BOISE — For Emma Bates, running isn't a sport. It's a lifestyle.
It's what makes her happy. It's what gives her peace. It's where she finds spirituality and connects with nature.
It's what stopped the uneasiness that plagued her as a child, when she tried a bunch of sports to zap the seemingly endless energy.
"It just made me feel so alive," she said. "I know that sounds cheesy. I just really found myself in running. I really connected with everything around me. It's a very spiritual thing for me, as well. I don't need to go to church any more to find worship. I need to go out and run. I need to go on a long run and find myself and be connected to other things."
Bates, a Boise State junior, enters this week's NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship in Eugene as one of the favorites in the 10,000 meters and a contender in the 5,000.
She finished third in the 10,000 and seventh in the 5,000 last spring. She also took second in the NCAA cross country meet last fall.
First-year coach Corey Ihmels, who worked with some historic talents at Iowa State, has told Bates that she can win multiple national titles and challenge the NCAA record in the 10,000.
"It's nerve-racking, but exciting, to know that," Bates said.
She'll run the 10,000 on Thursday and the 5,000 on Saturday.
"She's starting to believe she's really good," Ihmels said. "That's been the toughest thing. She's so down to Earth, so humble, such a good kid, that convincing her how good she really is has been the most difficult task. And we're not quite there yet."
Bates still considers herself an underdog even though she has earned more All-American awards (seven) than any track and field athlete in Boise State history. Only eight athletes - one a woman - have won individual NCAA championships for the Broncos.
"I definitely can't doubt myself at all," Bates said. "I tend to do that. I doubt myself with a few laps to go and I try to kick it in the last 100 meters or 200 meters. As long as I'm there (with the leader), I think I can do it. I have to believe in myself enough to get myself to that point."
A SCRAPPY ATHLETE
Bates played softball and basketball, tried gymnastics and wanted to try football as a child - all despite being what others called "half a kid" because of her diminutive size. She's about 5-foot-4 now.
She was a hyperactive, high-anxiety kid.
"She was always looking for something more to do," said Michelle Bates, Emma's mom. "She just seemed to have all this energy when she was a little kid."
Bates was raised in Elk River, Minn., on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. Both of her parents ran in high school and she decided to try track in sixth grade.
She started as a sprinter and hurdler. But her mom suggested she try cross country in seventh grade. By the end of the season, Bates was the No. 2 runner on the high school varsity team.
"(Running) really made a difference in her attitude toward school," Michelle said. "She became a more diligent student. She became great at setting goals. Along the way, she kept developing a deeper passion. I see it now - that she still loves it even more than she did then."
Bates was determined to use running to pay for college. She's closing in on an exercise science degree and wants to pursue a master's in dietetics, a field of study that is personal to her because she has celiac disease (gluten intolerance).
She figured she probably would run at a Division II school until she visited Minnesota and became intrigued by the competitive environment. Boise State found her because Brad Wick, who was the Broncos' distance coach at the time, also is from Elk River.
A LONELY PURSUIT
Bates does much of her training on her own in the Foothills. She only hits the track once or twice a week.
Most weeks, she runs 80-90 miles - and those are the weeks, not the light ones, when she feels her best. She topped out at 95 miles at the beginning of this season.
Last summer, she went backpacking in the Sawtooths with boyfriend and fellow distance runner Kameron Ulmer. They ran 20 miles a day.
"She's a free spirit," Ihmels said. "She likes to be in nature. It kind of fits her."
Said Michelle: "She is much happier when she's running. As much as she liked skiing, still something was missing. She's just happy when she runs."
THE GOAL IS CLEAR
The chatter surrounding Bates and her talent will intensify if she wins the 10,000 this week. She'll be the favorite to win the cross country title in the fall, and likely the 10,000 next spring.
The attention such success would bring could create another challenge.
"She's not a person who likes to be noticed," Michelle said. "She's getting a little better and getting used to that. She's gained a lot of confidence and hopefully that will carry through to Eugene."
Of course, it's possible Bates carries a little more self-belief than she lets on.
"She's the most confident person I've ever met," Ulmer said. "She'll be fine."
As her best chance yet to win a national title approached, Bates didn't mince words last week about what's possible. She didn't even mention her coach this time.
"My goal is to definitely win the 10k," she said. "That is the big goal."
She already has earned five first-team All-American honors in the past 12 months (outdoor 5,000 and 10,000, cross country, indoor 3,000 and 5,000). By the time her career ends in June 2015, she could be the most accomplished athlete in school history.
"I'm ecstatic about it," she said. "I never thought this would be possible. I didn't even know I'd be running Division I. It's been quite a ride."
And as far as she's come, she's still in the early stages of her running career. She plans to compete in the U.S. outdoor nationals later this month and possibly the cross country nationals next winter. She likely will turn pro in the summer of 2015 and chase a spot on the 2016 Olympic team.
When her speed starts to fade, she plans to switch to marathons.
Otherwise, that restless feeling might come back.
"(Running) is the one thing that kind of relaxes me," Bates said. "I can think and relieve all that stress. When I'm sitting in class, that's what I want to do is go run."
TWO MORE BRONCOS TO NCAAS
Bates will have two teammates with her in Eugene, Ore. Junior Marisa Howard will compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (semifinals Wednesday, final Friday) and senior Hayli Bozarth will compete in the hammer throw (Wednesday).
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat