Iowa State women’s cross-country runner Bethanie Brown has more comebacks than Rocky Balboa.
Just like Rocky, every time she’s been knocked down, whether it’s been from health issues, injuries or fatigue, she’s always found a way to bounce back in some of the most crucial moments.
She’s the kind of runner who, once in race mode, will always go to the well and test her limits.
“If you look at her history, she’s only raced when she’s pretty darn solid,” Iowa State coach Andrea Grove-McDonough said earlier in the season.
But her opportunities since her freshman year to compete in a Cyclone jersey have been few and often far between.
Three years ago, Brown was one of the best up-and-coming women’s cross-country runners in the nation.
She placed 21st at the Roy Griak Invitational in her collegiate debut, finished inside the top five at the Big 12 Championship and earned All-America honors at the NCAA Championship with a 37th-place performance.
She went on to record two of the top-10 fastest times in Iowa State history in the 3,000-meter run during the following indoor season and in the 5,000-meter run during the outdoor season.
Brown was only able to compete in two cross-country events in 2014, the Roy Griak Invitational and the NCAA Championship, after an injury forced her to miss almost two months. Despite the layoff in between, Brown came back to help lead Iowa State as its third scorer to a runner-up finish at nationals.
Health issues would eventually sideline her for the 2015 indoor and outdoor track seasons, the 2015 cross-country season and the 2016 indoor season.
Now she’s back competing again, and making a difference. She used her season debut at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 14 as a workout to gauge how she was feeling and have a race that she could build off of instead of a race where she tries hard from the start.
“Coach and I had talked about that of me kind of going and doing it more like a workout and kind of going from the back to the front,” Brown said. “I think maybe we had different ideas of what the back was, because I started in the very back, and she was like, ‘Woah, you’re in the way back,’ so I think she was thinking a little bit like of a harder start.
“But anyway, it ended up going pretty much according to plan. I started in the back and I moved up, so it wasn’t like a go to the well race.”
At the Big 12 Championship about two weeks later, she helped Iowa State secure the title with a top-10 individual performance.
But she said she had a little pain in her leg before the meet and it got worse after the race.
“I had gone out and tried to run and couldn’t run on it [after Big 12s], so I had to pull back and really just take a rest, which kind of interrupted that block that’s critical for training at a point like this in the season,” Brown said. “I needed that week in between to be able to train for regionals. Since I didn’t have that, it was really more smart to move that block of training to during regionals, and then I could have a chance at being ready for nationals …”
With some time to rest and train, she’s ready for nationals, and the Cyclones will need her to go to the well on Saturday if they want a chance to obtain their goal of finishing inside the top 10.
“I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, I’ll have a great race at nationals.’ I have no idea,” Brown said. “I tried to get some good training in that block, but I don’t know how it will affect me to have taken those days off.”
The message sounds familiar to one she gave last April about the Drake Relays after taking first in the 5,000-meter run.
“I had no idea what kind of fitness I was in [before the 5,000-meter race at the Drake Relays],” Brown said at the time. “I had kind of a general sense that I had been starting to go more smoothly in terms of my mileage, so I had a feeling that I was not going to do terribly. When you actually get into the race and try to run a five-minute pace for three miles, I didn’t know [how that was going to feel].”
Brown entered the Drake Relays two weeks after placing second in the 1,500-meter run at the Jim Duncan Invitational, which was her first outdoor track competition in nearly two years and first overall competition in more than a year.
Brown was in the back half of the pack for the first half of the race but remained within striking distance of first place.
“In the middle, I was like, ‘I think I have it; I think I can do this,’” Brown said after the race. "I didn’t think winning, but I was like, ‘I’m definitely in this and I’m feeling good.’ I actually smiled during the race. I was running around and I just found myself smiling because I was just so happy to feel normal, feel like I could do it.”
With about three laps to go, she pulled in front of the rest of the pack and stayed ahead for the remainder of the race.
“Bethanie’s the kind of gal who can go to the well every single time,” Grove-McDonough said.
A lot of what ifs can be asked asked about Brown’s cross-country career at Iowa State, but she’s not focusing on what could have been. She’s focusing on what can happen now.
“Even when there are difficulties, you can still come back,” Brown said last April. “It might take you a little while, it might not be the time frame that you would want, but it can still happen.”