By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Distance running is difficult.
It takes mental and physical toughness to keep the pace mile after mile, with even the best athletes showing grimace near the finish line.
There are no teammates to lean on or cheerleaders to pump up the crowd. It’s just you versus the track – and a bunch of like-minded competitors also trying to prove they’re the best.
Distance running definitely isn’t for everybody, but Maddie Bach lives for it.
“I’ve always loved it,” said Bach, a redshirt sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “I just like challenging myself and seeing how hard I can push myself each day.”
The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native was introduced to the sport at a young age. She completed her first 5K around kindergarten and finished the famed Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, New York, when she was 8.
During her senior year at Marion High School, Bach posted top-five finishes in the 1,500- and 3,000-meter runs at the Class 3A state track meet and came in fifth at the state cross country championship.
Her running career was headed in the right direction when she enrolled at Iowa Central Community College, a National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) powerhouse, that fall.
“I thought it was going to be a good fit,” Bach said. “It was a good running environment. It was a good setup for where I wanted to go afterward, but I was not ready for that at all.”
“It was a lot to handle at 18.”
She qualified for the 2016 NJCAA Division I Cross Country Championships and finished in the top six in the 1-mile, 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter runs the following spring at the indoor track championships.
Along with the success came higher expectations.
“The competition is that much harder than it is in high school,” Bach said. “There’s that many more kids, that many more teammates who are just as good as you. It was a lot of pressure.”
Bach battled an eating disorder throughout her teenage years, reaching a low point during college.
It was all she could think about. In her mind, the only way to be faster was to lose weight.
Bulimia took over her life.
After her freshman year, Bach transferred to Indian Hills Community College, where she suffered two leg and foot injuries in a five-month span.
“A lot of that had to do with my eating habits,” Bach said. “Eventually your body is going to get worn out and tired.”
Physically and emotionally defeated, Bach was ready to give up on running.
Then she got a call from UNK head track and cross country coach Brady Bonsall, who “took a shot in the dark” on the talented athlete.
Bonsall had never seen Bach compete, but her times from high school and Iowa Central showed the potential.
“I could tell that Maddie, athletically, was good enough,” Bonsall said.
Now all he had to do was convince her to come to UNK, which was easier said than done.
Bach was hesitant to move more than six hours from home, but willing to listen to Bonsall, who encouraged her to take a redshirt season while contemplating the future.
She transferred to Kirkwood Community College back in her hometown of Cedar Rapids and remained in contact with the UNK coach.
“I had lost a lot of passion for running. I almost quit several times. What kept me interested was him and his love for it,” Bach said of Bonsall. “The fact that he had my back the whole time kind of kept me going.”
Eventually, she agreed to check out the UNK campus.
“When I came and visited, it just seemed right,” Bach said. “I love the education program and I love the team. It seemed like a good fit.”
Bach, who is studying elementary and special education, joined the Lopers in January, almost 18 months after Bonsall first reached out.
“That’s a much longer process than usual,” Bonsall said with a chuckle.
He knows the persistence will pay off.
Bach has four victories and eight top-five finishes during the indoor/outdoor seasons, including relays, with eight times ranking in the top 10 all-time for UNK women’s track.
She’s thriving in a low-pressure role and hasn’t had health issues in more than a year.
“My mentality has changed a lot, but I also think my teammates help a lot,” Bach said. “The environment here is so much different than anywhere else I’ve been. They push me to be better in more ways than just running.”
The 21-year-old has a simple goal now – just keep improving and let the chips fall where they may.
“It’s not about what we’re trying to accomplish a year or two from now,” Bonsall said. “Let’s just take one step at a time and see where it leads, and if we do a good job then the outcome could be pretty good.”
For Bach, every practice and event is worth celebrating.
“There was a period of time when I thought about quitting, but I’m so glad I didn’t, because I just love it so much,” she said.
Class: Redshirt sophomore
Hometown: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Major: Education with elementary and special education endorsements
Season notes: Four victories and eight top-five finishes, including relays, since arriving at UNK in January; Eight times in the top 10 all-time for UNK women’s track, including second in the indoor 3,000 (10:04.01), third in the indoor distance medley (12:11.27), fifth in the outdoor 5,000 (18:00.86), sixth in the indoor 1,000 (3:05.24) and seventh in the indoor mile (5:02.79)
Career notes: Qualified for 2016 NJCAA Division I Cross Country Championships with Iowa Central Community College and finished in the top six in the 1-mile, 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter runs during 2017 NJCAA Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championships