Bilo focused on finishing in the top 40 at nationals. Tim O'Dowd / Courtesy Photo

She’s been a runner since she could walk, and it’s always been fun.

Biological sciences sophomore Peyton Bilo began running competitively at a young age. What started as a fun way to hang out with her elementary school friends unexpectedly blossomed into a passion for running. Years later, she tears up the hills and the track for Cal Poly. This El Dorado Hills native has become one of Cal Poly’s best cross country runners in her two years here.

With two trips to the national championship meet and All-American honors this past season, Bilo continues her climb as one of the best runners in the country.

Where it all started

“I was super slow,” Bilo said with a laugh. “I just jogged and had fun with it.”

It wasn’t about winning for Bilo; she was only in the second grade. Like most kids, she played other sports; soccer and lacrosse. Running was just a way to spend time with friends.

Racing became a much bigger deal once Bilo was in middle school. At her sixth grade cross country finals, she felt the joy of winning a race for the first time and definitely not the last time. That was the moment she realized she truly loved running.

Peyton Bilo runs at St. Francis High School in El Dorado Hills, Calif. | Peyton Bilo/Courtesy Photo

Still, Bilo wasn’t fully committed. She loved it, yes, but she also loved other sports. As high school approached, Bilo made her decision. With a passionate cross country coach leading her, she dropped the other sports and focused only on running.

“Running takes less natural talent and more hard work, so if I can just put in the hard work, maybe I can get better at this,” Bilo said regarding her thoughts during the decision.

The high school years

When talking about her high school cross country coach, Bilo immediately started to smile. She credits him for teaching her about mental toughness.

“He’s a big reason why I’m here,” Bilo said. “He taught me how to race.”

Bilo was a solid runner in high school. Not spectacular, according to her own standards, but steady. She gradually improved until her junior year, when she received news all runners dread.

She had a stress fracture.

Bilo suffered the injury early in her junior year cross country season. She cross-trained for eight weeks and was determined to come back later in the season. She returned for the state meet, but wasn’t ready. One bad race and a few months later, Bilo suffered another stress fracture.

“I’m a cross country girl at heart. I like racing for place, instead of time,” Bilo said. | Peyton Bilo/Mustang News
“I’m a cross country girl at heart. I like racing for place, instead of time,” Bilo said. | Peyton Bilo/Mustang News

Her junior year, the year that colleges look for high school prospects, was gone.

“No one was really looking at me,” Bilo said. “No one would email me back, and I really wanted to run in college, but a lot of coaches didn’t see that I had potential.”

That didn’t stop Bilo from reaching out to schools. A few responded, and Bilo took visits to some west coast colleges, including Cal Poly.

“I came on a visit and I just fell in love,” said Bilo on the first time she was in San Luis Obispo.

With a spot lined up on the team, she committed to Cal Poly during her senior year. She went on to finish 12th at the CIF State Championships in the 3,200 meters, with a time of 10:31.67.

Her ascent at Cal Poly

After a difficult junior year and a bounce back senior year, Bilo had clear goals in mind. She wanted to make the top seven on the team so that she would be allowed to travel and compete at meets.

Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Mark Conover saw her potential immediately.

“Fantastic work ethic. She wants to do whatever amount of work is given,” Conover said. “Top distance runners tend to want to do more, but less is more, and she understands that.”

Her goal was accomplished immediately. Bilo finished in Cal Poly’s top seven in the first meet of her freshman year. There was no looking back.

From there, she led the team in five meets and won Big West Freshman of the Year. But she wasn’t done.

Peyton Bilo smiling after one of her races freshman year. Positivity is a big key to Bilo’s success at Cal Poly. | Mustang News File Photo
Peyton Bilo smiling after one of her races freshman year. Positivity is a big key to Bilo’s success at Cal Poly. | Mustang News File Photo

“Making nationals was a crazy dream of mine that I never thought I’d be able to do,” Bilo said.

Her dream came true after she finished 12th at the West Regionals in a rainy, windy race in Seattle, Wash. She was sick, tired and still only a freshman alone at the biggest race in college cross country.

Unfortunately, the nerves showed and Bilo didn’t do as well as she had hoped. She finished 172nd with a time of 21:20.9 in the 6k race, but Conover thought it was still a great experience for the freshman runner.

Freshman year track showed off more of Bilo’s speed. She won the Big West Conference championship for the 10,000 meters, earning her a trip to the NCAA West Regional meet where she finished 18th, only four spots shy of qualifying for NCAA championships.

Bilo is looking towards making the NCAA Championship meet in track this upcoming spring. | Steve Chen/Courtesy Photo

With a solid freshman year behind her, Bilo settled into a new role on the team and looked toward her sophomore year.

“One of my goals was to focus on leading the team, not only in races, but more so in practices,” Bilo said. “Thinking happy thoughts when you’re running naturally makes you run faster.”

The positivity paid off for Bilo in the biggest way. She was blistering on each and every course this season, leading the women’s cross country team to a stellar year. She capped off the Big West competition with an individual win and lead the team to an overall win at the Big West Conference championship in Hawaii.

“Everyone looks up to and respects what she’s done,” Conover said. “She’s their teammate and they all support each other. She definitely has leadership qualities, and she’s definitely someone that people root for, and say ‘She’s one of us.’ It bodes well for team chemistry.”

After a great regional race, Bilo made the NCAA Cross Country Championships once again. This time, she was ready to travel to Indiana.

National championship meet

Bilo was alone once again, but she wasn’t nearly as nervous. Born in Ohio, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents decided to make the trip to Indiana for the race. Her parents went to every race this year, and they weren’t about to miss this one.

On the day of the race, it was about 35 degrees with winds gusting around 20 mph. Simply put, it was freezing. Bilo was completely bundled up until two minutes before the gun went off.

For the first two miles, Bilo tried to zone out — one of her strategies for staying mentally strong during a race.

“I think about my feet hitting the ground, and staying with the girls ahead of me,” Bilo said. “I always think of what’s ahead of me, not what’s behind me. And I’m always trying to have fun.”

Around the third mile, she started to gain as many spots as she could. She forced herself to smile through the pain, and let those happy thoughts flood her brain.

Twenty minutes and 14.4 seconds later, Bilo was an All-American. She finished 23rd out of 255 runners. As a sophomore, Bilo was only the eighth runner in Cal Poly history to earn All-American honors.

“She’s very level-headed and puts a good perspective on running,” Conover said. “It’s never one factor that leads to All-American status. It’s a combination of a lot of factors, [including] doing things correctly for the other 22 hours of the day when she’s not with the coaches.”

It capped off an incredible season for a woman that, only three years ago, had multiple stress fractures and no college offers.

As the track and field season approaches, Bilo is already looking forward to her next race.

She loves running, and why wouldn’t she?

She is already one of the best runners in Cal Poly history. And she’s just getting started.

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