Running her final lap


Photo: Brian Achenbach/Iowa State Daily

Decorated ISU runner Betsy Saina tells her story from starting out as a runner to becoming a champion. 

Beau Berkley

The long, winding path to success is riddled with ups and downs and forks in the road. Betsy Saina’s journey as a Cyclone has been no exception.

Saina capped her decorated long-distance running career Friday, June 7, at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., after placing second in the women’s 5,000-meter race. On Wednesday, June 5, Saina took first place in the 10,000-meter race.

Saina’s final performance ties together a career consisting of three national championships, eight Big 12 titles and two Iowa State Female Athlete of the Year awards.

The Eldoret, Kenya, native began running at an early age, but did not become a serious competitor until her arrival at Iowa State.

“I didn’t do a lot of [competitive] running in Kenya just because I wasn’t that serious about it, I was just running like everybody else,” Saina said. “I started being a serious athlete when I got to Iowa State. When I was in high school I started focusing for competition, but when I got here [Iowa State] is when I started full training and really started to love running.”

Saina’s newfound love for running and competition would eventually take her to heights she had never fathomed before.

“I didn’t even know I would ever use running and do something with it, I thought it was just something to do, not something to do for the rest of my life,” Saina said. “After my sophomore year is when I started doing really well and saw myself possibly running as a career.”

However, before Saina earned national success and came into her own as a runner, the sport she loves put her will to the ultimate test.

“Don’t stop here”

Saina said 2011 was her “worst year ever.” After passing out in two different races, one of which being the 10K at the 2011 NCAA Outdoor Championships, Saina began to contemplate whether or not running was something she wanted to continue to pursue.

“I was like ‘I think I’m going to quit running, I don’t see myself doing this anymore’,” Saina said. “Passing out twice in the same year, things were not going great.”

In 2010, Saina came in second in the 10K at nationals, but was not seeing the same success in the race during the 2011 nationals. Saina said pressure and over-confidence caused her to lose focus.

“When things didn’t go the way I was expecting, because you can tell then things are going your way, I kind of panicked,” Saina said.

Saina grappled with the idea of quitting for a week, but her mindset began to change as her teammates and coaches came to her side.

Joel Limo, a former Cyclone track and field runner, was one of the strongest aides in helping Saina regain her mental edge.

“When you love something, but it’s not going well, it’s frustrating,” Limo said. “I had seen the potential in her and you could tell that if she just keeps focused that she can be a really good runner. I told her that she would not be defined by her worst season, she would be defined by her best. Don’t stop here.”

Like Limo, assistant coach Travis Hartke saw Saina’s potential, but also saw the mental road block keeping her from success.

“At that time, she was on the cusp of being very good, but while her body was there, her mind wasn’t,” Hartke said. “It’s a building process, your mind almost has to get to the next plateau before you really have the confidence to be at that level. You can’t over step and take five steps when you need to take one at a time.”

Saina began to buy-in to Limo’s advice and after a four-week break, Saina was ready to return to the track.

“Joel was so supportive and told me to take a month off and think about it,” Saina said. “When you have a very down performance, especially in running, you think you’re going to quit the following morning, but when I took those four weeks off, after three weeks I started to miss something.”

As Saina put her adversity in the rear-view and got back on the track she began to experience the confidence that would propel her to the national stage.

“From that point, I actually came back and things started going very well and I didn’t have another bad time again,” Saina said. “I started training again and it was going really well.”

Making Adjustments

Traveling home to be with friends and family is not a luxury that Saina or Limo, also an Eldoret, Kenyan, have had.

Eldoret is 8,122 miles from Ames, and with flying being the only mode of transportation, Limo says that the money spent on one trip can be used for something more beneficial.

“Our background is humble, so when you contemplate spending $2,000 for a trip, that $2,000 can do wonderful things for your family, so it ends up being a trade off,” Limo said. “Do I help my parents with this money? Or do I take a trip? It becomes more sensible to say ‘I’d rather help them’.”

For Saina, just getting through her first semester away from home was a challenge.

“It was rough at first. When you have to leave family and come here, it was really hard,” Saina said. “It took me a semester to get used to it, but having people like Joel and other people from Kenya around to share things with, it didn’t take a lot of time to get back to who I am.”

Once Saina got on the track, she had to deal with something she was told did not exist in the United States: serious runners.

“When I came here, I didn’t know people were running fast,” Saina said. “In Kenya, when we were kids, people would say to us ‘Hey, if you go to the U.S., people are slow’. So as kids, you don’t even think you need to train and that you can just come here and be a superstar, but when I got here, I had to face the reality that people are running seriously.”

Looking back and moving forward

Saina’s next athletic venture will begin when she travels back to her home country of Kenya to train and compete in the trials for a spot on team Kenya for the 2013 World Track and Field Championships in Moscow, Russia, August 10-18.

As Saina takes her career to a higher platform, she still remembers the first time she competed in a Cyclone uniform.

“It was exciting, but I was so nervous,” Saina said. “I was so nervous and I never knew if it was going to go away, buy it actually ended up being a very good meet for me.”

Championships and awards aside, Saina added something more to the cross country and track teams.

“I think she’s a continuation of the culture that we have here,” Hartke said. “Her predecessor, Lisa [Koll], helped Betsy to get where she is and Betsy carried that on and has been an inspiration to the younger girls that hard work does pay off.”

Saina still recognizes Iowa State as the place that she came into her own as a competitor.

“I used to underestimate myself so much. People would tell me I would be great, but I never believed it,” Saina said. ” It think back to my times I used to run and now I’m running two minutes faster. It’s something I will always remember, being at Iowa State and my life ended up changing because I never thought I would be turning pro after college. This is where my running started and where I started to improve.’

Iowa State is credited by Saina as the place that helped her grow into the runner she is today, but as she looks back on her four years as a Cyclone, Iowa State helped her grow in more ways than one.

“I feel like I’ve been growing running wise and growth wise,” Saina said. “Everything is going well, and now I know that I can stand by myself.”