At first glance, Kendra and Rob Bilo didn’t notice anything unusual when they went to congratulate their daughter Peyton after the women’s 5,000-meter semifinals at the West Preliminary NCAA Track & Field Championships.
Following a photo finish, as Bilo emerged from the group of 24 women in the first of two heats in Texas’ Myers Stadium on a humid May 27 night, the Cal Poly biological sciences sophomore waited to see if she had qualifi ed to move on to the national championship at Oregon.
Then the unusual happened. An official approached Bilo and handed her a shoe. Not only had Peyton Bilo just advanced to the NCAA finals by six-thousandths of a second, but she had done so with only one shoe.
“Most people didn’t seem to notice,” Bilo says, recalling that family and friends were focused on cheering her on and surveying the field during the dozen laps she ran with one set of spikes — her right foot clad only in a green sock. “They were like, ‘What?! When did that happen!?’”
Not even 150 meters into the race, she was deheeled as another runner accidentally stepped on her right foot.
With the shoe awkwardly dangling almost entirely off, Bilo was suddenly faced with a split-second dilemma: either stop in her tracks to put it all the way back on, and sacrifice invaluable seconds and rhythm in a race where the slimmest of margins make the difference, or find a way to keep going.
Only the top five would qualify for the national championship.
“Looking around in the middle of the pack, I just realized there was probably no way I could stop,” she says. So, Bilo elected to not play catch-up — and kicked the shoe off into the grass.
“From there, I just tried to not think about it as much as possible,” Bilo says. “But, of course, I could feel the track a lot.”
Mark Conover, Cal Poly’s director of track and fi eld and a 1988 Olympic marathoner, was one of the few who noticed what had happened as the race was unfolding.
“Peyton showed her determination by not letting the loss of a shoe interfere with her goal,” Conover says. “Her effort was a testimony to her willpower and desire to achieve at the highest level.”
Bilo found herself matched up with Wisconsin’s Amy Davis in a battle for fifth place, and the Badger sophomore moved into the lead midway through the bell lap.
“I looked up and counted and realized, ‘Wow, I’m in sixth,’” Bilo recalls. “I didn’t want this shoe thing to stop me; I just decided I was going to give it my best to try to catch her.”
All the left turns made, it was now a head-to-head sprint between the two — distance turned 100-meter dash — down the final straightaway.
Bilo leaned over the finish line and hoped for the best.
The official race clock put Bilo’s time at 16:44.264, beating Davis at 16:44.270. The result was reviewed on film before officials upheld it 10 minutes later.
Bilo went on to take 10th place at the NCAA Championships on June 10, earning All-American honors for her 15:52.82 finish in a race broadcast on ESPN.
“The qualifier was definitely one of the hardest races I’ve run in my collegiate career,” Bilo says. “With how hard I’d trained all year, with all the workouts and everything that led up to that point, I wasn’t going to give up, and it was a really satisfying feeling.”