Edwin Kurgat’s long road to cross country ends in success

Iowa State distance runner Edwin Kurgat races against eight other universities during the men’s 8K at the 2018 Big 12 Cross Country Championships on Oct. 26, 2018, at Iowa State. Kurgat placed first overall for the men’s division with a time of 23:21.1. The men’s team placed first overall with a score of 32, winning the championships.

Adarsh Tamma

He walked in a thin, quiet-kept man.

From the outset, his appearance would make others think he is just another college student walking the paths of Iowa State University. Wearing a pair of sweatpants, t-shirt and ball cap, the common person would not think twice to notice him.

But Edwin Kurgat is not just a common college student.

The senior engineering major also happens to be one of the best athletes in the country, and in his final season running cross country, he added a final piece of history to his resume — an NCAA Championship.

The list of accomplishments that Kurgat has achieved is large. In just two years, he has become a five-time All-American in track and field and cross country, won two Big 12 Championships, two Midwest Regional Championships and a third place finish in the 2018 NCAA Championships.

Despite this deep catalog of great performances, Kurgat chose to take a more modest approach when told of the work he has done on the grass.

“I am grateful and happy of my performances here,” Kurgat said. “They are of the best that I have had.”

These short and to-the-point responses are not out of the ordinary for Kurgat, who has been getting well-deserved media attention after a perfect season thus far. Kurgat’s leadership has proven successful, as Iowa State currently sports a No. 5 ranking in the national polls. This was topped off by a historic performance at the Big 12 Championships, where the Cyclones placed seven of their runners in the top-15, with Kurgat claiming his second-straight conference crown.

The venture of running for Edwin Kurgat, however, seems to be more of an extracurricular activity than a Division I sport.

When asked what he had done for the day, Kurgat said, “Oh, I just finished my weekend-long run in preparation for the NCAA Regionals. It was 13 miles.”

But, this is what makes Edwin Kurgat one of the best runners in the nation.

The sport of long distance running is often seen as a means for just exercise or even a kind of self-torture. Why would anyone run all those miles, just to end up bent over, gasping for every breath of fresh air?

For runners like Kurgat, these types of long workouts are commonplace in preparation for the 10K they have to run in the postseason. On the topic, Kurgat said, “Most of our exercises deal with the 10K course. The 8K races that we run [are] almost a warmup for the races later in the season.”

Despite this solid foundation of running experience, Kurgat’s story could have taken a completely different turn when he was much younger.

Born in Iten, Kenya, Kurgat was raised in the fifth largest city in the country, which today has a population of over 400,000 people. From an early age, Kurgat did not get to what you would call a fast start.

“My parents stressed that I should have a good education first, so I went to a really good boarding school from first to eighth grade,” Kurgat said on the importance of academics.

Kurgat’s study habits soon became the focus of his life, and his hard work paid off as he enrolled in the prestigious St. Patrick’s High School in nearby Eldoret, Kenya.

To many running enthusiasts, St. Patrick’s High School is seen as a a talent factory that produces the world’s best distance runners. There have been a number of world and Olympic medalists who have come out of the school. What’s more impressive is that this has all been under the watchful eye of former Irish priest Brother Colm O’Connell. This includes Henry Rono, who in 1988 became the youngest Olympic 1500 meter champion at just 21, and David Rudisha, the current world record holder and Olympic champion in the 800 meter.

Kurgat was still very much focused on completing his education at this time, saying that, “I knew of Brother Colm O’Connell as he had lived close to the school, but I was never interested in athletics during high school.”

The turning point in Kurgat’s running career came once he finished his schooling at St. Patrick’s. His next step was to enter college.

“I took the entrance exam to go to university, and got a B+, which was very good,” Kurgat said.

As he was about to attend Maasai Mara University in Narok, Kenya, Kurgat began to have a change of heart. In August of 2014, his older sister Caroline accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Alaska-Anchorage. She graduated this past spring as a seven-time national champion in Division II cross country and track and field, while also getting her degree in nursing.

These events inspired Kurgat.

“I initially did not consider going to America for schooling, but my sister told me that I could ‘run at my level’ and also get my major at the same time,” Kurgat said.

With this determination, Kurgat got accepted into the University of Tennessee-Martin in August of 2016. In just one year, he became an All-American on the cross country course by finishing 21st at NCAA’s, and earned Ohio Valley Conference titles on the track in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter.

The need to become better dawned on Kurgat, who saw an opportunity to move to a program where he could take his running talents to the next step.

“I knew that I had something special in me, so I began to look for other colleges to transfer over to,” Kurgat said.

The move to Ames and the Iowa State program was largely due to a state of success within the program.

“When I first visited the campus, I knew that everything I wanted was here” Kurgat said with a slight smile on his face. “This was the biggest factor that motivated me to come to Ames.”

At the time, the men’s cross country team was ranking in the top-15 of the national rankings, while also being one of the best squads in their regional.

On the course and in training, Kurgat’s leadership has also grown in leaps and bounds since his arrival to Ames. A co-captain of this year’s squad along with junior Thomas Pollard, the pair have overseen a diverse and talented group of runners, many of whom are running in a Cyclone singlet for the first time.

Pollard spoke quite highly of Kurgat’s leadership qualities.

“Edwin is so humble and selfless,” Pollard said. “He is such a great leader, and is always putting the team first. He really cares about each guy on the team and elevates everyone else’s performance.”

This aspect of Kurgat’s leadership also shows the tight-knit community that this year’s Cyclone squad is. While running is often considered an individual sport, cross country is special in that every runner plays a part in the team’s performance, with each individual’s placing adding a certain amount of points to the overall score.

Another large influence that motivated Kurgat was the coaching staff and the work that they do. While current head coach Martin Smith had already established the culture that still resonates in the program today, a retired coach in Bill Bergan made Kurgat think differently of his running approach.

“Before I came to Iowa State, I read about the history of this program and the work that coach Bergan had done,” Kurgat said. “Even today, I see coach Bergan sometimes at practices and he gives tips to all of us.”

Bergan is seen as the catalyst for driving the Iowa State running program to new heights. In his 23 years in Ames, Bergan won cross country national championships in 1989 and 1994 and garnered runner-up finishes in 1990 and 1991. Bergan also coached 110 All-Americans, and multiple world and Olympic medalists. In 2006, Bergan was named a member to the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame.

This boost of confidence gave a rise to Kurgat’s mental process. He said his training now “is about experience, a chance to learn and run where my strengths are and use these to my advantage.”

Kurgat’s current coach, Smith, has also been a key mentor in his running success. The long-time Iowa State running coach has also had high praise for Kurgat’s leadership, as he told ESPN+ after the Big 12 Championships back on Nov. 2.

“Edwin leads in a lot of different ways,” Smith said. “His work ethic, he leads by example, but he’s got this intangible, genuine quality … he really wants to see his teammates succeed.”

Coach Smith is not only a mentor and leader to Kurgat, but to the entire squad, overseeing both the cross country and track programs since 2013. Prior to coaching for the Cyclones, Smith had success at other Division I programs, as he won two national championships in women’s cross country at Virginia in 1981 and 1982. He then continued his winning ways at Wisconsin, collecting two more national championships in men’s cross country in 1985 and 1988.

Under Smith’s tenure, the Cyclones have undergone a transformation to become one of the best distance running programs in the country. The 2018-19 season has been one of his best, as both the men’s and women’s cross country squads won titles at the conference and NCAA regional meets.

When looking at Kurgat’s physique, it is easy to see why he has been so consistent over the past three years on the cross country course. A tall and lean frame gives way to a longer stride than most athletes and sleek speed that allows him to gradually wear down his opponents over the course of the race — no pun intended.

Kurgat’s vast experience in distance running has allowed him to realize a fact of any race that he will run.

“Running is just not easy,” Kurgat said. “Therefore, I know that if I feel tired, other runners around me should be tired as well. From there, it turns into whoever can withstand the fatigue, and whose strategy that works the best will win the race.”

This insight into the mind games that Kurgat described shows one of the most difficult keys of distance running — one’s mental approach. The idea that your athletic ability will always carry through can only take you so far. When your mind is telling your body to quit with 1K to go, the runners who have the mental resolve to pull through this pain will do so and be successful.

To Kurgat, this mindset of pushing through the hard times while also enjoying the good ones is something that he has learned over the years.

“I believe that discipline is the key to success,” Kurgat said. “If you put in the work and are committed to what you do, you will be successful.”

Kurgat’s career finished with an individual title in the NCAA Championship after finishing in third in last year’s meet, losing in a tough finish to Stanford’s Grant Fisher and Wisconsin Badger Morgan McDonald, both of whom graduated last year. He became the first Cyclone runner to win the individual title since fellow Kenyan Jonah Koech did so back in 1990. 

At the end of the day and after all of his accomplishments, Kurgat has still kept his focus on education, as he will graduate this year with a degree in industrial engineering.

“I am once again grateful for what I have had over the years,” Kurgat said. “Everything that I will look to do in the future is dependent on how I do this year.”

In this fashion, Edwin Kurgat’s journey in the sport of running and life itself is filled with the highs and lows of any heroic journey. At the end of the day however, the best does not necessarily have to be the most straightforward path, but the one that weathers the storms the best.

Kurgat’s story is not the average “straight path.”