Hot running for Hillcrest grad Leah Bontrager

By Paul D. Bowker
Posted 10/7/23


A hot day in Iowa?

Well, yes. Temperatures at Wartburg College’s Max Championship Cross Country Course topped 90 degrees last Saturday, Sept. 30. Ambulances headed up 12th …

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Hot running for Hillcrest grad Leah Bontrager



A hot day in Iowa?

Well, yes. Temperatures at Wartburg College’s Max Championship Cross Country Course topped 90 degrees last Saturday, Sept. 30. Ambulances headed up 12th Street NW in Waverly to help the overheated. Runners collapsed with towels wrapped in ice held over their heads.

And here was 2022 Hillcrest Academy graduate Leah Bontrager setting a personal record in the Dan Hustin Invitational.

“It was crazy,” Bontrager said with a smile.

And hot. Really hot. You know, just like a mid-July day in Kalona, not the last day of September two hours north.

Two years after Bontrager ran in the high school state championship meet for the fourth consecutive year, she has emerged as one of the fastest sophomore runners for Central College. Bontrager made Central’s varsity team as a freshman in 2022, winning the school’s Newcomer of the Year award, and this year she is the top sophomore on a team that is ranked No. 23 nationally in NCAA D-III and fourth in the NCAA Midwest Region.

Saturday, she not only survived the toasty conditions, but set a personal record with a time of 24 minutes, 19 seconds to place 26th in a race that included runners from second-ranked Wartburg in an 18-team meet.

As a freshman last spring, she was named American Rivers All-Conference after running in the mile and also in the 4x800-meter relay for the Dutch.

“I really like running in college,” Bontrager said. “I love my team and being among people who are really good at running and can push me to be better. I love running.”

Indeed she does. Bontrager was the star runner for coach Marty Gingerich’s team at Hillcrest, making the state championship meet all four years of her high school career. She broke a school record while running in the girls 800 final at the 2022 Iowa High School Track and Field Championships. She also played softball and basketball for Hillcrest, and girls soccer for the combined Mid-Prairie and Hillcrest squad.

Incredibly, she competed during her senior year while running on a painful stress fracture.

While most years at Hillcrest consisted of a small squad of cross country runners, that is not the case at Central, where 28 runners are on the roster and head coach Joe Dunham is one of two coaches. Three Central runners finished among the Top 10 at Wartburg, led by senior Caroline McMartin in third place. And that gives you an idea of the competition Bontrager faces every day.

“It was definitely a big transition,” Bontrager said, “going from not even hardly having a team all four years in high school and then having a big team where we’re all just like a big family.”

And those family members are constantly pushing each other in practice and in meets.

“They really are. We have a lot of good people on our team this year,” said Bontrager, who is a kinesiology major. “It’s really exciting.”

Bontrager and the Dutch will be back in Waverly next month when Wartburg College hosts the NCAA D-III Midwest Regional.

It’ll be a bit cooler that day. Maybe.

Fantastic Freshman

Following in Bontrager’s footsteps at Hillcrest is Marie Yoder, a freshman who finished 25th at the Bud and Bonnie Williams Cross Country Invitational hosted by Iowa City High at the University of Iowa’s Ashton course.

Yoder finished second Thursday at the Southeast Iowa Super Conference championship meet.

Ravens coach Marty Gingerich said Yoder is running 5K distances faster than any runner in Ravens girls history.

She had a time of 20:22 in Iowa City, her best clocking of the season.

Yoder followed that up with a fifth-place finish in 21:01 at the Hillcrest Invitational on Monday.

“She’s doing amazing,” Bontrager said. “It’s so fun to see how she’s doing.”

News columnist Paul Bowker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @bowkerpaul

Central College, Wartburg College, Hillcrest Academy, Leah Bontrager