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Beat the clock: Cheserek's perfect season

12/8/2011
Edward Cheserek poses with his winning course-record time at the Oct. 9 Manhattan Invitational at Van Cortlandt Park in New York. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

Edward Cheserek touched down in San Diego late Tuesday, arriving early with St. Benedict’s Prep School coach Marty Hannon in order to prepare for Saturday’s Foot Locker finals.

Cheserek’s 2011 cross country season has been nothing short of spectacular. The junior from Kenya’s Rift Valley is in his second year as a student in the U.S. – and this fall has broken seven course records in seven races.

If Cheserek goes 8-for-8 and breaks Reuben Reina’s 1985 Balboa Park record of 14:36 the achievement will surely go down as one of the greatest in prep cross country history. So far this season, Cheserek’s closest race was a 24.9-second win in the Foot Locker Northeast regional.

The clock, and each course, served as motivation when competition was absent.

“I try to keep myself motivated all the time,” Cheserek said. “Last year, I had lots of competition. This year there is not as much.”

On Saturday, Cheserek knows there will be competition. He will race Futsum Zeinasellassie of North Central (Indianapolis, Ind.), the Nike Cross Nationals champion, for the first time.

“For me, in my mind, I would like to win and get the course record,” Cheserek said. “But Futsum is a great runner, so it will not be easy.”

Season in review

The groundwork for Cheserek’s course records assault began over a summer that included highs and lows. He strengthened his friendship with the Rosa twins, Jim and Joe, and went on training runs with them at New Jersey’s famed Holmdel Park. He also

attended the Nike Elite camp in Oregon, getting a chance to socialize and make friends with some of the top runners in the country. And he continues to become more sophisticated with his approach to training. He bumped his mileage up to about 55 per week.

But the summer also held bad news and heartbreak. Cheserek’s father died in Kenya. He made a trip home to be with his family, but the visit was short – just three days.

“It was a very difficult time for me,” he said.

Back at school in Newark, N.J., Cheserek poured his energy into his training – and began one of the most impressive cross country campaigns ever.

Sept. 24, Garret Mountain Reservation (N.J.): After bypassing an early-season meet, Cheserek opened his season by running on familiar ground at the Passaic Coaches Invitational. Garret Mountain is not far from Newark and he has done training runs there occasionally. From the starting gun, he took off and left the field behind, hitting the first mile in a scorching 4:25.

“I knew when I came through two miles in 9:25, I could get (the record),” he said. “With 800 meters to go, I sprinted.”

Final time: 14:53, the first under 15 minutes on the layout.

Oct. 1, Holmdel Park (N.J.): Holmdel Park is hallowed ground in the state of New Jersey because it is the site of not only the Shore Coaches Invitational, but also the Meet of Champions. It is the ultimate measuring stick for high school cross country in the Garden State and has been for many years.

Cheserek had never raced at Holmdel before, but he was certainly aware of his friend Joe Rosa’s 2009 record of 14:56.

“This course is really tough,” Cheserek said. “I wanted to see what I can do on it.”

He peeled three seconds off Rosa’s time, running 14:53.

As Cheserek met to answer questions from Star-Ledger newspaper reporter Jim Lambert, “there were 100 kids around the interview,” Hannon said.

Lambert reported that Cheserek went through the challenging uphill first mile in 5:01, six seconds ahead of Rosa’s record pace.

“He was signing autographs and was very happy with his performance,” the St. Benedict’s coach said. “He was also cognizant of Joe Rosa and the time he spent with him over the summer. So I think he had some mixed feelings about breaking a friend’s record.”

Oct. 9, Van Cortlandt Park (N.Y.): The Manhattan Invitational, held on one of the most historic courses in the U.S., arrived on an unusual day – much to Cheserek’s liking. With temperatures in the mid 80s, he tore out after the first sub-12 minute time in history on the 2.5-mile course.

Cheserek accomplished the feat, running 11:55.4 to win the Eastern States championship by nearly 26 seconds. Again he bettered a Joe Rosa record, this time by more than eight seconds. At the 2010 meet, one of Cheserek’s first in the U.S., he had finished second to Jim Rosa.

“He knew the course a little bit better this year,” Hannon said. “Having broken (the record) at Holmdel, I think he had a lot of confidence. He got out well, had some people with him through the woods and then poured it on at the end.”

Said Cheserek: “That course is hard. There are more hills. But you can sprint at the end of it.”

Oct. 15, Goddard State Park (R.I.): Traveling outside of the New York City metro area for the first time, Cheserek made a return to the Brown Invitational, where he had missed the course record (15:00.5, Cory Thorne in 2004) by three-tenths of a second in 2010.

Conditions were far from perfect.

“We went up Friday and jogged (the course). It had rained heavily and we were concerned there would be mud puddles. It was in much better shape by the time of the race,” Hannon said.

Meet organizers put hay down over the soggiest points on the course to help with footing. But it was quickly apparent that the wet track wouldn’t slow down Cheserek.

“The Brown Invitational was the most shocking (record) to me, to be honest,” Hannon said. “We thought he might get it by five or 10 seconds – but he broke it by 25 seconds.”

Cheserek finished in 14:34.6.

“I didn’t think I was going fast like that because it was a muddy course,” he said. Yet once again, he knew by the two-mile mark that he had the record. He won the race by nearly 47 seconds over fellow Foot Locker finalist Joel Hubbard of Massachusetts.

Oct. 28, Brookdale Park (N.J.): Flat and fast like a road race, Cheserek let it rip –hammering out a first mile in 4:28 and a second mile in 4:48 – on the way to 14:20.0 at the Essex County Championships.

He knocked 22 seconds off his own course record from 2010 and lowered it to a realm where it may be untouchable by anybody else. He won by 44 seconds – over another Foot Locker finalist Blake Udland of New Jersey – and produced one of the fastest prep 5K times anywhere.

After the race, he complained of a bothersome twinge in his hamstring, which caused him to hold back a bit.

“He’s got a lot of speed,” Hannon said. “When he first came to us we thought he was probably more of a 10K guy.”

Last spring’s 4:03 mile on the track, a sophomore class record, suggested otherwise.

Nov.5, Warinanco Park (N.J.): In 2010, Cheserek beat a 22-year-old course record by 10 seconds. Coming back to the New Jersey Catholic Track Conference championships, and running all alone yet again, he kept the record streak alive, but just barely.

Cheserek ran 4:50 for the first mile and 4:40 for the second and completed the 5,250-meter course in 15:18.2 –three-tenths of a second ahead of his 2010 time. Warinanco isn’t his favorite place to run, he said, because stretches of the course are paved. He prefers softer surfaces.

Nov. 26, Sunken Meadow State Park (N.Y.): On the north shore of Long Island, a rested and ready Cheserek intended, first and foremost, to qualify for the Foot Locker Finals.

But the course record dangled like a carrot and Cheserek couldn’t resist trying to keep his streak alive. John Gregorek, who would go on to represent the U.S. at two Olympic Games, held the record of 15:32.3 since 1977. Cheserek said he did not give an all-out effort, but merely wanted to qualify for the trip to San Diego. He finished in 15:20.5.

Hannon had instructed him to go conservatively for the first mile, a strategy designed to ensure a win but not necessarily a record.

“I told him after the first mile, if you feel good, then you can take off,” the coach said.

Cheserek listened to his coach, and went through the mile in 4:52.

“It was exciting to get the record, but it wasn’t really my best (effort). I was aiming only to qualify,” he said.

Is an eighth course record in the cards?

Hannon said he tries to keep a lid on expectations that rise so high, but this fall they have been difficult to contain.

“I think we all feed off other people’s expectations sometimes,” he said. “But I don’t like that stuff. I tell everybody I talk to that it’s not a given (he’s) going to win Foot Locker. Everyone goes to the starting line even.”

The number to keep in mind on Saturday is 14:36 – a standard that has been on the books since Reina, a Texan, led nine runners under 15 minutes 26 years ago.