA cross country finish in 2011 and are contending for their own collections of NCAA track hardware. The 2011-2012 indoor track season was a breakout one for Saina, a Kenya native who won the 5K title with a time of 15:38.83.

“[Since] winning nationals, my training has been going really, really well,” Saina said. “I sometimes run thinking about it, still getting motivated by it. I just want to get another title again.”

That thirst for more success has Ihmels, Saina, and Nelson looking with great optimism toward the 2012 cross country season. Saina redshirted the 2012 outdoor track season, so she will be back, like Nelson, for all three seasons – cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track – next year. Stack will be back for indoor and outdoor track. And a stable of young up-and-comers will bolster ISU’s chances for team success.

“We’ve been so close the last couple years to really doing something special in cross country,” Ihmels said. “Winning the conference championship was fun for the young ladies, but nationals kind of left a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth – not winning a trophy [for a top-four finish] after being the only team that had three All-Americans.”

“I think we definitely have the people to achieve [a top-four finish],” Nelson said. “If we can have a top-five group of girls who can perform consistently well each time, that’s what it’s gonna take. Last year we had some inconsistencies and fluidity in our 4-5 spots, and I think to get to that next level and get a top-four finish we need consistency throughout the whole season.”

Ihmels says a review of the team’s success over the past few years shows that many athletes made their biggest gains in the third year, a milestone that’s coming up for several Cyclone distance runners.

“We’ve got some young ladies now who are going into their third year and have already had way more success than Meaghan, Dani, Betsy, and Lisa had at that point,” he said. “So we’re hoping they have great summers.”

Ihmels says ISU doesn’t necessarily get the blue-chip recruits, but it gets the blue-collar ones. He says many student-athletes have been inspired by what Uhl was able to achieve through hard work and have made their own major gains by following
her example.

Take Nelson, who wasn’t necessarily highly recruited coming out of Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Xavier High School. She says she never would have believed someone telling her she’d qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials, but that’s exactly what she did this spring when she clocked the top collegiate 10K time at the Stanford Invitational.

“We may not be the most talented people right away, but we know that if we put in the effort and follow coach’s training plan we’ll see improvements,” Nelson said. “The fact that Lisa did what she did helps individuals see, ‘If I come to Iowa State and work
hard and follow the training plan, I can become the best runner that I can be.’ That was one of the main reasons I came here. Every day I come into it and want to see, ‘How good can I get?’”

As far as Ihmels is concerned, the sky’s the limit. He describes Saina, who this spring clocked the world’s fastest 10K time running unattached, as “as good as anybody.” He says the transformations he’s seen in Nelson and Stack prove their potential is far greater than they may have realized. It’s all, he says, about being willing to work harder than anyone else.

“They put the work in,” he said. “They buy in. They’re good kids. They’re doing things the right way. They’re living the lifestyle of a runner. And you know, they’re getting better.”



About the Writer | Kate Bruns is the associate editor of VISIONS. This article was originally published in the summer 2012 issue.


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