Betsy Saina: Out with the gold, in with the new


Betsy Saina, senior distance runner for the ISU women’s track team, recently won the NCAA indoor 5,000-meter title. 

Stephen Koenigsfeld

Her arms stretched as far as they could go and her smile lit up the entire track.

These were the exact expressions coming from ISU junior Betsy Saina on the evening of March 9. Why the Eldoret, Kenya, native was showing such enthusiasm was because she had just won the 5,000-meter run at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Nampa, Idaho.

However, a runner such as Saina does not accomplish such a feat simply by stepping on the track the day of the event and running the 3.1 miles. Preparation from day one set up the blissful finish.

Preparation for indoor season

“My goal was to just train for the indoors this year,” Saina said. “I was just saying that I was going to train for the 5k and win the 5k for nationals. It seemed crazy, but I was so excited when I just did it.”

From the moment she came back to school in the fall, Saina said she would be preparing for nationals. She said countless times throughout the season that the 5k was “her race” and that’s what she wanted to win the most.

And she did just that.

Saina set national records in the 3,000-meter run while holding two top national times in the 5k for a few weeks during the indoor season. She also set personal bests as well as a stadium record at the Big 12 Championships in College Station, Texas.

The race

Saina said the day leading up to the 5k race wasn’t any different from other races she had run during the season. Preparation remained unchanged and race-day rituals were the same.

“All the stuff was the same; we don’t usually change anything,” Saina said. “We needed to stick with what we had been doing for a long time.”

Like most events, Saina had collaborated with her teammates on what they wanted to do throughout the race.

“It was really exciting. There was no other school that had three people in the race,” Saina said. “Having three girls in the race was a unique thing.”

As the race drew closer, strategy unfolded among the three Cyclones competing in the 5k that evening. When the starting gunshot rang through the stadium, it was on.

At lap nine, Saina seized the lead from the No. 1 seed Deborah Maier of California. However, her foe would not back off so easily.

With 200 meters left in the 5,000-meter event, Maier came back with a vengeful kick.

“I like what I did for the first 200 [meters],” Saina said. “The coaches gave us some plan to stick to. So when she came in to overtake me, that was the time I needed to pull away.”

But Maier and Saina went stride for stride in those last 200 meters.

“I thought for the last 200, ‘I’m going to try my best and whatever happens, happens,’” Saina said. “I didn’t look back, but I realized she didn’t follow me. It was a sweet deal.”

Saina ended up edging out Maier by less than two seconds. Her final time, 15:38.83, went down in the record books as one of the all-time top 10 collegiate times ever run on a non-oversized track.

Teammate and role model

Saina has been running all season long with teammates Dani Stack and Meaghan Nelson, among others. The “trifecta” became a force to be reckoned with during the course of the indoor season.

“Working with Betsy is really good. She has a very good head on her shoulders,” Stack said. “She’s gone through ups and she’s gone through downs, so she’s built that confidence of what works for her.”

Stack also talked about Saina’s role off the track and how that affects their relationship.

“She’s also a very encouraging teammate,” Stack said. “She’s always motivating me and saying, ‘You’re going to be OK,’ and ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I really like having her as a teammate and she’s a good role model for a lot of people.”

Nelson ran right behind Saina and ended up in placing fourth in the 5k at the indoor championships.

“She’s super supportive and she’s always helping me and Dani get better in workouts,” Nelson said. “She’s definitely helped me through my training and helped me get the improvements I’ve gotten.”

What’s next?

As the outdoor season has already started to unfold, coaches and runners have been talking about putting what was a successful indoor season behind them and focusing on outdoors.

“After the indoor season, I just have so much confidence,” Saina said. “Right now, I don’t have any pressure. I just want to stick with what I’ve been doing and what the coaches have been training me to do. I’m excited to see what I can do outdoors.”

Saina will redshirt this outdoor season, meaning she still will run in a couple events unattached and will not be able to earn team points for Iowa State. Saina, Nelson and Stack will try to run a qualifying time in the 10,000-meter run to make the Olympic trials.

“I’m looking forward to this so much,” Saina said. “I’m excited to see what I can do out there. And it’s fun to run with a team like this.

“I feel like if everything goes well and my training goes well, that I will have done something great.”

The trio, as well as the rest of the distance squad, will continue knocking down record times and sweating their way towards the NCAA Outdoor Championships and eventually the Olympic trials in June.

“Heading into the outdoors, all of us are focused on the big meets like nationals, and I think all three of us are trying to qualify for the Olympic trials,” Stack said. “We’re just trying to use the last year as a base.”