ABOVE: EDWARD CHESEREK. PHOTOS: MARK DAVIS.
Since runner Edward Cheserek moved to New Jersey in 2010 to attend St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, he’s been positioned in a limiting, frequently reiterated narrative. Significant focus is given to his youth spent in Kenya: he’s the son of a runner, grew up on a farm as one of seven siblings, and ran 60 miles to take an admission exam for St. Benedict’s in an adjacent town. What’s far more remarkable, however, and what’s brought his name into the fold for Rio 2016 Games, is his set of quickly accrued records in both track and cross country.
As a junior at University of Oregon, Cheserek’s NCAA titles are in the double digits. His indoor records include a mile in 03:57.94, 3,000 meters in 8:11.59, and 5,000 meters in 13:48.67. He’s won the NCAA Cross Country Championships three times in a row, and his 2015 win (finishing 10,000 meters with a time of 28:45.8) puts him in the same league as greats Steve Prefontaine, Henry Rono, and Gerry Lindgren. But while they each secured three NCAA cross country titles, only Cheserek was able to do so in three consecutive years.
Cheserek certainly has much he could brag about based on his aforementioned times, but when we spoke to him over Skype, he did not. He is kind and soft-spoken as he recalls some of his favorite races, and there’s a common thread in the way he describes them. “I wasn’t expecting to win,” follows nearly every tale. He says it of winning the NCAA Cross Country title his freshmen year, his first place mile at the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championships, and his winning 5k at the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Championships. When he doesn’t describe the win as unexpected, he directs the focus toward his team rather than himself, crediting them with pushing him forward. His fondest memory of 2015 is with them, running (and winning) at the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championship in Arkansas.
For now, Cheserek will continue school and training as usual, hoping that his application for U.S. Citizenship is approved ahead of the Olympic Team Trials for Rio in July (which will take place on his hometurf in Eugene, Oregon). He appears calm about it all. “I watch some movies, I play music,” he tells us of how he relaxes. “I listen to all kinds of music—pop, reggae, hip-hop—to get my mind relaxed. And I like documentaries a lot…I try to enjoy college life a little bit and get my degree.”
NAME: Edward Cheserek
HOMETOWN: Kapker, Kenya
CURRENT LOCATION: Eugene, Oregon at University of Oregon
RUNNING ROOTS: I used to play soccer and I guess I was too quick running in the middle of the field. My teacher or my coach at the time told my dad, “This kid can run.” I tried to go to a training camp, I was in seventh grade at the time, but I didn’t like it. I went there for a week of training and told my dad, “I don’t like it. I want to come home.” So I went home. I was missing my family and it was so boring, and it made me tired every single day. I told [my dad] I need to go back to soccer and he said, “I think you can do both,” which I did in the eighth grade. There are three seasons, there’s a season for soccer, for running, and one for other sports, so I did soccer and running. I’d play soccer and then after soccer it was track and after track it was cross country. I didn’t even like to train so I would practice my soccer and then I’d just go run.
MOVING TO ST. BENEDICT’S PREPATORY: I went to a high school in Kenya that is related to a missionary that is connected to St. Benedict’s. The missionary came to my high school [in Kenya] and said, “We need a couple of kids who want to go and study in America.” They selected 10 of us. It involved a lot of interviews and stuff like that, and I qualified.
BECOMING AN OREGON DUCK: Since I was young, I was looking at their program and the history of the school. I wanted to go really far from where I went to high school [in New Jersey] to try to see some other places. [My running] has changed a lot since I came here. I was in high school, you know, training, but I wasn’t training really hard like in college. So when I came over here and there were good coaches, good teammates, and a good program, too, I realized it’s a good spot for me to be.
TRACK VS. CROSS COUNTRY: I prefer track but I always go season by season. Whatever comes first, I take care of that. Of course track is my favorite because I hate being outside in the cold. [laughs] [When you do cross country here] it’s really cold all the time and you run in the mud. The track is really nice, especially when I’m running here, because a lot of people come out and support us. But with cross country, no one likes to be outside being cold. When you’re training for cross country, you do a lot of stuff outside; you run through the mud, you run through the forest and the trails. But the track is perfect. You can just run fast.
WINNING THE 2015 NCAA CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIPS: It was really fun. We were traveling as a team and I wasn’t even worrying about my individual race. We were training only as a team and we’d sit down with the coaches and talk about, “We’re going to try to put the team in a spot and we’ll see how we can do.” That gives me a lot of motivation, running with teammates and having friends around me. They’re good teammates as well, they push me. Running as an individual, it’s tough. You have to be around people that can motivate you.
RACING MINDSET: When I run, I don’t even think about racing. Before the race I try to just focus and be free. Nothing matters. When the gun goes off that’s when you think, “I’ve got to push myself here and try to see around for my teammates.”
DRIVING FORCE: The people around me keep me motivated and focused, the coaches, the staff, my teammates, and the people outside, the fans. When I see these people who came through the program a long time ago, like Steve [Prefontaine], [Alberto] Salazar, all of those famous runners, they came through the program. So when I see a picture of them up somewhere around here I think, “These guys, they really worked hard to get up there. I want to be like them.”
THE FUTURE: I’d like to get my degree in business; when I’m done running, I’d like to try and open my own business somewhere. I’m not sure what kind of business but I’ll figure it out when I get there.
OLYMPIC AMBITION: I know people have high expectations, but I don’t worry about it. I just worry about finishing the race and try to get as many points as I can for the team. That’s my focus.
I hope I get [my U.S. Citizenship] in time [for Rio]… Now, it’s a big goal, but I always say, “Go day by day.” I have the indoor and outdoor [championships] first but in time, I’ll just go for it.
For more from our 16 Faces of 2016, click here.