Betsy Saina, Meaghan Nelson push through cross-country season as elite runners

Meaghan Nelson and Betsy Saina practice on Monday, Oct. 15, behind the Lied Recreation Athletic Center. Saina and Nelson got second and fourth places respectively in the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational. 

Emily Hejlik

All-Americans Meaghan Nelson and Betsy Saina displayed another dominant performance this past weekend at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational.

The two seniors led their No. 5 squad to victory while finishing second and fourth with Nelson finishing just 10 seconds behind Saina.

“I expected to win,” Saina said. “I didn’t follow the leader when she took off because I thought she would die [off], but I did my best to try and get the win.”

The plan was for the two to stick together until the last mile or so and then break off, having Saina and Nelson out front with the top group at the end.

“My goal was to do as well as I did last year,” said Nelson, who finished ninth in 2011. “I’m glad I improved on it; the fourth-place finish will only help me going into [the] Big 12.”

Saina and Nelson have finished in the top five in both of the meets they’ve competed in.

The runners finished 1-2 at the Roy Griak Invitational in their first meet of the season two weeks ago as Saina crossed the finish line eight seconds before Nelson. Saina had not run competitively since this summer’s African Games, and Nelson’s last competition was this past June when she finished 12th in the Olympics Trials.

The two attribute their success to each other.

“It’s invaluable to have Betsy as a training partner,” Nelson said. “She is one of the most talented runners in the country — it’s very motivational to run with her. She definitely makes me a better runner.”

Saina said she relies on Nelson to push her when things get difficult.

“It helps a lot when you have someone like that especially when you start to get tired,” Saina said. “She makes me feel stronger and forces me to improve on a daily basis.”

Even with their accomplishments, consistency can always be improved upon.

“There is a point in the race where the pack breaks,” Nelson said. “I need to always go with that group ahead of me — that’s the difference between being third and fourth.”

From a coach’s standpoint, it is rare to have two runners the caliber of Saina and Nelson on the same team. Associate coach Travis Hartke said every runner is different in what they need to help them reach their maximum level.

“People don’t realize how individualized the sport is,” Hartke said. “You can’t train everyone together because each runner needs change. Also, there are not many runners who can keep up with Betsy and Meaghan.”

Success brings great expectations — their coach has gotten accustomed to only accepting the best from his top runners.

“I expect Betsy and Meaghan to be in the top 10 at nationals,” Hartke said. “They have gotten to a confidence level where they are very steady. Betsy really wants to win the national meet, and she definitely has the focus and credentials to do so.”