PEMBROKE — Freshman Silus Kipkoech has his eyes set on being an All-American before his time is up as a cross country runner for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
His first trip to the NCAA national championships on Saturday will be a learning experience.
But don’t think the Eldoret, Kenya native — with six race wins under his belt this season — won’t still try to make sure his name is with those in contention like the more than 200 other runners toeing the line with him at Evansville, Ind.
“Because I don’t know and I have never been to nationals in this place, going to nationals I get to know how people race and all the stuff that goes on in America. Then when I come next season, it will be a different thing,” Kipkoech said. “I will still do my best, but the thing is my goal last season was to make it to nationals and that’s why I’m going to nationals now. Being there I will do my best and then see if there is any adjustment I need to do.”
As just a freshman, Kipkoech has already left his name in the program’s history books becoming the second runner in UNCP history to make the NCAA nationals, and win the Southeast regional since former All-American and Rio Olympian Pardon Ndhlovu completed the feat in 2011 and 2012.
Kipkoech won the regional with a time of 31:23, beating the rest of the 153-man field at Wingate two weeks ago as Nick Kipkemei of Queens finished in the runner-up spot with a time of 31:24. Kipkoech and Kipkemei are both from Kenya and spent the summer training together, adding a little excitement to the one-second split at the end of the race.
“The race was good even though I wasn’t expecting it to go that way. I raced well that race, but I wasn’t actually feeling that well, I had a problem with my leg. But I was in a safe distance that I maintained,” Kipkoech said. “Looking back I saw the guy from Queens, this was a guy from Kenya, it was a guy that I used to train with. Then I was relaxed because I knew even if I was not feeling well that he could not do anything to me because it’s a guy I used to train with.”
While he wasn’t 100 percent winning the regional with an injury to his right leg, Kipkoech said he is good to go tomorrow for the final race of the season.
“It’s good because even if I say it’s not good, I still have to race,” he said. “You can’t accept that as a problem.”
In two semesters at UNCP, the freshman has racked up several awards to go along with his race wins, starting with the track and field season in the spring.
In the spring during his first semester at UNCP, Kipkoech won the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs at the Peach Belt Conference track and field championships to become the conference track athlete of the year and the track freshman of the year. Kipkoech then registered a personal-best time of 24:20 in the 8K run at the Peach Belt Conference cross country championships to become just the second runner in program history to claim an individual conference title and win the conference runner of the year award. He became the first freshman in conference history to win that award.
Last week after winning the regional, he was named NCAA Southeast region cross country athlete of the year by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
“He’s brought so much hardware and it’s going to be hard to top,” UNCP cross country coach Peter Ormsby said. “The cool thing is that he’s so much of a team player and he’s excited to go to nationals, but he said he would be more excited if the team was coming, it’s like he’s sort of bummed that he’s the only one going.”
Kipkoech is one of 27 individual qualifiers for the NCAA national championship, but if he had it his way he wouldn’t want to make the trip, and prepare for another race alone.
“That’s a bad side for me actually. I’ve been enjoying being with my teammates. I’ve been telling my teammates to train hard so that we can go there as a team,” Kipkoech said. “It’s a bad side going alone without my teammates because this team was the one that has given me a lot of direction in America. I will be there with Coach (Ormsby), but it will not be like being there with my teammates.”
To get to the national championships this weekend was something that started after his last race in the spring when he failed to qualify for the national championships in the 5 and 10K races, but getting to this point did test his perseverance.
“After the last race last season, I told the Coach (Ormsby), ‘The season has come to an end. Let’s prepare for the next year.’ I knew that I could be ready to go to the nationals next season,” Kipkoech said. “How I got to nationals is through running and the discipline because waking up in the morning you don’t need to be followed.
”You have to follow simple instructions, be disciplined and belief in yourself. That prepared me well because I have a good idea toward running.”
Typically for practice, the coaching staff will send the rest of the team out for the run and give them a head start that is typical of Kipkoech’s spread time among the team and let him play catch up. Things have been a little different the last two weeks.
“He’s done a lot in these two weeks on his own,” Ormsby said. “It’s a little different standpoint because he’s used to chasing the guys down hard, but I will go up there with him and run with him and we will preview the course.”
The 10K race starts for the men at 12:30 p.m. and is the second straight 10K race for Kipkoech during the cross country season. In the spring during track season, Kipkoech set a personal best time of 30:48.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.