AS THE TOP RETURNEE from last year’s NCAA XC Championships, Edwin Kurgat might have had a small psychological leg up on the field. Just over a half-hour after the start of the race, Iowa State’s senior by way of Kenya had both legs up, physically and psychologically, on his 252 rivals as he became the Cyclones’ third individual champion and first since Jonah Koech, another Kenyan, in ’90.
Kurgat, unbeaten in 5 races this fall, including repeat Big 12 and Midwest Regional titles, knew what his goal was after taking 3rd last year at last year’s Nationals at Wisconsin. “Yesterday [at the premeet press conference] I saw pictures of past champions,” he said, “and I was, like, ‘I want to win gold, I want to be one of them,’ so it just kept motivating me. I was, like, ‘Go out today and show up.’ I was really optimistic and really strong and my coach [Cyclone assistant Jeremy Sudbury] kept motivating me. I knew I could do something special.”
It turned out to be pretty elementary, really, like Racing 101, as the favorite had the confidence to stick with his race plan despite a substantial early breakaway from the field by Virginia Tech’s Pete Seufer. “I was not worried,” Kurgat analyzed. “I knew I still had a lot of energy.”
Having fallen short of Morgan McDonald and Grant Fisher at last year’s meet, Kurgat wasn’t going to be denied this time around, gradually gaining on Seufer and then emphatically pushing into the lead for good with about 2K left. Unlike last year, he didn’t have to chase after anyone and more or less coasted down the long finishing straight for a comfortable win despite fast-closes by 2–3 placers Joe Klecker and Conner Mantz.
It’s a long way from Eldoret, Kenya, to Ames, Iowa, but Kurgat has made a seemingly seamless transition to the Big 12 school after a stop at Tennessee–Martin, for which he took 21st in the ’17 meet.
Iowa State head Martin Smith lavished praise on Kurgat, as a student, as an athlete and as a role model for his teammates. The veteran coach knows of what he speaks, having coached Lesley Welch at Virginia and Tim Hacker at Wisconsin to NCAA titles. “Edwin is an extraordinary young man,” Smith said. “A very gifted student and incredibly talented athletically, but he’s equally talented as a person. He also is soft-spoken but very articulate and leads by mentoring young runners. He has the whole package.”
Kurgat talked of his team’s effort post-race and appeared as happy after his individual win as he was about Iowa State’s podium finish. That was no surprise to Smith. “He is a team player and that is reflective of the type of person and athlete he is,” the coach said. “He’s very respectful to his talent. He takes his training very seriously and he doesn’t take shortcuts or get sloppy. He works very intelligently.”
So what’s left for Kurgat as he looks to his final collegiate track season? Improvement in the Nationals is a goal. He was 5th and 7th in the last two outdoor 5Ks, so adding an oval title would be a nice capstone to his career.