A FEW WEEKS before Josh Kerr pulled off an upset victory in the 1500 at this summer’s World Championships, he was training at his alma mater, New Mexico, and made a keen observation. Also working out on the track that day was incoming UNM frosh Habtom Samuel.
“Josh was really blown away with how good Habtom was,” new Lobos head coach Darren Gauson recalls. “He turned and said to me, ‘That’s a future NCAA champion right there.’”
Kerr won a trio of NCAA titles in the mile and 1500 for New Mexico, so he clearly understands what it takes. But even a casual observer could look at Samuel’s credentials and recognize the potential.
Running for his native Eritrea, Samuel won bronze medals at the past two World Junior (U20) Championships, over 5000 in 2022 and 3000 in ’21. Earlier in the ’22 season he made his senior-level debut, finishing 17th in the 10,000 at the World Championships in Eugene. He then matched that placing in the senior race at the World Cross Country Champs this past February (after only arriving in Bathurst, Australia, at midnight on the day of the race). He sports world-class PRs in the 3000 (7:52.69), 5000 (13:13.74) and 10,000 (27:20.08), which would rank high on the all-time collegiate lists.
And now he has made an immediate impact on the collegiate cross country scene, winning September’s Griak Invitational in his first race for New Mexico, then following it up a few weeks later with a close 3rd at the stacked Nuttycombe Invite.
“When you’ve got an athlete like Habtom you should be thinking about winning a cross country championship,” says Gauson, who adds that Samuel shows no signs of ego, calling him “very receptive and coachable.”
Samuel actually arrived on campus before Gauson, who took over the New Mexico program this summer following Joe Franklin’s move to Louisville after 16 years in Albuquerque. After World Cross, Samuel stayed in Australia for a few months, thanks to some of UNM’s Australian athletes, while arranging for a visa to the United States. He finally made it over in May, where he began preparing to enroll, including taking classes to improve his English and familiarize himself with a new culture. Fellow Eritrean Semira Mebrahtu Firezghi, a current athlete on the UNM women’s team, and famed alum Weini Kelati, an Eritrean-born U.S. star, have helped him adjust.
“It’s different from my culture and my home, but I like it,” says Samuel, who turns 20 on November 30. “I like my training partners, my coaches. The people here love the sport, everything is fine. I’m happy to be here.” Among his favorite elements of his new home is the abundance of spicy Mexican food.
Samuel is one of three superlative international frosh that Gauson inherited, along with Kenyans Lukas Kiprop (who set PRs of 7:41.97 and 13:28.23 this summer) and Evans Kiplagat (bests of 8:09.07 and 13:43.89).
“They have a fun dynamic and they’re always joking,” says Gauson, the head coach at Bradley for the past 8 years. “Habtom has a lot of leadership qualities and he’s really taken Evans and Lukas under his wing. He’s a little stronger than them in practice, but they’re getting closer and closer.”
Samuel has been clocking 85 to 95 miles a week in Albuquerque’s thin air — 1500 meters above sea level, c5300ft — and excels at long tempo runs. One 10-mile effort this fall saw him start at 5:00 pace before dropping down and finishing with 4:40 and 4:28 splits. “I had not been doing this kind of tempo training at home,” he says. “But so far, so good. I am used to the high altitude; at home we are 2500 meters above sea level.”
Beyond the XC season, Samuel has big goals. Though he’s never set foot on an indoor track, Gauson expects him to contend for NCAA titles in the 3000 and 5000 in March, and they are also eyeing the World Indoor Championships in Glasgow a week prior to the NCAA meet. Outdoors Samuel will target NCAA titles in the 5000 and 10,000 — and he hopes to find himself on the Diamond League circuit and in Paris later in the summer.
“I want to run under 13:00 in the 5K and for the 10K to run under 27:00,” he says. “If you want to qualify for the Olympics, you must run those times. We will work on that, and my health is good, so I’m confident.”