Shoeless Bilo Hopes to Get Off on Right Foot at Nationals
Cal Poly sophomore Peyton Bilo had never experienced running a race with one shoe until the most important one of her career. But adversity did not stop the Mustang distance standout from finding her poise, rhythm and balance when she needed it the most.
On a hot and muggy evening at Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin, Texas, Bilo toed the starting line of the women’s 5000 meter run with 23 other competitors from the West region.
In that talent-saturated May 27 race at the West Preliminary, finishing among the top-5 meant an opportunity to advance to nationals and the NCAA Championship in Eugene, Ore.
Bilo got there. She stands among a 24-runner field that will compete for a national championship in the 5000 on the famed Hayward Field track at 5:25 p.m. this Saturday.
It’s an impressive feat to get to nationals, and earn a chance to compete among the very best in the country. But what’s even more impressive in Bilo’s case is how she got there.
When the gun sounded and a huddled mass of humanity began the 12.5 lap quest for supremacy, Bilo had not taken but more than a few steps when she realized this race would present the type of challenge she had not navigated before.
Someone had stepped on her right shoe, and it was halfway off her foot. She needed to make a decision, and quickly. Stop for a few precious seconds to put the shoe back on, and allow the pack to get ahead of her? Or boot the shoe off to the side and experience the adventure of distance running through a single shoe lens?
Bilo chose the latter, and the decision paid off handsomely. The top five finishers in her heat qualified automatically for the NCAA’s. She finished fifth, in 16 minutes, 44.27 seconds.
Obstacles already commonplace in this race, it came as no surprise that Bilo did not know until 10 minutes after it had concluded that she actually had advanced.
That’s because she was involved in a photo finish with Wisconsin sophomore Amy Davis. That’s right, Bilo edged out Davis by what amounted to a…shoe.
Bilo related her experience to BigWest.org prior to this Saturday’s showdown with the best in the nation.
Q&A WITH PEYTON BILO
Big West: You had to persevere through some adversity. What exactly happened?
Peyton Bilo: The starting line was pretty crowded. There were 24 girls in the race. As soon as the gun went off, everyone was fighting for position on the inside. On probably the second or third step of the race, I got flat tired by some girl next to me. My shoe was halfway off going into the first 100 meters of the race. I was in the middle of the pack, and faced with the decision of stopping and putting my shoe on, and catch back up, or I could just kick it off. I didn’t think I’d be able to stop in the middle of the pack, so I just kicked my shoe off to the inside of the track about 150 meters into the race. I kind of just kept going from there.
BW: What were you feeling as this was happening?
PB: In the beginning, I definitely panicked a little bit. I’m supposed to stay as relaxed as possible and try to not let those types of things affect me, but it does. For a lap after that, I was kind of stressing out and getting pretty distracted, and really focusing on not getting stepped on. Regardless of whether my shoe was on or not, my goal didn’t change. Trying to forget about it as much as I could was how I got through it.
BW: What does that feel like physically to have one shoe on one foot, and running with a sock on the other foot? What kind of challenges does that present from both a mental and physical standpoint?
PB: I think physically I didn’t feel any pain at the time because I had so much adrenaline and endorphins going. It was a little hard to get traction on that foot, but luckily it was my right foot. You’re making a bunch of left turns, so there’s definitely more pressure and more impact on my left foot, which had the shoe, so that was good. Going into the home stretch and trying to sprint was definitely a challenge. My foot would slide a little bit. The track was also normal, and not a Mondo track, so I think that helped with recovery. I’ve been pretty sore in the days after the race. My calf is pretty tight. My foot is okay except for a few blisters. I got pretty lucky with how healthy I’ve been since doing that.
Mentally, I think my pain receptors were completely blocked, so I really didn’t feel any pain. I just tried to do the best in the circumstances I was in.
BW: What’s the difference between a regular track and a Mondo track?
PB: The Mondo track is a lot harder on your body. It’s a different material. A few coaches told me “if this had been on a Mondo track, your sock would have had a bunch of giant holes in it and your foot would be really cut up.” I’m glad it wasn’t.
BW: You never felt someone else’s foot hit you the rest of the time?
PB: I got stepped on probably once or twice. One time a girl behind me hit the bottom of my foot with her spike, as my foot was cycling back. I think her foot scraped the bottom of my foot.
BW: At what point did you realize ‘I can do this?’ I can actually get in the top five? You were in the top three with three laps to go.
PB: I never really felt like I had it in the bag at all. The field was so deep. I barely was able to qualify. I just knew with the runner that I am, and the fact that I didn’t have a shoe on, that the last 100, if I left it up to that to try to move up into fifth, that would be a lot less likely that I would be in the top five. I tried to commit to the top three from the moment of separation. By putting myself in the top three when those girls separated, I felt I was giving myself the best chance possible to be in the top five.
BW: The girl that you ended up duking it out with for the fifth and final spot, when did you know you were in a full on sprint with her to try to be the fifth person?
PB: I knew going into the last lap I could still hear a lot of footsteps behind me. The last 300 meters, the girl from Wisconsin came up and completely passed me. I realized that I’m in sixth, but she was right there. The last 75 meters, we were going back and forth a lot. When I crossed the line, I actually thought I lost. I was convinced I didn’t catch her. I got really emotional and I was really sad. They didn’t put the results up for 10 more minutes. They were looking at the photo finish of it. It took them a long time to make the result official. It was really stressful. I was the lucky one that ended up literally just out leaning her. That’s all it was. It was just a lean.
BW: That has to be a tremendous boost to your confidence?
PB: I was really proud of that. On top of the shoe, we’re not used to running in humidity or that hot of weather at 9:00 p.m. I had a cold, so there were a lot of things working against me. The fact that I was able to squeeze a fifth-place finish in, it was really exciting for me. I was really thankful that my family was there.
BW: As you’re running the race, and once the shoe did come off, were you listening to anybody? Could you hear anybody in the stands?
PB: My parents actually didn’t know. Coach (Priscilla) Bayley did not know, but Coach (Mark) Conover saw it happen. I could hear my dad cheering for me. I kept making eye contact with him in the earlier laps, looking at him, looking down at my shoe and then looking back at him because I thought he knew. Then I crossed the line and they said, “Wait, where’s your shoe?” And I said, “It’s been off for 12 laps!”
BW: What about the other girls? Did they realize what had happened and did they congratulate you afterward?
PB: I think some people knew and some didn’t know. There was another athlete in the same race, from Baylor (Maggie Montoya), who also lost her shoe. During the race, I saw that she had lost her shoe. We were running side-by-side for three or four laps. And afterwards, we gave each other a hug.
BW: So you’re going to nationals now. Doesn’t that type of experience give you added confidence?
PB: I think it does. I’m going into the race with the same game plan either way. Run with the pack, and then give it everything I have for the last mile. My style won’t really change because of that performance. It does reassure me that I do belong with that crowd, and that I can run with those girls.
BW: Your career best was 15:52 earlier this season – at Stanford. Do you think you’re peaking at the right time? What’s your goal for this race?
PB: Time-wise, it’s hard to have a goal. At meets like the Stanford Invite, the conditions are perfect. There’s a rabbit pacing the first two miles of the race, so it goes out fast. There are no slow starts kind of what we saw at regionals. But at nationals, there’s no pacer. I looked at the weather forecast, and it said rain and thunderstorms. For me, my goal is to focus on placement and running the best race I can. I’d like to stay with the pack for as long as I can, and if I feel real good, try to respond to those moves.
BW: Going into Cal Poly and entering college, is this something where you expected to be at, at this point in your collegiate career?
PW: I would say no. Going into Cal Poly my freshman year, I was just hoping to make top-seven and just be able to travel as a freshman. I’ve had a lot of success with the coaching staff here. I love my coaches. They’ve helped me grow into the runner that I’ve always wanted to become. There’s always room for more improvement in the future.