BOISE — Emma Bates and Kinsey Middleton each at one point thought their respected running careers were over.
The Boise marathoners and Idaho Distance Project teammates are now legitimate Olympic prospects. Bates and Middleton are the reigning United States and Canadian national champions, respectfully. They are also both set to compete at a pair of renowned national marathons.
Bates will run at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, while Middleton looks to defend her Canadian national title at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon a week later.
“I don’t know how much actual coaching I do with them because they’re just so locked in, so they make my job easy,” said Kameron Ulmer, Idaho Distance Project coach and Bates’ fiance. “The hardest thing for me is holding them back with how much work they put in. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to reach their goals. They want to be the best, plain and simple.”
Bates, who has already qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, at the Atlanta Track Club, won the USA Marathon Championships in Sacramento, California, in her debut on Dec. 2, 2018. Her time of 2 hours, 28 minutes, 18 seconds was the sixth fastest ran by an American woman in 2018 and the eighth fastest debut in history.
She was also the USA Track and Field Running Circuit champion, despite running in only half of the 10 road races. Bates had almost 30 more points than the next closest person.
Bates, 27, Boise State’s 2014 10,000-meter NCAA Outdoor national champion, is coming off a fourth-place finish at the NYRR New York Mini 10K on June 8. She also set a record on her way to winning the USATF 25K Championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in May.
All of this by a girl who came from Hinckley, Minnesota, with a population of just 1,800. Bates moved to nearby Elk River right before the start of middle school, and picked up running shortly after in the seventh grade. She went on to set numerous school records and was a multiple time state placer.
But Bates was never a state champion. She had dreams of running at the nearby University of Minnesota, but the school was only willing to take her as a walk-on. So Bates ended up 1,400 miles southwest on a partial scholarship to Boise State, not earning a full-ride until her junior year.
Bates left as a 12-time All-American in cross country and track and field, and her national championship-winning time of 32 minutes, 32.35 seconds is still the third fastest in the meet’s history.
“I felt like I finally had that credibility I had wanted for so long,” Bates said. “I’m very stubborn, so if I want something to happen, it may take a while, but I’m going to make it happen.”
Middleton, 26, a former All-American at the University of Idaho, won the Canadian national marathon championship on Oct 21 at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Middleton placed seventh overall, but had the best finish of any Canadian woman. Her time of 2:32:09 was the third fastest Canadian debut of all-time.
“It’s definitely the highlight of my running career,” Middleton said. “It was all the goals I had ever talked about all wrapped up into one. It made me really think about what else I could do.”
Middleton just took eighth at the Canadian 10K Track Championships on June 13. She finished runner-up at the Vancouver Sun Run in April before running a personal best of 32:30.82 in the 10K at the Stanford Invitational a month earlier as well.
The Couer d’Alene native and citizen of Canada with her mother Cheryl being born in Guelph, Ontario, had a storied high school career at Coeur d’Alene High. Middleton, who went by Kinsey Gomez back then, won seven state titles after beginning her running career in kindergarten.
Middleton won three cross country state championships and earned consecutive Gatorade Idaho Girls Cross Country Athlete of the Year awards in 2010-11. Middleton didn’t lose a single race in the 1,600 or 3,200 during her final two years on the way to winning four state titles and earning a scholarship to Oregon State.
“I think it really helped set me up to compete in college and fostered the dream of competing at a really high level,” Middleton said.
While Middleton broke the school’s 10K and 6K records, a stress fracture in her pelvis in the fall of 2014 abruptly ended her career in Corvallis.
“I thought my running career was over at that point,” Middleton said. “I felt like I was damaged goods.”
But Middleton followed former Oregon State distance coach Travis Floeck to Idaho the following year, and the move paid off.
Middleton shattered the school’s 35-year-old 10K record by 11 seconds before breaking her own record (33:18) by placing 10th at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships to earn second-team All-American honors.
“I wish I would have had two more years in college to compete at that event because I felt after all this time I had found what I was meant to do,” Middleton said.
Bates signed with BAA High Performance out of Boston the summer after graduating from Boise State in 2015. She was 11th at the Tufts 10K/USATF 10K Road Championships in her debut that October before taking third at the Manchester Road Race a month later.
But her performances declined from there.
Homesick in Boston, she took 21st out of 24 in the 10K at the 2016 Olympic Trials in July. It only grew worse after the passing of her father, Joseph, from a rare lung disease on Nov. 11, 2016. He was already on life support by the time she returned home from training. She tried to run at the USA Track and Field Distance Classic six months in May 2017, but finished 16th in the 5,000.
“I had never cried after a race before, but I remember just being in complete tears,” Bates said. “That was my breaking point. I wasn’t happy anymore. I didn’t know if I wanted to run again.”
Bates moved back to Idaho with Ulmer on Nov. 13, 2017.
Middleton signed with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project of Rochester Hills, Michigan, after graduating in May 2016. Her debut came that September at the Great Cow Harbor 10K run in Northport, New York. She finished 19th in a field of more than 4,000.
But she returned to Idaho as a volunteer assistant coach after just three professional races to be back with her now husband, Ian, who was finishing up his undergraduate career. They moved down to Boise in the summer of 2017.
The two had brief encounters in 2017 at June’s Portland Track Festival in Oregon and November’s Monterey Bay Half Marathon in California before a mutual friend of theirs invited them to a Super Bowl party on Feb. 4, 2018.
“We were really getting along and just talking about running when our friend came up and asked, ‘Why don’t you guys just workout together?’” Bates said. “We both looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we?’”
Their first race together as training partners came at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia, Spain, on March 24, 2018. Bates was the top American finisher, placing 27th out of 122, while Middleton, who represented Canada, was 50th.
Bates, Middleton and Ulmer founded the Idaho Distance Project seven months later in October. The group has since become a USA Track and Field sanctioned club with 18 members. The team includes former Boise State All-American steeplechaser Marissa Howard and two-time reigning Race to Robbie Creek winner Megan Lacy.
The club has even attracted out-of-state runners like ex-University of Kentucky star Mick Iacofano. He is a multi-time marathon winner who had the ninth fastest men’s marathon time in the U.S last year and has already qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials. Bates, Iacofano, Lacy and Vanderbilt alum Kristen Findley, have all qualified for the Olympic Trials.
The Idaho Distance Project finished third at the U.S. Club Cross Country Championships in Spokane, Washington, in its debut race in December.
“I want to see us continue to be put on the map,” Middleton said. “I want us to be one of the groups people think about when they think about professional groups around North America.”
CHASING A DREAM
Bates and Middleton are both thought to be serious contenders to make Olympic teams for the 2020 Summer Games (July 24 to Aug. 9, 2020) in Tokyo. In order to make that a reality, they will first need to hit the 2:29.30 Olympic standard time. The two will have their shots to do just that at their recently announced upcoming marathons.
They will then need to make their respective Olympic teams. Bates has to finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials. Canada doesn’t have an Olympic Trials, so Middleton can qualify by receiving the automatic bid for winning the Toronto Marathon with an Olympic standard time or by having one of the three fastest Canadian Olympic standard times before May 2020.
If Bates and Middleton qualify, they would each make history. Bates would be the first ever former Boise State athlete to run a marathon at an Olympic Games. Middleton would become the first woman and just the second University of Idaho alumnus overall to compete in an Olympic marathon, joining Vic Dyrgall, who finished 13th at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
And to imagine, they both thought their careers were over. They seem to be just getting started, and going to the Olympics would certainly validate that.
“It really didn’t matter to me for what, I just knew I always wanted to be an Olympian in something,” Bates said.
“It would be a dream come true for that little girl all those years ago,” Middleton added.