Growing up in Johnson City, Natalia Rivas never envisioned running at the college level, much less running a marathon at the national championships.
Early Saturday morning, that’s just where she’ll find herself.
The Milligan College senior is in the marathon field at the NAIA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships in Marion, Ind. More than a hundred other qualifiers, women and men from across the country, will line up with her at the start.
Rivas isn’t sure what to expect from there, since she’s never run a 26.2-mile race before.
“I feel like a kid at Christmas, waiting to unwrap this present and not knowing what I’m going to get,” she said Wednesday. “I’ve been training for awhile, and it’s all going to culminate on Saturday.”
Rivas has been a determined, if not necessarily decorated, member of Chris Layne’s program at Milligan for four years. She continues to inspire the coach and those around her with her spirit, resilience and community work.
Layne sees Saturday’s race in a greater context.
“This is going to be the first marathon for her, and I think that’s why this story has a connection beyond college athletics,” he said. “It’s an inspirational story. Natalia is a perfect example of someone who puts in the hard work and is now ready to reap the benefits.”
Rivas was born in Chile but moved to Texas after just a year. Her family soon relocated to Johnson City and she attended University High, where she first started running competitively.
She was part of two state cross country championship teams at the school. That’s when it started to dawn on her that running could take her places.
“I took a crack at it my junior year and found out I was pretty good,” she said. “I never thought in high school that I would be running at the college level, but doors started opening. I said, Why not?”
Rivas ended up at Milligan, though Layne admits that she wasn’t one of his more highly touted recruits.
“Individually, she was not a game-changer out of high school,” he said. “But she has chipped away and chipped away, and here she is in her senior season, a team captain, a national qualifier in cross country, a national qualifier in the marathon. She never had the track speed to be a national qualifier in track, but she has the work ethic and aerobic development and everything you want in a distance runner.
“You can give me 10 Tennessee state champions, but to have a girl like this, where you see the impact a program like ours has on her, how she’s able to develop and improve … She’s done it the hard way and been a winner in everything she’s ever done. She’s a great ambassador for our program and our school.”
Rivas, whose father is a physical therapist and mother is a nurse practitioner, has had to overcome more than a couple of running-related injuries to get to this point. (She even had to sit out a season at Milligan, and still has another year of eligibility.) She ticks off the list matter-of-factly.
“I had two hip issues, and a stress fracture, and a knee issue as well in the last five years,” she said. “I just didn’t run much before high school, so I didn’t have a good base to build from. My form wasn’t very good, and I was injury prone.
“This year I’ve been really motivated to stay healthy and see what I can do.”
That mission has evolved into an overall change of lifestyle.
“I’ve had to change my diet, or make modifications,” she said. “I don’t skip the ice baths anymore and I get massages every two weeks. I’m taking vitamins, which makes a huge difference. There is just a lot that has gone into it.”
Rivas didn’t consider marathoning until Layne encouraged her after her sophomore season. She started putting in the miles in training with that in the back of her mind.
In the last few months, everything has been tailored for track’s most grueling race. She qualified for nationals with a second-place finish in the Bristol Half Marathon last month, where she ran 91:21 on a hilly course and handled herself well.
The workouts picked up from there, and now Rivas is ready to engage the full 26 miles and change.
“She’s gotten a little taste of it,” said Layne. “We did a 20-miler six weeks out, and a 22-miler three weeks out. It was a little slower clip, but she’ll be somewhat acclimated to the time. It will just be handling the marathon intensity and all that goes with it.”
Team Milligan will make the nine-hour drive to Indiana today. Rivas, who turned 22 this week, thinks the challenge Saturday will be more mental than physical.
“I know I’ve done physically what I have to do,” she said. “I don’t know what the extra four miles will be like, but I’m approaching it like it’s just a little 5K at the end, which I’ve done numerous times.”
So what are the realistic expectations?
Rivas is hoping for a top-20 finish, while Layne looks at the race as a two-step coaching process.
“We’ve always taken the marathon very seriously at Milligan. It’s a unique part of the NAIA meet,” he said. “There are two steps for me. The first is to get our kid to the finish line safely. The second thing is to set a race plan that allows her to come out of this with a feeling of accomplishment. Just finishing a marathon is enough, but I don’t want the expectations to be so high that Natalia feels like she somehow fails.
“If she’s in the top 25, I know it will be a happy trip home.”