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Inspired by early tragedy, Kipyego is running for a cause

Sally Kipyego recalls running someplace nearly all of her life.

Texas Tech's record-breaking distance runner has clocked the fastest college times in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters this season heading into this week's NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. She has claimed six NCAA championships during her career, with hopes of making the Olympic team in her native country of Kenya later next month.

But her most memorable race came much earlier, a traumatic life-changing event that shaped her career plans and her outlook. After watching one of her best friends die when she was a little girl, Kipyego has been determined to make a difference..

As a young girl, Kipyego ran more than 15 miles a day to attend school in her hometown of Marakwet, Kenya. It was that way for many children she grew up with as they covered extreme distances between their isolated homes and the schools every day.

But one of her childhood runs when she was barely 11 years old remains more vivid than the rest. Her older brother's best friend, Elias, was riding a bicycle when he suffered a hard fall. It was Kipyego's job to run and get help for him.

After covering more than 7 miles, Kipyego arrived at a clinic in a nearby village. She found the doctor there, but he refused to treat her friend, eventually locking the door to keep her out of his facility.

A near-hysterical Kipyego then charged back to the scene of the accident, where she found that Elias' condition had worsened while she was away. She arrived just in time for him to die in her arms and those of her brother.

"I felt so helpless when I went through that," Kipyego said. "You lose something when something like that happens that stays with you. If there had been somebody there who had known something about health care, he might still be alive. It's kind of haunted me to look back at that during the rest of my life."

She felt so strongly about that incident that it served as a stimulus for her to pursue a nursing career. She included details of the incident in her application to nursing school at Texas Tech, where she is currently about a year away from receiving her nursing degree. Her eventual career goal is to return home to Kenya with hopes of providing better health care for her impoverished country.

"That's part of something I've always wanted to be able to help with," Kipyego said. "My country was very poor and the health care wasn't good. I lost my father when I was very young. My mother had to work so very hard to provide for our family. I'd like to see if I can't help change those things."

Kipyego has been running competitively for less than eight years, but has already developed into one of the most accomplished distance runners in NCAA history. She will be aiming for her first outdoor championship in the 5,000 after winning the 10,000 at last year's NCAA meet in Sacramento, Calif.

She was the first Kenyan woman to win national cross-country championships with back-to-back victories in 2006 and 2007 that earned her the Honda Award as the nation's top collegiate female cross-country runner in both seasons. Kipyego also claimed three indoor national titles with back-to-back 5,000 meter titles in the past two years and a triumph at the 3,000 last year. She is one of only four women in NCAA history to win four individual track titles during a single season.

Prior to coming to Texas Tech, Kipyego spent three semesters at South Plains College, where she claimed seven national junior college titles. That came after she was forced to recuperate for nearly two years after suffering a stress fracture in her left leg when she was a teenager in Kenya.

"I started pretty young and then went down with the injury," Kipyego said. "My body is just coming back and maybe I'm just responding better after the training. And the way the NCAA meets are scheduled, and you have the opportunity to run year-round here with cross country and track, just makes you improve."

The injury forced her to adapt and has resulted in the development of a fiery competitive attitude with a spirit that accentuates her natural talents and infuses her team.

"She's very aggressive and that's what makes her great," Tech track coach Wes Kittley said. "She'll sit in the pack, but she likes to take the lead when she has that opportunity. It's not her style to try to outkick her opponents. Sally is so tough mentally -- she's as good as anybody I've ever coached in that regard."

The 5,000 race at last year's NCAA outdoor meet was her only loss last season. Kipyego placed second to Michelle Sikes, running a 15:24.22 less than 24 hours after winning the 10,000.

That loss has helped spur her to strong performances this season, including the top national college times in the 5,000 (15:11.88) and 10,000 (31:25.45).

"I had some goals, but I didn't expect to run this fast during my time here," Kipyego said. "It's gone very well for me. Much better than I ever expected."

Because of the approaching Kenyan Olympic trials, Kipyego does not plan to run the 10,000 at Des Moines, substituting a chance at the 1,500 instead. She will arrive in Kenya several days before the July 4 Olympic trials in Nairobi, where she aims to compete in the 10,000.

A subpar performance in Kenya last year after the NCAA meet is the main reason she wants to return home several days before the Olympic trials.

"I went hard last year after the NCAA, but it just wasn't successful for me," she said. "The air and the altitude affected me. And the longer the distance, the harder it becomes. This year, I'm going back a little earlier to get my body used to it."

The long hours at nursing school are already putting some constraints on her training, even if her performance hasn't shown it. Most days she trains by herself, often at night on a treadmill. On other days, she arrives at team workouts in her surgical scrubs, barely getting there in time to change clothes and join the team for drills.

"She's on her feet 10 hours a day with her job," Kittley said. "I don't think that people realize what she is going through in college. Sally is just remarkable. She'll be on her feet all day and then run at night."

Despite those challenges, Kipyego said she has enjoyed her nursing studies. She is on target to graduate next fall.

"The hardest thing for me has been for me to be able to get comfortable when I was treating my patients," Kipyego said. "I get so nervous when I'm trying to find out how they are feeling. It's different -- just trying to get my patients to relax."

At 22, Kipyego is just emerging as a world-class competitor. Most distance runners typically peak in their late 20s, giving her much room for improvement over the next several years.

"She's running and competing against the best in the world at a very young age," Kittley said. "That's why her future is so bright. In her events, she's just a baby."

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.