Edward Cheserek breaks the tape at the 2018 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix (© A Runner's Eye)
After the conclusion of his supreme reign in the NCAA, Edward Cheserek endured a traumatic time last summer. Now that he's come out the other side, his sights are set on ruling the world.
From the outside, it can appear easy.
Ed Cheserek’s career – and indeed his life – seems to ascend towards stardom without any hint of struggle, just an ordinary guy enjoying the benefits of a rare and special gift.
When he runs, the world sees his legs whirl like jet turbines, the wide, content smile that breaks out as he crosses the line, usually in front. With the effortless ease of it all, they might assume that here is a man whose talent insulates him from the hurt, the heartbreak, that the rest of us face in life.
Which, of course, it doesn’t, and for Cheserek, like everyone else, things sometimes fall apart.
It’s June 2017, and after the most successful distance-running career in NCAA history – with 17 collegiate titles to his name – Cheserek is standing on a stage at the University of Oregon ready to graduate with a degree in business. It’s a proud day for the 23-year-old, and he beams a satisfied grin as he accepts the degree in his green robe, a golden sash hanging around his neck with two words printed on it, ones which have defined him for four years: student-athlete.
Two days later, Cheserek is preparing to take a well-deserved vacation after years of arduous work in both the classrooms and various running trails of Eugene.
“I worked hard, so I was trying to enjoy my life and take a road trip,” he recalls. “But I was only three hours into it when I get a call from home.”
It brought the most distressing news imaginable, and Cheserek pulled an immediate about-turn in his car when he heard it: back in Kenya his sister, Sheila, had passed away.
“She was young, 18 years old,” says Cheserek. “She went home from school for break on a Wednesday, stayed home until Friday, then she never woke up on Saturday morning.”
Eight months on, he still struggles to make sense of it.
“She wasn’t sick or anything,” he says. “It was just weird. She didn’t wake up.”
Sheila was the youngest of his six siblings, and during childhood she and Edward had formed a unique bond. “She was the closest one to me,” he says. “Ever since she was a baby, when I used to take care of her, she was a very close friend and we never lost that relationship. Even now, when I’m competing or doing something, I think about her.”
Cheserek returned to Kenya for her funeral last July, but could only spend a few days with his family before heading back to the US, where he was negotiating a professional contract for the years that followed, looking to somehow move ahead amid his grief.
After signing with Skechers in August, he made his professional debut the following month in the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York, but for Cheserek the tough times had not yet abated: he trailed home 16th in 3:57.
“I had a few injuries, and I didn’t run well,” he says, before pausing and offering a more honest assessment: “I ran like s***.”
He came home more than six seconds behind winner Nick Willis, and though he had his reasons, it still proved a wake-up call for the rookie in his first taste of the pro ranks.
“I was the little boy coming from college,” he says. “But after that I went home and reset my mind.”
In the autumn, Cheserek spent time training at altitude at Mammoth Lakes, California, under the guidance of coach Stephen Haas, who works with Cheserek’s agency, Total Sports US, before he relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, a hotbed for distance runners chasing the dream.
In a six-week training block through December and January, Cheserek ran at least 100 miles a week, preparing to make a statement during the indoor season. He began with a 3:54 mile at altitude in Albuquerque at the end of January, then picked out a mile race in Boston two weeks later to truly test his engine’s capacity.
“I can run a lot faster”
At the Boston University track on February 9, it took just three minutes, forty-nine seconds for him to find the answer. In a mile race set up with one goal – to get him under 3:50 – Cheserek passed halfway in 1:56, then slowly let rip on the throttle over the final laps.
He hit the bell in 3:21, and a few thousand fans went suitably berserk, willing him to something special. When he crossed the line in 3:49.44, the roars turned to high-pitched shrieks, then a chorus of whoops and applause went echoing around the arena for a one-man show like no other.
“It was good,” says Cheserek, typically understated. “But it was me running for myself. If there were more people in the race, especially during the last kick, I know I can run a lot faster.”
Only Hicham El Guerrouj has ever run faster indoors, and it wasn’t long before the Moroccan great took to Twitter to congratulate Cheserek, adding a word of advice for him to now focus on the 1500m and mile.
But what did Cheserek make of that tweet?
“I saw it and I think if you get advice from the best to run [the 1500], you think it’s going to work, but for me I think the best thing is to stick with both 1500 and 5K. I want to run a fast 5K and 1500 outdoors, then see after that.”
A day after Cheserek’s magnificent mile, he showed his versatility by lining up in the 3000m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, kicking away from Olympic 5000m medallists Hagos Gebrhiwet and Dejen Gebremeskel to win, with astonishing ease, in 7:38.74.
If any doubt remained about Cheserek’s chances at the top level, this was the race that removed it.
“That’s the thing I’ve been working on, trying to put my name out there,” says Cheserek. “Mo [Farah] is gone, [Bernard] Lagat is gone, so the younger generation is trying to get the position of those guys.”
To compete at major championships, however, Cheserek will have to be granted US citizenship, which he has long expressed as an intended goal. “It’s something you never know,” he says. “The government has to decide, so we’re still waiting, waiting and waiting. If they decide to give it to me, great, but I’m not the one to choose.”
Despite his affection for Kenya, Cheserek admits he’s been living in the US long enough to now feel fully at home in his adopted country.
“I’ve been here almost nine years. I grew up here, knowing coaches, athletes and how to compete with these guys. My friends are here, I was always socialising with runners and they think I’m an okay guy,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “even though I’m not.”
Tough and talented
He first arrived in the US in the summer of 2010, having been identified by a missionary group as a candidate for an athletics scholarship at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in New Jersey.
Cheserek had grown up on a farm and was first encouraged to pursue running by his father, who passed away in 2011. The day of his final screening exam to earn the scholarship, the roads to the high school in Elgeyo, western Kenya, were impassable due to heavy rain, so Cheserek had to run 60 miles to get there on time. He wasn’t just a talented kid, he was also tough.
Word of his ability spread nationwide soon after he started competing for his high school in New Jersey, and at college his stock only grew as Cheserek racked up NCAA titles with rapid frequency. But despite lucrative offers to turn pro, he decided to stay on the course as an amateur and complete his studies at the University of Oregon.
“The main thing in my life is to get my education, to get my degree first before I move on,” he says. “Running is not something that will dominate my life so I needed to get my education. One day, when I finish running, I want to do something in business, to give back to the community.”
Back home in Kenya, Cheserek’s family keeps a close watch on his progress, following every result and checking in with him regularly on Skype. Earlier this week he flew back to Kenya for a two-week visit, in much better circumstances than his last trip home for his sister’s funeral.
“I’ll have a lot of time to catch up with my mother, my other siblings, and reset my mind before I come back for focused training,” he says.
In the absence of a global outdoor championship this year, the summer will be focused on fast times, with Cheserek hoping to put a stake in the ground that tells the world’s best that he has arrived, and is here to stay.
“I’m getting stronger and learning how to race all these guys who have more experience than me,” he says. “I know I can compete with those guys.”
And one day, if Cheserek can stay on his current path, he might just rule the world.
Words: Cathal Dennehy