Relax and go eat some bonbons. That’s what a proud Matt Beisel told junior Emily Sievert soon after the completion of another grueling cross country season. Like many runners do, Sievert had persevered through the challenges that were thrown her way.
There’s tough and then there’s Sievert, who would have likely found the finish line at the national championships even if she had been mauled by a lion halfway through. Said Beisel, “She’s very gritty and has a very, very strong mind and a will that she was going to get this done one way or another.”
The day prior to the 2016 NAIA Cross Country National Championships, which were contested on Nov. 19, Sievert trudged around St. Louis on crutches while making her way to the famed Gateway Arch. That’s right, the lone Concordia national qualifier had difficulty simply walking without discomfort surfacing due to the bone bruise on her knee.
By this point, Sievert had already proven she could accomplish impressive feats, no matter the knee flare ups. A native of Frankenmuth, Mich., Sievert ran roughly one measly mile during the week leading up to the GPAC championship race. This wasn’t normal for someone accustomed to 50-mile weeks.
“A lot of it was just mentally accepting that I was not at my peak physical condition that I would have desired to be at,” Sievert said. “I probably wasn’t prepared for the best race of my life, but what I could control, I had controlled. Part of that took away some of my nerves. I was like, ‘You’ve done everything you can to get here. The rest of it’s just going to happen.’ With racing it’s a lot of adrenaline that takes over. You know that it’s going to hurt afterwards. It’s probably going to hurt during, but that’s what you train for.”
As Beisel put it, Sievert “literally took four weeks off of running.” Not exactly the ideal course of action for someone hopeful of a second-straight trip to nationals. But Sievert showed championship mettle, finishing the GPAC championships with a season best 5k time of 18:20.96, placing her ninth to lock up all-conference recognition. Two days later Sievert was officially named to the national qualifying field.
What had occurred was improbable to be sure. From crutches to all-conference to national qualifier. That’s Sievert’s journey.
“It was really exciting to be able to get to that point even though my training hadn’t been where I wanted it to be,” Sievert said. “You work so hard for something and you don’t want to miss out on it. I felt like no matter what I could still be happy with that performance and with what I gave. I didn’t hold anything back. That was the biggest part going into the race – deciding that I wasn’t going to give up.”
So how exactly does one prepare for a race when you can’t actually, you know, run? As part of her unique routine, Sievert regularly used an AlterG treadmill that reduced the amount of weight and stress placed upon her knee. She also performed elliptical workouts, rode on a bike and even jumped into a YMCA pool while wearing an aqua vest that allowed her to simulate running as closely as possible.
Once again, the two weeks between the GPAC championships and the national championships involved virtually no actual running. Neither athletic trainer Stacy Dahlkoetter nor Concordia team physician Dr. Doug Tewes would allow it due to the inflamed knee. Sievert had to stay off her feet as much as possible.
“When the trainers tell you no, then it’s time to figure out a different strategy,” Sievert said. “They had me on crutches. I was doing elliptical training. I did a lot of swim workouts. You don’t cover near the mileage in a pool as you would running. You try to keep the running form and the cardio up, but nothing’s an actual representation of running.”
The pain was worse at the national championships. There were no issues cardio-wise, but Sievert admits that the knee hurt “pretty bad,” but she hadn’t yet crossed the finish line. There was no stopping now. According to Beisel, Sievert briefly passed out just after finishing the national championship course in 19:28.
In some ways, the time was irrelevant. It was a heroic effort that surely brought pride to current teammate Taylor Grove and former teammates and recent graduates Erika Schroeder and Kim Wood, all of whom were there at North Farm Course in Elsah, Ill., in a show of support. The appearances of Schroeder and Wood came as a complete surprise to Sievert. Said the two-time all-conference performer, “That’s such an incredible and humbling thing. I’ve just had endless people that are so encouraging and supporting.”
It’s not difficult to be encouraging and supportive of someone with the drive, the spirit and the personality of Sievert. On the surface, Sievert’s 195th-place finish may not seem worth celebrating, but those who understand her story know better than that.
Says Biesel, “That fact that she ran a respectable time through really tough pain is a testament to her strong will. We’re really proud of her.”
Now in a period of rest and recovery, Sievert is looking forward to indoor track, which she calls her “favorite season.” There are more barriers to navigate, but don’t count her out. Says Sievert, “I know I’ll be out there at some point. Hopefully sooner rather than later.”