It was two days before the Boston Marathon, and Emma Bates was completely freaking out. At a press conference the day before she told the whole world she was a contender to win and planned to stay with the lead pack.
Then the pressure of her announcement started getting to her.
“All of that pressure and all of the chaos that was going around me all just weighed in on me and then I just started crying and I had a breakdown of just pressure and stress,” she says.
Luckily, she had someone with her to help: her boyfriend Steve Finley.
“I just let it all out and he just held me until I was able to get all of my tears out,” says Bates, 30. “And it was like 20 minutes of just full on shaking and crying and feeling out of control. And after that 20 minutes I felt fine. So it was just kind of like a release of emotions.”
She said she needed to get those emotions out of the way to focus and be relaxed and confident. Clearly it worked. Bates finished first among Americans, fifth overall in a new personal best of 2:22:10 and led the pack for several miles late in the race
And, it seemed, her boyfriend knew exactly how to help, despite the fact that he’s not a professional runner himself. In the running world, there are many famous elite running couples, from Adam and Kara Goucher to Sara and Ryan Hall. There are also relationships between runners and coaches, such as Brent and Sara Vaughn and Emma Coburn and Joe Bosshard.
Then there are runners like Bates. Her boyfriend is a runner–he founded the Brooklyn Track Club, works for Bandit Running and used to run professionally–but is no longer an elite competitor, and is not connected directly to Bates’s running career in any way.
She says that’s the perfect balance.
“He knows the pressures that I’m under and just how much I care about it, and so he’s just really good about being there and knowing exactly what I need at each moment and each phase of the days leading up, or weeks leading up, or hours leading up even to a race,” she says. “He’s also a coach, but he doesn’t coach me in any way. We don’t really talk about running any other time. It’s just more like just checking in, making sure I’m OK. He treats me like just a person. He doesn’t treat me like a runner or an athlete or anything like that. It’s just making sure that I’m supported in the way that I need to be.”
But, the fact that Finley is a runner means he still understands the way Bates needs to conduct her day to day, from nutrition to sleep to her mental state.
“It’s hard being friends or making friends or having relationships later in life just because people have their routines and their careers and they want to go out on weekends and that’s how people meet nowadays at our age, in our 30s,” she says. “And I can’t do that all the time. I’m not going to go out when I’m in full running mode. And so that’s really nice just to have somebody that understands I can’t do certain things because of my career.”
She and Finley met, coincidentally, at a bar, but at a bar during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. It was at the Wild Duck Cafe in Eugene, Oregon.
“I didn’t know that Steve was a runner in any way, I just thought he was like a townie in Eugene, like just somebody random,” Bates says. “And so we had such a great connection there, but didn’t talk for years and ended up meeting back up again at the 2021 Trials at the Wild Duck.”
They’ve now been dating for a year, and Bates says Finley helps her stay calm before a race. On Saturday and Sunday before the Boston Marathon, he picked up food for her so she didn’t have to brave the crowds and hung out with her in the hotel room while she watched one of her favorite movies, Lord of the Rings.
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Having a Non-Running Partner
Other runners end up in relationships with people who have never been in the running world. That includes 2016 U.S. Olympian Kate Grace, who is married to Patrick O’Neil and has a two-month-old baby with him.
O’Neil worked in sales for Picky Bars, the company started by Oiselle-sponsored runner Lauren Fleshman and Hoka NAZ Elite runner Steph Bruce. Grace met O’Neil back in 2013 at a New Year’s Eve party when she was sponsored by Oiselle. But Grace says O’Neil doesn’t run much at all.
“He goes through bouts of running for exercise, but he’s not even an intense recreational runner,” says Grace, 34, who lives in Boulder.
O’Neil was a high-level collegiate swimmer, another individual competitive sport, so Grace says he understands her career and the mindset that comes with it.
“For someone who’s not a runner, he’s been a very supportive partner almost because of his swimming background,” she says.
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Grace says she and other elite runner friends Emily Infeld and Cory McGee also have husbands with backgrounds in college swimming and joke about it.
“We all say that if you’re not going to have a runner, you may as well have someone who works now but has had that background because they totally get the single-minded, individual sport focus and are very supportive of it, even though now they’re in business and don’t do anything with the sport,” she says. “The whole thing about the four-year cycle is very similar. Sometimes when you’re dating, people who just are so removed from this life sometimes don’t understand the amount of time it takes because you just think like, ‘Oh, they should just go for a run and be done.’ It was very helpful for me that even though he was not a professional athlete or a runner, he understands just what it means to be a high level athlete in a sport like this.”
Grace and O’Neil started dating in 2015 and then less than a year later moved to Sacramento together so Grace could train for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. She won the 800-meter finals and earned the chance to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“There was a positive feedback loop because I ended up making the team and doing well (in the Rio Olympics) and being top American, and it was just pretty obvious from the start that we were able to support each other and good things came when we did that,” she says.
The couple is aligned on nutrition–Grace does the grocery shopping and O’Neil joins her in her carb- and protein-balanced meals. The bigger difference, she says, is in drinking and going out.
“I would say he’s had to make sacrifices in order to be my partner. He wouldn’t call them sacrifices, or maybe he would, but there’s a certain lifestyle that comes with it, since I’ve been a pro runner for my whole adult life,” she says. “Whereas my friends go frequently out to happy hours, I am at home. Initially, I would judge him for casual drinking, but I realized it’s actually me that was the unique one.”
Grace says O’Neil is also her support person during races and competitions, running around to get her coffee and food.
“There are so many rounds during our championships, so it was always a big thing for me to make sure I ate quickly after prelim, so he would have whatever rice bowl ready for me,” she says. “Stuff like that, where it’s very helpful, but non glamorous stuff. That has been great.”
A Long-distance Partner
Erika Kemp, who set a record for the fastest American-born Black woman at the Boston Marathon (2:33:57) and had the best marathon debut by an American woman in Boston, says her boyfriend Myles Dungan, a Captain in the U.S. Army, isn’t always able to be with her for big races like Boston because he’s stationed in Germany. After Kemp finished the marathon, she went to visit Duggan in Germany for two weeks, and trained while she was there.
“He’s very respectful and supportive, whereas in previous relationships I had, they treated my running as if it was more of a hobby, which is hurtful when it’s your full-time job,” says Kemp, 28, who lives in Boston. “You structure your entire day around your workouts, which can seem silly to some people, but having that understanding, having them also make it a priority.”
She says even when she’s in Germany, Duggan was looking for places for her to run.
“We want to do day trips, see some things and hang out with friends, but he’s always making sure that there is timing and space for me to do the work I need to do,” she says.
Kemp met Duggan in high school–in freshman year Spanish class–and they dated throughout high school but then broke up junior year of college. Then in 2021, Kemp saw a TikTok video of Duggan jumping out of an airplane as a paratrooper. She reached out to him, they reconnected, and have been dating ever since.
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Duggan doesn’t run much, and Kemp says in high school they had trouble on a run together.
“Senior year he tore his ACL and was cleared to run, maybe two months before we went to college, but I needed to do my summer training, so I begged him to come with me, but he was a few months post-op, so he was so out of shape, and still struggling to walk, and I wasn’t very nice to him on that run,” she says. “So that was the one and only time we ever truly ran together because I couldn’t understand why he was so bad at it, but he was like, ‘I just got cleared from surgery last week, give me a break.’”
Now he runs once or twice a week, and they’ll occasionally run together if Kemp finds a nice trail. She says she’s eager for him to get a bike to go with her on runs, and he’s considering it.
Unlike other relationships, Kemp says Dugan has no problem with her being faster than him–though he insists he could beat her in a short distance sprint.
“He knows his limits, but he is so convinced that he can beat me in any distance under 400, which, potentially, but I run so much more than him, and so I don’t buy it,” she says.
Sounds like she needs to challenge her boyfriend to a race.
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