By Rob Moseley
There came a point, perhaps three-quarters of the way through Saturday’s 10,000-meter NCAA Championship race, when Edward Cheserek was ready to concede defeat.
The conditions in Terre Haute, Ind., were muddy, cold and windy. Texas Tech senior Kennedy Kithuka came into the day unbeaten in a college race, and seemed well on his way to capping that with a national title.
Just past the halfway point, Kithuka made a strong move. Cheserek wasn’t sure he could answer.
“I was like, ‘I’m done,’” Cheserek recalled Monday. “’If this guy’s gone, I’m done.’ … I was just going for second.”
Then, with about 2,500 meters left, the course shifted. The wind Cheserek had been fighting all day – when he wasn’t drafting off Kithuka – was suddenly at the Oregon freshman’s back.
“When I pass somebody, I try to test them,” Cheserek said. “If he still has more energy, relax. … He didn’t come to me, so I knew he was done.”
Having made his move, Cheserek wasn’t to be caught. He crossed the line 18 seconds ahead of Kithuka, in 29 minutes, 41.1 seconds, becoming the first Oregon freshman ever to win a national cross country championship.
Johnson called Cheserek’s achievement “phenomenal.” The previous top finish by a UO freshman was third by the legendary Steve Prefontaine in 1969, something the likes of Alberto Salazar and Galen Rupp couldn’t top. Nobody could, until Cheserek, a native of Kenya who was Gatorade national cross country runner of the year as a high school senior in New Jersey last winter.
Salazar, in fact, spoke to the Ducks before their trip to nationals. He told them to run strong, have a plan and follow it. Cheserek’s was to stick with the lead pack, whatever the pace, and it worked to perfection when he proved to have more left in the tank than Kithuka.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go, and I might get this thing,’” Cheserek said.
The Pac-12 and West Regional champion declared himself “really surprised” at what he accomplished this season, but also aware of the help he had along the way.
“I have a great team to run with, great coaches, good places to run, good school,” Cheserek said.
Accustomed to 50-mile weeks training alone in high school, Cheserek said teammates like Mac Fleet and Parker Stinson have made the transition to 80-mile weeks in college seem easy. He said he’s still recovering from his run at nationals, before ramping things back up for the indoor season.