For Loras sophomore Maggie Saenz Ruiz
, it wasn't until two years ago that running was anything more than training. See, for Saenz Ruiz, her high school didn't sponsor a cross country or track & field program. For her, running was just a part of training for soccer, a sport that she had played since she was nine years old.
A native of Bogota, Colombia, Saenz Ruiz first heard of Loras College as a senior in high school. Saenz Ruiz was selected to come to Loras and enroll in the Breitbach Catholic Leaders and Thinkers program. The college sponsors one academic scholarship per year for a member of Colegio Santa Francis High School. For Saenz Ruiz, this was an opportunity she knew that she wanted to take advantage of knowing that she wanted to study sports science, a program that Loras has received recognition for.
Unlike many of her teammates, Saenz Ruiz does not return home to Colombia very often, but says that her teammates have helped with the transition.
"The teams are very familial, so being away from home and my family, this team has given me the opportunity to build a new family," Saenz Ruiz said. Her participation in the cross country and track & field programs has been a new experience for Saenz Ruiz, but one that she has had early success with. This past fall, under the guidance of cross country head coach Bob Schultz
, she earned All-Conference honors with her fourth place finish at the Iowa Conference Championships. Saenz Ruiz also competed at the NCAA Central Regional and National Championships, capping off an impressive campaign, earning All-Region honors.
Saenz Ruiz has yet to take a day off since November 23, turning her attention to offseason training and preparation for her track & field season where she competes in both the 5k and 10k.
"I always like to run and I know that it's worth it," Saenz Ruiz said. "The preparation is going to give me the opportunity to succeed, not only as a person, but as an athlete too."
On April 5, Saenz Ruiz competed in and won the 5k at the Wartburg Select. Her time of 17:37.44 was six seconds faster than her time from the previous week and moved her into second place all-time in the Loras record book. Little did she know at the time that in a few short weeks, she would not only be competing in a race of double the distance but she would be making history in the process.
Considered by many to be one of the top track & field events in the nation, the Drake Relays has hosted thousands of high school, collegiate, and Olympic athletes for over 100 years. For a student-athlete like Saenz Ruiz, she may not have grown up knowing about the Drake Relays, but leading up to the weekend, she was well aware of the environment she was about to experience.
In what was her first 10k of the season, Saenz Ruiz shared that she had set a goal for herself that she didn't share with many other people.
"I had an idea of what the school record was and I told myself that I wanted to break it, although I didn't tell my coaches that."
Athletes handle pressure differently, but for Saenz Ruiz, a simple act has proven to calm her nerves time and time again.
"Before a competition, I pray and this gives me a sense of calmness and confidence that my preparation is going to give me results."
Within no time, the gunshot went off and away she went, embarking on a 25-lap race against some of the best runners in the nation. Among the field included Division I, II, and III student-athletes, as well as NAIA and junior college. For someone who has followed the world of running, it might have served as a distraction, but not for Saenz Ruiz. For her, it was just another race.
"I think since the beginning of the race I was real excited," she said. "At the beginning, you start running and you don't really have a strategy yet, but as long as you stay with your pack, you begin to move up and you start to get that 'runner's high' where you start getting happy and feel that you are going to accomplish something great."
In long distance runs, it's customary for a runner’s pace to drop as the race goes on and as the muscles begin to feel spent. However, Saenz Ruiz was doing the opposite. She ran the first half of her race in 18:00 and continued to get faster with each lap.
"When I would come around the track, Coach Schultz was telling me that I was going two seconds faster each lap," Saenz Ruiz said. "I was feeling good so I just kept moving."
Sure enough, Saenz Ruiz crossed the finish line in 35:45, shattering the previous Loras record by 24 seconds, which was set by Jenny Richey at the NCAA Outdoor National Championships in 1999. Richey finished with a time of 36:09 and would later be inducted into the Loras College Hall of Fame in 2012. Based on the feedback she was receiving from Schultz throughout the race, Saenz Ruiz had an idea that she was going to be close to the school record, but wasn't sure until after she had completed her final lap.
For reference, her personal record in the 5k is 17:37, just eight seconds faster than the second half of the 10k that she ran at Drake. Saenz Ruiz shaved four minutes off of her previous personal record from last season in the 10k, a race that she finished in 39:45.
Saenz Ruiz finished in seventh place overall and was the second-best Division III competitor in the field, finishing less than a minute behind the overall winner, Mary Alex England of Ole Miss. Her performance will most likely qualify her for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in May, which are being held at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
Prior to that competition, Saenz Ruiz has her sights set on another goal: winning the 10k at the Iowa Conference Championships in Decorah in two weeks.
"I want to win the 10k and earn all-conference in the 5k," Saenz Ruiz said. "I'll run the 5k the day after I run the 10k, so I know that I'll be tired. More importantly than me winning, though, I want to earn points for my team."
Like many of her teammates, Saenz Ruiz has found a balance between her athletics and academics. As a member of the Breitbach Catholic Leaders and Thinkers program, she pushes herself every day to be just as successful in the classroom as she is on the track. Saenz Ruiz has received both Iowa Conference All-Academic honors as well as being selected as an Academic All-American. Her studies have helped her identify the type of leader she is and how she can use that to help others.
"There are different kinds of leaders and I feel like I am a unique kind of leader," Saenz Ruiz shared. "I feel that I do not have to be loud, but in this aspect of athletics I have had discipline and dedication which are the keys to success."
Following her appearance at the Division III National Championships, Saenz Ruiz will return to her homeland this summer for a little over a month to spend time with her family. Unlike Dubuque, Bogota sits at 8,360 feet above sea level. The high altitude challenges runners as their bodies must adjust for the difference in oxygen availability. But for Saenz Ruiz, she believes that her time spent at home will provide an opportunity for her to improve and become a better runner for next year.
"Altitude is great for runners; it gives you more aerobic capacity," she said. "When I go home, it's very difficult to start, but eventually your body adapts to the altitude and when you come back, you feel great."
With the success that she has accomplished in her first two years as a runner at Loras College, both Saenz Ruiz and her coaches believe that she has a bright future ahead of her, filled with much potential.
"The potential for Maggie truly lies within herself," Schultz said. "There's no reason why she couldn't be a multiple-time qualifier for nationals or even an All-American. She truly loves running and there is nothing that is going to stand in her way."
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