A year after ending his season in total disappointment and “feeling broken,” Bailey Roth is back on track, looking to fulfill the promise at Arizona that he once demonstrated as the fastest high school steeplechase runner in U.S. history.
In Roth’s story of the past year, you can find elements not just of athletics but of everyday life: Stress, despair, reflection, reassessment, a fresh start, renewed success. It’s also a story of a young man’s fading dream that shines brightly once again.
The next milestone in Roth’s comeback will occur Saturday, when he runs in the Pac-12 championships at the UA’s Drachman Stadium.
Last June, Roth hit a low point. With his UA bachelor’s degree already in hand, he decided he wouldn’t return to school even though he had a season of athletic eligibility left.
In three years of competition, Roth had won a Pac-12 championship and All-American honors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Those would be lofty accomplishments for an average runner, but they fell way short of what many had expected of Roth— or what he had expected of himself.
How good was he as a high-schooler?
Records come and go from year-to-year, but two high school marks set by Roth five years ago stand unchallenged. He first crushed the 2,000-meter steeplechase record in 5 minutes, 41 seconds. Then, as a recent graduate from Coronado High School in Colorado Springs, Roth shattered a 35-year-old record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase by running 8:47.04.
Arizona coaches welcomed Roth to campus in fall 2014. He ran cross country but redshirted the 2015 outdoor track season. That summer, he won gold at the Pan American Junior Championships.
Roth started strong as a Wildcat competitor. At the 2016 NCAA championships, he clocked his fastest time ever, 8:36.38, setting a UA freshman record. He finished 14th and earned second-team All-American honors.
As a redshirt sophomore, Roth captured the Pac-12 steeplechase title and placed 13th in the NCAA final, again earning All-American.
Last season however, brought bitter disappointment.
Roth finished fourth in the conference championships, but then ran well at the NCAA first round, advancing to the national championships. There, during what he called a stressful time, his performance fell flat. He ran 9:11.35, finishing 23rd out of 24 runners.
Dispirited, Roth talked to his coaches and decided he would train on his own and forgo his final UA season.
“I didn’t have a lot of hope,” Roth recalled.
For 100 days during the summer, Roth said he did not run a single stride. He reflected on what had occurred and contemplated on what his future should be.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the 23-year-old is able to put matters into perspective.
A year ago, Roth recalled, he struggled from classroom stress as he completed his courses in psychology and business in time for a May graduation.
Looking back, he realizes his “lifestyle was sort of working against me. I wasn’t eating well. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t feeling well. I just wasn’t there mentally.”
He piled pressure on himself to do well in the NCAA championships to further his dream of running professionally. Yet, the dots for a strong performance were not lining up.
Roth recalls his feeling his way:
“To be going into the NCAA meet knowing that I wasn’t in the best of shape, I felt that my dream was dwindling. I had worked my whole life for this moment, and for it not to be happening was, honestly, really discouraging. And I only had myself to blame because I could’ve done things differently.
“That’s when I was able to step back and realize those things.”
After three months away from running, Roth said, the competitive juices started to return. He began taking easy runs in the fall.
Weeks later, he told himself: “You know what, this is my dream to run professionally. I’m going to take my dream into my own hands.’
He talked with his father, Brian, a onetime Nebraska runner and Bailey’s youth coach. Brian Roth encouraged his son to return to school. Bailey met with UA head coach Fred Harvey, who instantly embraced the idea of his return.
Distance runner Coach James Li joined the conversation, and the three men agreed: “Let’s do this.”
Enrolling at the UA as a graduate student, Roth began classes in January and started training. During the winter indoor season, Roth ran races ‘outside my comfort zone.” Running the 800 meters, the mile, the 3K and 5K “really helped tremendously, “Roth said. “It worked a lot of different energy systems.”
When the outdoor season began in March, Roth was still rounding into shape. He broke through with a fast 8:40.69 at Stanford on March 29. At the Mt. SAC Relays two weeks ago, he sped around the race’s seven-plus laps in 8:38.68, one second off his personal best.
Harvey said Roth is more mature now, and has a better understanding of race strategy. “His times so far are fabulous,” he added.
Li said the Wildcats’ runner is “really working hard and it’s paying off.”
Roth says his lifestyle now is more conducive to elite-level running. For that, Roth credits his girlfriend, Christina Treyz, a nutritionist and former college distance runner. She plans his meals and has established a well-regulated daily schedule.
In the Pac-12 finals Saturday, the lanky, 6-foot Roth will face Steven Fehy of Stanford, who took home the steeplechase title last year. Another strong competitor, Takashi Okada of Cal, placed third last year.
Roth owns the conference’s fastest time — and the fifth-best time nationally — but championship races often don’t yield the fastest times. They tend to be tactical battles with runners holding back until sprinting on the final lap. A race can be won or lost if a runner stumbles on one of the 35 barriers en route to the finish.
How Roth finishes at the Pac 12 championships won’t be known until Saturday. But he’s already come a long way in one long year.