Edward Cheserek wins at the 2015 NCAA Cross Country Championships (Kirby Lee) © Copyright
Feature Eugene, USA

The best is yet to come for Cheserek

Even if he missed out on adding to his own legacy by winning a fourth consecutive NCAA cross-country title last Saturday, Oregon student Edward Cheserek has already authored his own notable addition to the collegiate record books.

The 22-year-old from Kenya placed third in Terre Haute, trailing unexpected winner Patrick Tiernan as well as 2015 runner-up Justyn Knight, who again finished second this year.

But Cheserek had already written his own history when he won last year’s NCAA title: he became the first Division I cross-country runner to win three straight titles. A trio of legends in US collegiate running had won three titles – Washington State’s Gerry Lindgren, Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine and Washington State’s Henry Rono. But none had won three in a row until Cheserek in 2015.

He later revealed that just as Tiernan and Knight made moves away from the pack at about 8km, a hamstring tightened and he couldn’t follow his foes. “I was in decent shape and ready to go, but when those guys made their move, my hamstring got really tight,” Cheserek told the Eugene Register-Guard. “I couldn’t do anything. I could have dropped out, but I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to finish and do it for my team’.”

He later added: “It’s kind of disappointing because this was my last year [to try for the record fourth win]. Now I will stay focused on indoors and outdoors.”

On the track, whether inside or outdoors, Cheserek definitely will add to his collegiate resume. Outside, he has won three consecutive 10,000m titles, plus the past two years at 5000m.

His overall tally – including his five individual track titles, indoors and out, plus two indoor relays and his three cross-country victories – of 15 NCAA victories equals the record of individual titles set by Tanzania’s Suleiman Nyambui, who also claimed 15 distance triumphs between 1978 and 1982 for Texas-El Paso.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Cheserek’s motivation isn’t waning. Earlier this year at the NCAA Indoor Championships, he first won the 5000m in 13:47.89. Then about 25 minutes later, he anchored Oregon’s distance medley relay team with a 3:52.19 split for the 1600m anchor leg (which roughly equates to a 3:54 mile). He returned the next afternoon to claim the 3000m victory in 8:00.40.

“The coaches asked me before the meet if I would consider running the relay, even if there wasn’t a lot of time after the 5000m,” Cheserek recalls. “I had taken it easy in the 5000m and I cooled down after that race. They asked me again if I wanted to run the relay and I said yes.

“I jogged a little to warm up, put on a fresh singlet and then went to the track. In the relay, I felt really strong. I don’t think I had ever been in as good shape as I was for the NCAA Indoor meet last year. I took it easy until the last couple of laps and then thought, ‘Just go’.”

The fact that Cheserek willingly ran that demanding double points out one of his strongest assets as an athlete. “He is an ultimate team guy,” says Oregon head coach Robert Johnson. “I have said before that Ed has ‘no ego’. By that I mean that it would be easy for a guy as talented as him to not be that excited about being on a college team.

“But he is a very humble, down-to-earth guy. He knows that looking forward to achieving things in the future is all about ‘How can we get better today?’ Of course, he does want to beat everybody just as badly as any other athletes. But for him to keep those mental aspects in check is very impressive for someone his age.”

“Individual wins aren’t as important to me as my teammates,” Cheserek adds. “I just focus on one season and one race at a time. Whatever will happen just happens. Team was my focus in high school and then when I came to Oregon. The team aspect has always been my main thing.”

From Iten to Oregon, via Newark

Cheserek is a member of the Marakwet subgroup of the Kalenjin tribe, which has produced many world-class runners. He hails from near Iten, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, famed as the home ground of many of those distance runners. He mainly played soccer as a youth, always able to outrun other players with both his strength and speed.

“My father said, ‘You know, you could be a runner’,” he says. “A teacher also told me that. I said it depended on what distance he wanted me to run. He said the 5000m, but I said, ‘That’s too long’, so I tried the 1500m and I won my first race without even training. The next week, I did run a 5000m and won in 14-something.

“I began training, about 40 miles a week. I ran my first 10,000m in ninth grade; it was 31 minutes. Shortly after that, I ran 9:05 for the steeplechase, 1:56 for the 800m and 3:56 for the 1500m. All of this was at about 9000-feet of altitude. Plus I had gotten kicked in the shin by another player in soccer and was limping around.

“My dad said, ‘This is no good’ and that he would buy me whatever I needed to just run. He also took me to a training camp run by Moses Kiptanui (three-time world steeplechase champion). That really motivated me, so I quit soccer and concentrated on running after that.”

He was identified by a missionary group as a candidate to attend St Benedict’s, a private Catholic boys’ high school in Newark. He had to take an entrance exam in Iten, but days before he was to take the test, torrential rains turned the dirt roads around his village into impassable mud. There was no chance his father could drive him.

So Cheserek ran to the test site – some 60 miles away.

“It was really a long way and it took me all day,” he says. “The test was on a Monday and I left my home on Sunday at about 5am. I got to the school at about 6pm. I slept for a few hours, then got up to study for the test, then took the test at 8am.”

Cheserek passed all the tests and travelled for his first overseas trip to Newark. While at St Benedict’s, he set US high school indoor records for 3000m (8:05.46), two miles (8:39.15) and 5000m (13:57.04). He then moved on to Oregon in the autumn of 2013 and proceeded to begin his NCAA victory string by taking his first cross-country win after reeling in defending champion Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech and Kenya.

“That was the most satisfying of my cross-country wins,” he points out. “It was my first time to race so many of the big college guys. My most memorable track race was the 5000m/distance medley double last winter. No one had ever done that before.

“I would like to win more NCAA titles, sure,” he adds. “I always want to score as many points for my team as I can. But regardless of what the distance is for a race, I just try to lead my teammates. Then when the time is right for me to make a move, I will just go.”

International goals

Cheserek has never represented Kenya internationally – or the US. His application for US citizenship has been working its way through the US immigration system for some two years, the effort being headed by Marty Hannon, his coach at St Benedict’s.

“My biggest goal is definitely to represent the US in the Olympics and the IAAF World Championships, so I just have to wait for my citizenship to come through.”

Cheserek has worked up to now logging about 80 miles per week during the main part of the season. But how good a runner can he ultimately become?

“He is going to get a lot better as he gets older,” says Oregon associate head coach Andy Powell. “We have the philosophy at Oregon to take things slow and keep runners healthy. Don’t double except in NCAA championships races and stay a little on the lower side of training volume.”

“Ed has tremendous capacity in workouts,” adds Powell. “I push the distance runners maybe twice in an entire season. Otherwise, I hold them back because I just want to keep them healthy. There will be time after college for Ed to do some killer workouts. Yet the few times he has been pushed in training so far, Ed’s response has always been remarkable.

“Honestly, I have worked with some very good athletes, like (Olympic 1500m champion) Matthew Centrowitz and (13:07.33 5000m runner) Eric Jenkins. But I have never worked with anyone as good as Ed Cheserek.”

Jon Hendershott for the IAAF