She burst onto the marathon scene in 2018 by winning a national title at the distance. Now Emma Bates has her eyes on Tokyo.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, highlighting the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team.

Emma Bates gives the impression that she’s coming out of nowhere. But she’s definitely coming from somewhere—her off-the-grid home near Boise, Idaho, where she trains on the dirt and through the forest before she emerges on the streets of major marathons to show the world what she’s been up to.

Her debut at 26.2 miles came at the 2018 California International Marathon, which served as the U.S. national championship race that year. She won in 2:28:29 and immediately became part of the 2020 conversation. Bates, who was the 2014 NCAA national 10,000-meter champion competing for Boise State, had seemingly found her new distance.

Since then, she competed at the 2019 Chicago Marathon, where she improved her time by more than three minutes, placing fourth, the first American to cross the finish line.

She’ll take her next shot at 26.2 miles on February 29 at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, where nearly 500 women will compete. The top three will make the U.S. Olympic team, racing in August at the Tokyo Games.

Bates said she’s confident in her buildup to the Trials and thinks it went better than the other two.

“Before CIM in 2018, I had a lot of hiccups—mostly a lot of sickness because I was nannying at the time and getting germs from the little kid I was watching,” she said. “This time I expected a few more hiccups because it’s winter and things get tighter—I also didn’t know how I’d respond so soon after Chicago. But I am not nannying this time and I’ve been staying healthy, so everything’s gone really, really good.”

The consistency Bates has enjoyed through the training for the Chicago Marathon and the Trials has led her to gain confidence for her third attempt.

“The more I run, the better I feel,” Bates said. “I just keep building and feeling stronger every day.”

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Age: 27

Olympic Trials Qualifying Time: 2:25:27 (2019 Chicago Marathon)

Marathon PR: 2:25:27 (2019 Chicago Marathon)

Peak weekly mileage: 120, but feels best at 110–115 miles per week

Favorite workout: The 10-mile tempo run, which she does almost every week throughout marathon training. Bates gains confidence from seeing her progress—when she first started running the workout several years ago, she held an average pace of 5:45 per mile. Now she hits an average of 5:25 per mile.

“It’s pretty boring, I know, but threshold pace is something I’ve gotten a lot better at through the years and I really like it,” she said. “I can shut my mind off and grind through.”

Best part of training for the Olympic Trials: Bates did 20 miles of marathon-pace work toward the end of her buildup.

“I had never felt as relaxed doing that in other marathon training cycles as I did this time,” she said. “In the past I either didn’t finish it because it was too hard or too long or I couldn’t walk the next day. This time I was spry and felt like I could do another 20 miles the next day.”

Worst part of the training for the Olympic Trials: She went on an undercover mission to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon in mid-January, entering under her married name—Ulmer—with a plan to run a 19-mile workout under the warm Phoenix sun. It didn’t go according to plan, however.

“I didn’t feel as good as I wanted to because I have Celiac and I had accidentally gone to a restaurant the night before that poured a bunch of soy sauce over everything, which has gluten in it,” Bates said. “I got sick and felt worn out. My stomach hurt. Luckily that happened before the big day—I shouldn’t go out to dinner at a place I’ve never been before.”

Best piece of advice or encouragement given: Before he died of rare lung disease in 2016, Bates’s father told her, “run hard, have fun.”

“It really sticks out to me even when I go out for a jog,” she said. “I think about those words. We overcomplicate things as runners and as people in general—stepping outside and running hard, the simplicity of that, and having fun has made a big difference in my life and career.” 

Taper tantrums: Bates is not a fan of taper time, though she said, “typically the worse I feel before a race, the better I run—if I feel really shitty, I know a great race is about to happen.”

“I hate it. It’s gotten a lot better every training cycle, but the first marathon I did, I felt like trash. I didn’t want to even go for a five-mile run—it was the hardest thing ever and it’s weird that your body can react that way,” she said. “It does get better—this time it’s not as bad. I’m just sleeping a lot and staying on top of strength and stretching.”

Pre-race superstition or good luck routine: Bates used to insist on straightening her hair before all races, “because it made me feel like a badass.” She’s not packing her hair straightener for Atlanta, though.

“I used to have superstitions like that, but I’ve learned that usually nothing goes according to plan, so not having a plan is the best plan for me,” Bates said. “I like to roll with the punches.”

Race-day shoes: An Asics prototype that will be released in April called the MetaRacer

Looking forward to most on race day: The crowds and the course loop set-up, where spectators can see the competitors multiple times.

“I just really want to soak in all the excitement,” Bates said. “It’ll be my first Olympic Marathon Trials. To see everybody going after their goals of PRing or making the team or running as hard as they can is really special. I really want to really appreciate it.”

Dreading on race day: The fear of losing her poise.

“I know I want to make the team and people will be going after it. But I also know you don’t want to go after it too much because the hills are a crazy factor,” she said. “I don’t want to get caught up in other people’s races—that is going to be very hard and I’m going to have to be very patient. Can I be calm and collected in moments of decision making?” 

Impressions of the Olympic Marathon Trials course: Bates did not visit Atlanta to preview the course, but competed in the Peachtree Road Race 10K previously and has had a taste of the downtown Atlanta hills.

“I don’t ever really preview a course before I race it anymore because I like the unknown,” she said. “After the first loop I’ll know exactly what I’m getting myself into. I’m not too worried about it—I’ve been training on hills during tempo runs to simulate that terrain.”

Support crew in Atlanta: Members of the Idaho Distance Project (five are racing and others are coming to cheer); also Bates’s sister and brother-in-law, four friends, aunts and uncles, and her husband (and coach) Kameron Ulmer

“Hearing your name during a marathon is huge and you don’t realize it until you hear it,” she said. “That’s a boost of energy. Just knowing that my friends and family are out there is amazing and I’m going to be thinking about them every step of the way.”

Morning routine for a late start time: She’s going to try to stay on Mountain Time and she typically wakes up around 8 a.m. to run, so Bates is going to try to stick to that routine or even sleep in until 9 a.m. 

“It’s going to be kind of weird but I’m glad we’re not running in the early morning because my body can’t adjust as much,” she said. 

Olympic Trials breakfast fuel: Coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Race-day mantra: Bates refers to her dad’s words, “run hard, have fun.” 

“I also have gotten into mindfulness, so I want to remind myself to just stay in the moment as much as I can and not get too ahead of myself,” she said. “Taking it step by step or mile by mile.”

Walk-up song, if you had one as a pro runner:  “Hell Yeah,” by Tujamo

Slow and strategic or fast and furious: Fast and furious.

“I’ve had rough races when I get into the strategic mindset too much,” Bates said. “I want the people who make the team to be the fittest people on the starting line. I don’t like the games. We put in the work and it should translate to the race—I think strategic is exciting to the spectators sometimes but we’re all so close, it’s going to be exciting no matter what.”

How she’ll know that she did everything she could, even if she doesn’t make the team: If she has a race that showcases her preparation, Bates will be satisfied with the outcome.

“I’m ready and I know everybody else on the starting line is probably ready, too,” she said. “If I don’t make it, I’m still young in the marathon world and I have a lot more experience to gain, but I’m going for the win.”

Post-race plans: She and her husband, who got married in October, are taking their honeymoon. The day after the race, they’ll fly to New York, then on to Barcelona. 

Celebration beverage of choice: “Any wine. Any tequila. Any whiskey. Basically any alcohol.”