Emma Rafuse is arguably the greatest women's cross country runner to represent Purdue Fort Wayne. So good, the senior no longer trains with the women's team but runs – and beats – the men's team.
“They're kind of the people that are always pushing me in practice,” Rafuse said. “The women, we encourage them, but with training differences they're all pushing each other and I need that one little extra push, so running with boys has been a fun part of senior year.”
It's fairly uncommon at the college level for women to train with the men, but when you're the program record holder in the 5K (16:44) and 6K (20:44.5), runner-up at the Summit League Championship last year (21:02.68), have two career individual meet wins and hold the program record for most Summit League Athlete of the Week honors (seven), you do what you need to do to be successful.
“I see them all as like my brothers now,” Rafuse said. “At first I thought it would be kind of weird for them having a girl around, that they might not want that because out on a run you talk about whatever, but I think they've all been really accepting and encouraging and it's just nice to have them.”
Rafuse isn't changing anything up this week as she prepares for her final Summit League Championships in Omaha, Nebraska. That second-place finish at conference last season is always looming in the back of her mind. Rafuse dropped back from the leader in the final thousand meters and has trained harder than ever to assure that won't happen again.
“Every time we do workouts this year that are focusing on finishing kicks or that last thousand meters, my mind goes right back to that race form last year,” Rafuse said.
Despite how dominant Rafuse was her junior season, her senior year has been even stronger. She won the season-opening 5K, the Butler Twilight, with a time of 17:17.8 – exactly one minute faster than second place.
“Especially with it being the first meet of the season, it was kind of exciting,” Rafuse said. “Nice confidence booster to get the season started.”
More so than confidence, first-year Purdue Fort Wayne women's cross country coach Ashley Botham saw just how great Rafuse really was.
“She crushed it,” Botham said. “After the race she was like 'I didn't think I was winning by that much; I just went for it.'”
The Wisconsin native wasn't always this dominant.
Botham said Rafuse was just an OK runner in high school and the first two years of her college career. But her training and unwavering passion to win has transformed her. Rafuse has even spoken to high school runners to share her story.
“For a kid that's like, I'll never be Emma, you can be, but you have to work really hard to get there,” Botham said. “She wasn't blessed with all this natural talent and that's why she's as amazing as she is; the hard work has gotten her to where she is.”
Rafuse isn't the show-off type. She rarely wears her cross country gear or uses her Purdue Fort Wayne back pack. While she said she's honored to be the record holder and represent her school, she doesn't feel the need to let everyone know she's probably the greatest Mastodons runner.
“Walking to class and stuff there's a lot of people in my classes that don't even know I run,” Rafuse said. “I think it's kind of fun to walk around and know that I personally have those records, but there's many that don't know that. It's kind of like a little secret.”
Botham and Rafuse have this running joke where before every meet, Rafuse asks her coach, “can I win?' Every time Botham replies with “you can, but you don't have to.”
“Every race that we've had this year, the times she's lost she's been within 10 seconds of the winner,” Botham said. “That attitude has been really good and that's the same thing going into conference next week.”