When Emma Bates graduated from Boise State in 2015 as a 12-time All-American and NCAA 10,000-meter champion, it seemed like she had the world at her feet. But life with a pro team in a big city was a world away from the mountains of Idaho, and when she lost her father to a rare lung disease in 2016, Emma started struggling on and off the track. Moving back out west with her future husband Kameron Ulmer the following year, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever race again. Yet in 2018, she won the US Marathon Championships in her 26.4-mile debut and became the USATF Running Circuit champion. Here’s the story of how Emma dealt with her heartache, beat burnout, and came back to the sport reinvigorated.
Why did you decide to leave Boston and return to Idaho?
As a pro runner in Boston, there was a lot of pressure on me. It made running feel too much like a job. I enjoyed sharing experiences with my coaches and teammates but lost part of myself. Once I left Boston, I knew I needed to change my life and get back to being happy. I wanted running to be part of that in some way but didn’t want to still do it competitively. When Kameron and I returned to Idaho, I started working two jobs and we’d go on a run occasionally. It provided an escape from everyday life and I started to realize how dear running was to me.
Soon I needed a new challenge, so Kameron started training me for a race in Doha, Qatar. I did well and it showed me that I could be competitive, while still feeling content and balanced. Being in the mountains gives me space to roam, and in the solitude of the mountains I found myself again.
What’s it like for your husband to also be your coach?
It was a seamless transition. A lot of people warned us that we’d butt heads, but our relationship has actually grown stronger. I’ve always trusted Kameron completely and his motivation and passion for this sport have inspired me. I saw how hard he was training – up to 140 miles a week – and that showed me how much work you have to put in if you want to succeed. One of the reasons that I trust him with every aspect of my training is that he understands that it’s not all about running – you also need to have a whole life. He sees the results of what we’re doing together every day and helps me stay balanced.
When you transitioned from your best distance – 10,000 meters – to the marathon, what was the biggest difference?
The 10K was hard for me because there’s a lot of volume and it’s also high intensity. I’d get worn down a lot. I’ve always enjoyed running longer distances, and when I started marathon training, I felt better right off the bat. In the off season it’s my time to play, and I like to get out onto the high trails and do as much vertical as I can. Then when we move into a 16-week marathon block, most of my sessions will be on flatter terrain. I try to train in a different place every day, which helps my body stay healthy and keeps things interesting. While I’m still getting better at longer distances, I also relish the challenge of doing shorter ones again too. I want to get back on the track, probably for the 2021 Olympic Trials.
What does a typical training day look like?
It’s ever-changing. Last season I’d get up early, do a shakeout run, and then go to practice with my team. Then I’d do a third run in the late afternoon. Now that the days are shorter, I’m only doing two runs a day. I get up at 6:30, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and drink coffee. Then I’ll run for 10 to 15 miles with the team, followed by another four to six miles in the afternoon. In between, there’s a lot of downtime and the real challenge is not getting bored. Back in college, I’d often go hike after practice, but now I know that I paid a price for that and it’s best for me to stay off my feet as much as possible between runs.
How do you fit Momentous products in this routine?
Kameron and I have to drive an hour to Boise to meet up with our group and an hour back. It’s hard to find real food to eat after training, so I put a scoop of Momentous Endurance Recovery protein in my water bottle and then make a full meal when we get home. Before I run, I put Momentous Collagen in my coffee and it’s making a huge difference – my joints feel much looser now. And it doesn’t taste of anything, so I can still enjoy the coffee itself. I also take Momentous Brain Drive before my workouts. It helps me focus and stay in the moment.
Over the past year, you’ve shared candidly about your mental health on Instagram. What’s changed in that area?
I’ve struggled with social anxiety for as long as I can remember. When my dad passed away, I became much more anxious in everyday life. When you go through a traumatic event like that, it can trigger mental health issues. While I was still living in Boston, I was breaking down and crying almost daily. Though running kept me going for a while, I knew that something had to give.
Once I’d moved and taken a break from running competitively, I recognized that I do my best thinking while I’m out on a trail, and I run better when I’m at my most happy and relaxed. Being with my training group makes me more motivated and gives me a better attitude because they’re all excited to train. They’ve helped my mental state immensely because they stop me from getting too serious about this sport. Now it’s just running again. Then I tap into the meditative side of running when I’m by myself. It allows me to gather the chaotic thoughts in my head and put them into little storage bins.
During the pandemic I’ve discovered that I’m less introverted than I previously imagined, and really feed off the energy that other people provide at events. Not being able to compete in big races this year has been hard, though I’m trying to get better at sharing my experiences with other people through social media and texting with friends. I’m still learning how to be more present from afar. I’ve seen how virtual races are keeping people motivated and now understand that even if you’re not a pro and only run twice a week, you’re still a runner. Just getting out the door can help all of us stay strong.