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On a steamy October Sunday at the 2021 Chicago Marathon, Emma Bates kept remembering the theme of the training cycle: “Methodical patience.”
What did that mean? Start conservatively, measure the effort instead of the time, and don’t worry about anybody’s else’s plans. Among the only competitors to clock her fastest miles in the second half of the race, Bates went from fifth place to runner-up in the last 10K, behind winner Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya (2:22:31).
The strategy was executed flawlessly. Bates finished on her first World Marathon Major podium, in a new personal record of 2:24:20. The time also ranks her ninth on the list of all-time fastest U.S. women in the marathon. It was a breakthrough for the 29-year-old after going through a difficult pandemic year, starting off with one of the earliest cases of COVID-19, then parting ways with her training group and home in Boise, Idaho, to join Team Boss, coached by Joe Bosshard, in Boulder, Colorado.
Bates spoke to Women’s Running on Thursday about the marathon, why Bosshard’s coaching style works for her, and how she has been able to work through the personal challenges to improve her mental health.
Women’s Running: Now that you’ve had a few days to process your performance, what do you think led you to second place?
Emma Bates: Going into the race the goal was to make the podium. With the kind of shallower field this year, too, I think that was a realistic goal even though I was ranked sixth going into the race. We still wanted to be in the top three, especially since I had placed fourth in 2019. My training had been going really well. It’s the first time I’ve trained with [coach] Joe [Bosshard] and also the first time I had trained at altitude for a marathon cycle, so we knew I was in good shape, the best shape of my life, but we didn’t really know where that would put me in Chicago or what time that might put me at. We had a loose time goal, but once we saw the weather forecast, we threw it out the window and really wanted to focus on racing well and starting conservatively. We knew it’d be a tough time out there if you went out hard in that heat.
It was more executing a race I could own and focusing on the effort, how I felt. I tried to take all the training I did out by myself on the roads with Joe biking next to me and all the patient miles we put in—the theme of the whole training cycle was “methodical patience.” At every workout and every long run, Joe reminded me: “methodical patience.” He said, “Don’t press too hard because 80 percent effort every day is going to accumulate into a great season. You don’t have to do anything too crazy each day, just get the job done and we’ll be where we need to be.”
WR: From some posts I saw of the post-race celebration, it looked like you had a nice celebration with your Team Boss crew?
EB: There was no celebration with water [laughing]. They kept handing me things that were not water. I definitely had a good time. I felt really good after the race and I don’t really feel like I need to recover too much, but that probably set me back a little bit on the recovery, honestly. It was so much fun having them all there for me. It was a really special time.
WR: It was your first marathon training cycle with Joe. Did you change anything too drastically from how you have trained before joining Team Boss?
EB: This training cycle we did a 10-day training cycle instead of seven days. I had always done two hard workouts each week and then a long easy run. This time because I had two days recovery in between I was able to do a hard session and two days later come back and do a hard long run. That was the biggest difference—my long runs were actually a workout. Every 10 days I was getting after 20–24 miles that I had never done in the past. I had always taken long runs easy. At altitude it’s a whole new ballgame too. You can’t compare workouts based on the past and that was really hard. I had no idea how well I was running in these long runs, I just knew they were hard. I was going off of effort and not knowing what it was going to do for me, but I trusted the process, that it would get me to where I needed to be.
I also upped my mileage this time. Joe had me at 120 miles every week and one week I didn’t even know I ran 127 miles during a seven-day split. He didn’t tell me until afterward. But I guess I handled it well, which is good in hindsight. He wanted to see how I did before mentioning it to me.
WR: That adjustment to altitude seems to have gone well for you, but it can be tricky to navigate it. Did you ever tip over into doing too much or miscalculating the effort?
EB: When I joined the group in April, I went straight to Crested Butte [at almost 9,000 feet]. I had never really gone that high before. I definitely overtrained during that time and I wasn’t really sleeping either—you get that altitude insomnia. I’m glad I had that time to figure it out. When you’re on a new team, you kind of want to prove that you belong and I was definitely overreaching in workouts trying to keep up with Emma [Coburn]. I’m glad I had that time to figure myself out and say, “Hey, you know you need to take a step back with the intensity.”
WR: The last time we spoke was after you raced the Marathon Project, where you finished in 2:25:27. At the time you were still living in Boise and you hadn’t yet joined Team Boss. You mentioned some personal stress you were going through and some anxiety and depression you had been experiencing. How have you been feeling since then and what are some of the ways you’ve been able to turn a corner physically and mentally?
EB: I think people sometimes forget that elite athletes aren’t running robots. We’re just like everybody else with thoughts and feelings, and I am a very emotional runner. I don’t thrive off of being angry or stressed or sad. Some people can turn that into working hard and use running as a stress reliever or a way to get frustrations out. But for me to run my best I have to be happy and positive and have fun. It took a while to get to that point. When you go through something that’s really hard in your life, I isolate myself and do not want to socialize with people. When I got out of that funk, I went to see a therapist and started talking to my friends and family about what I was going through and I even shared my feelings on social media a little bit. That was cathartic.
I realized I needed to hold on to people and the social interactions that I’m having—pull out the good stuff that’s happening in my life, as well as my strengths and my qualities. I needed to work on my self worth and self care. I think that’s the main thing: just being honest with yourself about what makes you happy and what’s going to make you thrive and what kind of company you’re going to keep to keep you on that path. I had to make a change, not that I didn’t have great friends in Boise but I couldn’t be in that environment anymore. There was too much toxicity and too much stress for me. I knew I needed to remove myself and find another community that I was going to fit in and feel some value and support. That’s what I found with Team Boss right away. I’m very lucky I was able to find that. You may have to search sometimes, but there’s always going to be someone out there who’s going to feel special that you reached out to them.
WR: What has spoken to you about Joe’s coaching? What is his style and philosophy and why does it work for you?
EB: When I first talked to Joe on the phone about joining the team, I just loved his enthusiasm for coaching. You could just tell how much he loved it and how much he cared about each athlete individually. He wants to do everything he can to help you improve and that was just something that I know that most coaches have, but I had coaches before who just don’t enjoy their jobs. You can tell. They’re just kind of living vicariously through their athletes. Joe is just thrilled when you accomplish something and he’s never the one to take the credit. That’s why people don’t know a lot about him—it’s because he’s always in the background.
He’s a pretty quiet guy to the rest of the world, but when it comes to us, he’s a man of few words, but when he has something to say it’s really profound. It’s fun and uplifting. He has a great energy when you come to practice. I had many long runs alone with him, just solo with him on the bike, running 24 miles. When the conversation gets a little dry or I can’t talk anymore because I’m running too fast, he’ll start singing or start playing pop music. He’s just a really good guy to have in your corner. You know he cares so much. He was so excited after my race and because he doesn’t shower you with compliments all the time, when he does say something, it’s very meaningful and it’s from the heart. I’m very lucky to have him—this marathon speaks volumes about what a good fit it is.
WR: I read on your Instagram that it’s really your training partners on the team who choose who joins it. What role do you think you play in the group and what do you think they saw in you?
EB: I only knew a couple of people previously. I competed against Laura Thweatt and the rest of the group I didn’t really know very well, just through social media or word of mouth. I heard great, great things and I loved what they were doing, but it wasn’t until I came here that I realized just how special it was. They love each other. They are really good friends with each other. We go to brunch every single week—we’re not like business colleagues, we actually care about each other and [our] well-being outside of running. That’s something I never really had before—it’s always just been about being running partners. Now we’re invested in each other’s lives and care about what’s going on with each individual. It speaks volumes that all these different companies are letting us come together and realizing that what makes a team isn’t a logo, it’s all about meshing well and having a community that has the same values and goals.
All of us have different personalities. Emma Coburn is the mom of the team. She keeps us in line and makes sure we’re getting stuff done in the right way. Aisha is so much a character and so goofy. Kate Grace just jokes around—she keeps us on our toes. We’re always caught off-guard with what she does and says. It’s so fun to see the different quirks on the team. For me, just the way that I had fun with this training cycle. They had supported me so much by coming to my workouts, drove next to me or ran next to me for a couple of miles or biked. They were astounded by how much fun I’d have during these hard sessions and how much positivity I had during it. I find enjoyment and make things fun and easy and light. I haven’t asked what I contribute, but that’s what they’ve said. I hope that’s true. I don’t want to go through life anymore so serious and stoic about things. I want to find enjoyment in everything.
WR: After you recover, what are your hopes and dreams from here?
EB: I don’t know how the selection process works, exactly, but I hope this performance qualifies me for the  world championships [in Eugene, Oregon]. I want to run a spring marathon, so Boston maybe, since London is pushed back to October again.