Cheserek, Zeinasellassie forge bond

Ed Cheserek and Futsum Zeinasellassie grind up the hill the final time. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

Foot Locker Finals Index

Futsum Zeinasellassie didn’t come to San Diego to make friends with Edward Cheserek. He wanted to stay serious, focused and win.

“I was trying not to talk to him all week,” Zeinasellassie said. “I wanted to focus on this race because I wanted to beat him so bad.”

But on Thursday, the entire group of Foot Locker finalists went for a jog outside the Hotel del Coronado. Zeinasellassie was with was surrounded by the other qualifers from the Midwest when another runner approached. It was Cheserek.

“He came up to me and said ‘Are you Futsum?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’” Zeinasellassie said.

And from that moment, whatever tension might have existed between them evaporated into thin air. Cheserek attached himself to Zeinasellassie and hung out in his hotel room.

The two African-born runners dominated high school cross country this fall for their respective U.S. high schools. And Saturday at Balboa Park, their competition produced one of the best boys finals ever. After trading surge and counter-surge over the final two miles, Zeinasellassie tried to push away up the final ascent of the hill.

Cheserek was unwilling to let Zeinasellassie go. He began sprinting up the hill until he had pulled back to even, and then back into the lead.

They roared down the final hill along Upas Street and it became a sprint to the finish. That favored the 4:03 miler, Cheserek, and he got the finish line in 14:51 – one second ahead of his new friend.

“We’ve become friends and been chillin’ together,” said Cheserek, who came to New Jersey’s St. Benedict’s Prep School a year and a half ago from Kenya’s Rift Valley.

Cheserek has deep connections to Kenya’s running culture and was a national champion for his age group in the 10,000 meters before coming to New Jersey. (He said he has a younger brother, 15, who ran 1:48 for 800 earlier this week).

Zeinasellassie, who was born in Eritrea and moved to the U.S. with his family five years ago, said he feels a bond with Cheserek.

“He’d come to my (hotel) room, but we never talked about the race,” Zeinsellassie said. “He reminds me of myself two years ago. The way he behaved with me, I was just like him.”

Cheserek is no stranger to national level competition in the U.S., but he is still catching up socially and culturally. Zeinasellassie, on the other hand, said he has come to feel more at home in the U.S.

Zeinasellassie was seventh at Foot Locker as freshman in 2008 and second last year to Lukas Verzbicas. He won the Nike Cross Nationals individual title last week in Portland.

The two runners, ranked 1 and 2 virtually all season, followed one another intently on the internet. But until Thursday they had never met in person.

“I had read a lot (about Zeinasellassie),” Cheserek said. “So I wanted to say ‘Nice to meet you.’”

Zeinasellassie tried to prepare for multiple race scenarios. Should he go hard early? Should he try to move late?

Beating a runner who had broken course records each time he raced this year was a riddle that he was not able to solve – at least this time.

“He would run as hard as he (could) for 25 seconds and then slow down,” Zeinasellassie said. “And I would think at the time, ‘OK, he’s done’ and I would pick up the pace and try to move. But it didn’t work because then he would do it again.”

If their budding friendship didn’t cement the bond between them, perhaps Saturday’s engrossing competition did. They will go into history linked by their 2011 clash at Balboa Park.

“Hopefully we’ll stay in touch,” Zeinasellassie said. “And I’ll make my college choice in a little bit and he might come to the same college. We’ll see what happens. But I really like him and I think he likes me, too.”

Cheserek has a short turnaround before starting indoor track next week. But he confirmed that he’d like to stay in touch with his new friend.

“Of course,” he said. “Futsum’s a very nice guy.”

The top two finishers ran out of eyesight of the rest of the field. Behind them, Nathan Weitz of Spokane (who attends the tiny Oaks Classical Christian Academy and competes for Shadle Park), rallied late and edged Bismarck, N.D.’s Jake Leingang for third place. Weitz finished in 15:21 and Leingang was next in 15:22.

Daniel Vertiz of San Antonio, Texas was fifth and led the South to its first-ever region “team” victory.

Andrew Gardner, of Spokane’s Mead High School, nosed out Tony Smoragiewicz of Rapid City (S.D.) Central for sixth. They both ran 15:24.

Vertiz, Leingang and Smoragiewicz joined Zeinasellassie as top-10 finishers one week after running at the Nike meet in Portland.

“They’re both really great events,” Vertiz said. “I’m glad I don’t have to choose because I don’t know what one I’d do. The biggest thing I did to stay fresh and not burn out was to try have fun at both events. I was having fun, enjoying myself.”

Smoragiewicz, who entered his final high school cross country season on the heels of the World Junior Triathlon in China, said he felt like he never felt like he completely recovered from a strenuous competition schedule.

Since Jan. 1, Smoragiewicz has been away from home 96 days.

He’s looking forward to his mom’s home cooking and Christmas in the Black Hills.

“I’m going to take some time off from everything and relax and recover,” he said.