Edward Cheserek goes the distance for St. Benedict's

It only took one meet for Edward Cheserek to make his mark on the 2011 cross country season. The St. Benedict's junior shattered the Garret Mountain course record by 22 seconds, blazing a time of 14:53 at this past Saturday's Passaic Coaches Invitational. What's more, Cheserek beat the field by a whopping 107 seconds!

But for all of Cheserek's accomplishments, his life journey may be his greatest feat.

We spoke with Cheserek in September for a story that appeared in the October issue of ESPNHS magazine.

Last year, Sandburg (Orland Park, Ill.) distance superstar Lukas Verzbicas accomplished just about everything a runner can in one year. He became the first to win both the Nike Cross Nationals and the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in the same year, broke the four-minute mark in the mile, won the Gatorade National Cross Country Runner of the Year award and was lauded as the next great young distance runner.

And yet, at the NXN meet in Portland, Ore., last December, a difference of only two seconds could have shifted the entire discussion.

That’s because St. Benedict’s harrier Edward Cheserek, a Kenyan-born distance phenom, was nipping on his heels the whole race before finishing a close second.

Now, in just his second year in the United States, the junior has a chance to do everything the Lithuanian-born Verzbicas did last season.

Cheserek came to St. Benedict’s last summer through a church-sponsored program that relocates talented Kenyans to America. He spoke barely any English when he arrived. “The hardest part was leaving my family and coming to a new country where I did not know anyone,” he says.

“Just imagine yourself being dropped in the middle of Kenya,” says St. Benedict’s cross country coach Marty Hannon. “I know a few Swahili words, but if I was on my own in Nairobi I’d be lost. But he picked it all up pretty fast.”

Learning English and getting over the culture shock and homesickness took time. But there was one thing Cheserek could do that instantly translated. He could run.

He showed immediate promise beyond what Hannon had ever seen. Cheserek was often far ahead of his teammates in workouts, and he could run mile intervals between 4:30 and 4:50 over and over again no matter the heat or humidity.

“That’s when I first had a jaw-dropping experience,” Hannon says. “We didn’t know what kind of runner he was when he got off the plane. I was definitely surprised.”

Cheserek doesn’t have the chance to win a true New Jersey state title because St. Benedict’s isn’t a full member of the state athletic association. But as his performance at last year’s Nike Cross Nationals suggests, he’s the odds-on favorite for a national crown this fall.

And while that’s his goal, Cheserek prefers to run in relay events, such as last year’s distance medley relay at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals — an event his team won.

“The DMR at nationals was my favorite,” he says, “because I could share a national championship with my teammates, who all ran amazing races to allow us to win.”

Cheserek still misses home. He misses his family and friends, Kenyan food and Kericho tea. But he also recognizes the potential for himself in America.

“This is the country of opportunities,” he says. “I have learned a lot here.”