By all accounts, Joseph Bates was a man of few words—but he saved special ones for his daughter Emma.
Some came when she was preparing for Minnesota’s Northwest Suburban Conference cross country championship in 2005. “He told me, ‘Go win the thing,’” Emma told Runner’s World. She was in eighth grade, racing seniors, she told him. The idea was preposterous.
Joseph worked long hours at hard jobs—at an oil well, refueling planes at the airport. He couldn’t always join his wife, Michelle, at Emma’s meets. But in the wee hours, before he left, he jotted four more words on a Post-it note: “Run hard, have fun.”
Joseph died in November 2016, swiftly, from a rare lung disease. The loss of their still, quiet source of strength devastated the Bates family.
But his memory, and messages, have fueled Bates’s professional running career since. That includes an incredibly difficult year and a half beginning in early 2020—a time in which she contracted an early case of COVID-19, split from her husband/coach, and uprooted her entire life to join a new training group with the Olympics around the corner.
And, when her hamstrings seized somewhere after mile 21 of this year’s Chicago Marathon, Bates thought of Joseph’s battle at the end and kept pushing, en route to a breakthrough personal best 2:24:20 and second-place finish.
“I saw somewhere, grief doesn’t get any smaller, but you grow around it,” Bates’s mom, Michelle, told Runner’s World. “That’s what she’s done, grow around it and make herself stronger.”
From Rough Start to Success
Bates went on to run at Boise State University, where she won the 2014 NCAA title in the 10,000 meters. After graduation, she joined the Adidas-sponsored BAA High Performance Team in Boston.
City life didn’t suit her, though, and her running suffered. In 2017, unsure if she’d continue competing, she moved back to Boise with a man she’d met her freshman year, Kameron Ulmer.
Eventually, they bought a house off the grid—no running water, solar electricity, and a backup generator. Back in the mountains, her love for running rekindled. Ulmer became her coach, and they started a training group, the Idaho Distance Project.
The setup might have seemed unconventional for an elite athlete, but the free-spirited Bates thrived. “Emma is one of those people who constantly surprises us,” Keisha Indenbaum-Bates, her older sister, told Runner’s World. “She’s never really tended to do what people expect.”
Indeed, few anticipated her win at the 2018 California International Marathon—the then-unsponsored runner ran 2:28:19 in her debut at the distance, becoming the USATF Marathon and USATF Running Circuit champion, while raising funds for California fire relief in the process.
The following January, she signed a multi-year contract with Asics, and her roll continued. In April, she won the Silo District Half Marathon in Waco, Texas, in 1:16:38 (and donated her $3,000 award back to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation); in May, she won the USATF 25K Championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1:23:51. In her second marathon in Chicago that October, she shaved nearly three minutes off her best time to finish fourth and first American in 2:25:27. The week after, she and Ulmer married.
The breakout year made her a top contender for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, and she headed into the race at what she felt was peak fitness. But the tight pack of competitors left her feeling hemmed in, and she struggled to find her rhythm. After spending some time in the lead through halfway, she ultimately finished seventh in 2:29:35.
“My Entire World Had Crumbled”
Even rockier roads lie ahead. After the race, she and Ulmer flew straight from Atlanta to Spain for a delayed honeymoon. As the pandemic unfolded around them, both caught what they presume was COVID-19, though testing wasn’t widely available.
Many of her worst symptoms—gastrointestinal distress, headache, and fatigue—resolved relatively quickly. However, her shortness of breath, especially on the run, lingered for about five months. “I didn’t feel like myself, exactly,” she said.
Fortunately, by the time limited racing returned, Bates felt better. In September, she ran 1:09:44 to place second to Keira D’Amato at the Michigan Pro Half Marathon. Her training was going well, and her expectations for the Marathon Project—another pros-only race in Chandler, Arizona, in December—were high.
On a flat, fast course with pacers, she had a time of 2:23 or under in her sights. But two weeks beforehand, Bates received news she describes as shocking and devastating.
Out of respect for Ulmer, she demurs on the details. However, the event ultimately led to their divorce—and a total life upheaval. “It was 10 years with this person,” she said, their personal and professional lives intertwined. “My entire world had completely crumbled beneath me.”
She debated whether to line up for the race at all; friends and family suggested it might be wiser to sit it out. As miserable as she felt, she decided she’d poured too much into her buildup, and headed to the starting line. Despite vomiting four times between miles 9 and 10—the emotions she’d stuffed inside emerging, she believes—she finished fourth in 2:25:40, just 13 seconds off her personal best.
At the time, she was disappointed. But upon reflection, she’d come to recognize the signs of her resilience. She couldn’t change what had happened, but her reaction—her path forward—was up to her.
Planning Her Next Move
After following her heart to Boise, Bates knew she’d need to leave to pick up its broken pieces. The associations were too strong, triggering her depression and anxiety.
So she packed up her dog Nuka and her cat Snufkin and drove east, to suburban Washington, D.C. For two weeks, she stayed in quarantine in the basement of her sister’s house. When she emerged, she met a new light in her life—her nephew Odis, born that June.
The time with her family—Indenbaum-Bates; her husband, Patrick; Odis; and Michelle, who also lives nearby—soothed her soul. Speaking with a mental health professional lifted some of the burden. So, too, did reflecting on Joseph’s passing. “Losing a parent was the hardest thing that I’ve ever gone through, and it gave me some perspective,” she said.
On the running side, she spoke with Ben Cesar, director of sports marketing at Asics. He told her to take care of Emma the person first, and not to rush back to training or competition. “When it came time to telling me that she needed a relocation in order to find her better self,” he said, “my reply was, we had to be supportive.”
Asics doesn’t have an affiliated training group, like Adidas’s BAA group, Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, or Hoka NAZ Elite. The choice, Cesar told Bates, was hers.
She considered staying near her family, but Indenbaum-Bates knew that wouldn’t fly. “Emma loves big open space,” she said. “She needs to be somewhere where, literally and figuratively, she can go where her legs take her.”
Thoughts of Boulder—full of mountains and many distance running superstars—crossed Bates’s mind. They grew more concrete in March, when she ran the USATF 15K Championships at the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, Florida.
She placed 12th, but more important, reconnected with Laura Thweatt, the fifth-place finisher at the Olympic Marathon Trials. At the time, Boulder-based Thweatt was training with Team Boss, a group coached by Joe Bosshard that includes his wife, Olympic bronze medalist Emma Coburn, along with Olympians Kate Grace, Dominique Scott, and Aisha Praught Leer.
Thweatt and Bates had met briefly before, after the 2019 NYRR Mini 10K. “She outdipped me for fourth place,” Thweatt told Runner’s World with a laugh, but Bates was kind and gracious afterward. Thweatt told her boyfriend at the time, “I think she is my girl runner crush.”
In Florida, when Bates asked for Thweatt’s feedback on a potential Boulder move, Thweatt had a fast answer: “My thoughts are that you need to join Team Boss, because the two of us together could do incredible, incredible things,” she said. She followed up with an Instagram DM to seal the deal.
Bates called Bosshard to discuss the possibility, and instantly felt their personalities and approaches clicked. But there was one more step: The other women of the team had to agree. Coburn said their approval came easily, especially with Thweatt’s endorsement. “Her personality is great, and then also just her physical talents,” Coburn said. “Seeing Laura’s enthusiasm really sold it to the rest of us, and so we invited her to join.”
Thin Air and Good Times
Once again, Bates packed up her life, this time to heat straight to the Team Boss spring training camp in Crested Butte. Track sessions with athletes preparing for the Olympics at 9,000 feet of elevation proved challenging: “I don’t know if I finished a workout,” she said.
Though it took a little time to adjust athletically, she felt an instant connection to the strong women surrounding her. And the feeling was mutual; Bates brings a casual positivity and joy to the team, easy laughter that never feels forced, Coburn said. “She’s just naturally a confident person, so she doesn’t need outside validation of anything to make herself feel good about her life and her choices,” she said. “It’s been so easy to be her teammate and friend.”
Her next race was the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in June, in which she placed 29th in 33:21—not the result she was hoping for. But when marathon training began in earnest in the summer, after the Trials, her talents began to shine through. Bosshard extended Bates’s training cycles to 10 days instead of seven, to allow more rest between hard workouts. He also added more length and structure to her long runs, building up to 22 to 24 miles that began at a 6-minute pace and dipped down to 5:30, all at altitude.
Thweatt left the team in July to coach herself, so Bosshard often biked alongside Bates, singing along to Ed Sheeran and Halsey as he pedaled. Her weekly mileage was high, peaking close to 130, but she never seemed to tire. The general goofiness of the team kept Bates in a good headspace: Running hard, having fun.
For as much joy as running brings her, Bates knows—from seeing her father’s struggle with work-life balance, as much as his words—she also needs a life outside it. So, she built one in her new home. She ate corned beef hash for brunch with the team at local restaurant Tangerine, hiked trails with Nuka, attended outdoor concerts, and hit the dance floor at a bar called Press Play, with Thweatt.
The two remain close despite Thweatt’s departure from the team; in fact, Bates served as a key source of support in the decision-making process. “She was like, ‘You’re the only one that knows what you need, and you have to be willing to trust that,’” Thweatt said. “Coming from someone like her, who has done nothing but that, it gave me the belief in myself to do it, too.”
A Race of Resilience
As Chicago neared, Bates had a feeling she could run fast. The hot, humid forecast for the race felt foreboding, but a warmer-than-average Boulder summer had prepared her. She planned to race within herself the first half and dig down the second.
With enough of what Bosshard called methodical patience, she might pass enough people to secure a podium spot, she thought. And since he and nearly the entire team had flown out to cheer her, traveling the course on rented Divvy bikes, she knew she’d have support along the way—visible reminders of the full, happy life she’d newly reconstructed.
On race morning, despite starting temperatures of 70 degrees with 70 percent humidity, Ruth Chepngetich—a heavy favorite looking for redemption after dropping out of the Olympic Marathon in August—shot out at a blistering 5:02 pace for the first 5K, then began to slow, hitting halfway in 1:07:34. Sara Hall, who’d publicly set her sights on Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 American record beforehand, took the first half in 1:11:37, a 5:28 pace.
Bates started out with the 2:24 pace group, which included D’Amato. Around mile 10, though, the 5:30 pace felt like a struggle. She deliberately let D’Amato and pacer Dylan Belles go ahead, and hit halfway in sixth place—27 seconds slower than planned, but still smiling. When doubts about her conservative strategy arose, she squashed them with Bosshard’s direction: methodical and patient.
Around mile 14, as the wind picked up, so did she. Outside the view of the TV cameras, which toggled between Chepngetich and Hall, Bates caught D’Amato, then passed her. With an impressive string of late-race 5Ks—16:59, 17:00, 16:59, 17:08—she ran down Hall, then, around mile 21, Vivian Kiplagat.
Each time she saw Team Boss—the group biked about 14 miles around town during the race—they looked more excited, happily calling out just how much she was gaining on the competitors ahead.
Meanwhile, her family got up early to watch at a bed and breakfast in San Francisco, where they’d flown for a wedding. They frantically refreshed their race app and social media feeds, wondering why more people hadn’t yet noticed what Bates was about to accomplish. Odis—who doesn’t get a lot of screen time and can’t yet say his aunt’s name—pointed excitedly when he finally saw her appear; the grown-ups aimed to stifle their joyous screams, just a little, so as not to wake their neighbors.
The final four miles, when Bates’s mind turned to her father, she was struck by how much his example buoyed her. At lower points in her life, remembering his final days brought only pain. But now, she knew she could be as tough as he was. “I can harness that heartache and turn it into something that’s really strong,” she said.
Given another mile, that strength might have carried her to the top of the podium, said Cesar. He watched from near the finish, where it was clear Chepngetich was fading as Bates was still accelerating.
But as it was, taking second place at a world major marathon not only set off an epic two-day celebration, it also changed the trajectory of Bates’s career. She’s now the ninth-fastest American woman to run the distance, and qualified for the marathon at the 2022 IAAF World Championships in Eugene, Oregon—a spot she plans to accept, when it’s formally offered. She has her sights set on other major marathons, including New York City, and maybe, someday, that American record.
Michelle has no doubt that, were Joseph there to see it, he’d be “over the moon” at Bates’s successes. Even if he was sparing in his words, he stealthily collected them. When she cleaned his office after his passing, Michelle found a four-inch-thick file, filled with printouts of articles about Emma’s performances.
Bates didn’t know that. None of them did, until later. In her quiet confidence, though, her mom and sister see Joseph’s influence, clearly written. And the longer Bates reflects on her dad’s advice, the simpler it seems: Never shrink from the challenges, but don’t let pressure rob you of the pleasure that can come from pursuing your dreams.
“He believed in me more than I believed in myself, a lot of times,” Bates said. “He just wants me to be happy. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing—I know that he’s going to be proud of me, as long as I’m trying my best.”