Oregon's Edward Cheserek has terrorizing kick, unassuming manner

EUGENE, Ore. -- There's a feeling in track that distance runners know.

When they come around for that final lap or the last curve, they know whether they have more in the tank than those running shoulder to shoulder with them.

"It's hard to exactly tell what detail you're getting, but generally you're going to be right," Oregon distance runner Daniel Winn said. "I'm sure Ed gets that sense a lot."

"Ed" is Edward Cheserek, the freshman phenom turned sophomore sensation who will end his three-sport year this weekend at the NCAA track and field championships at his home track in Eugene. Already he has six individual national titles to his name, and this weekend he could add two more. On the track, his 5-foot-6, 122-pound body and his late-race kick have terrorized opponents.

"He's intimidating to race against," teammate Eric Jenkins said.

Some of the media has taken to calling him "King Ches." He's on billboards in Eugene. Less than halfway through his college eligibility, he's already at the point in his career in which losing is a bigger story than winning.

But that kind of recognition has never been part of his plan or one in his Rolodex of goals that includes more national championships then world championships, the Olympics and the Boston Marathon.

Cheserek begins to explain his biggest goal in the sport but pauses. This is common for the Kenyan, who concedes that after five years in the States, he has already lost most of his native Swahili.

"I want to keep running until my legs stop moving," he says. Really? This is the most intimidating racer in the NCAA?

Some of Cheserek's most vivid memories of his childhood in Kenya were the matatus -- converted 20-person passenger vans that worked as public buses throughout the country.

Cheserek and his family would ride them from place to place because they didn't own a car until he was much older.

The matatus were only slightly more reliable than personal cars because when they hit the potholes, which became more like basins during the wet season, they were a bit heavier and didn't always get stuck.

But sometimes even they got stuck, and everyone would pile out and walk or run to wherever they were going. When that happened, Cheserek would run, because he hated being late.

Eventually it just made more sense for Cheserek to run everywhere during the wet season. He'd run 2 miles to school and 2 miles home to the circular mud hut where he lived with his six siblings and his parents.

By the time he was a freshman in high school, Cheserek was in boarding school 60 miles from his home. A missionary group that works with Kenya's education ministry contacted him about an opportunity to go to high school in United States on a full scholarship.

He needed to finish the school year and take a special exam in late spring to qualify. If all went well, he'd be headed for America in July.

Unfortunately, late spring is Kenya's rainy period and Cheserek was home for the week of spring break. The Saturday before Cheserek was due to take his exam, the roads were flooded over and neither the matatus nor the Chesereks' car would be able to take him to the city to take his exam. Without it, he wouldn't be able to come to the States.

So at 5 a.m. that Sunday, like every other time he was stranded during his childhood, Cheserek took off. This time, though, he needed to travel 60 miles by foot.

Every few hours he would stop to get food and maybe walk for a little bit. By 6:30 p.m. he arrived at the school, showered and went to bed early.

The next morning, his running teammates woke him up to go for the daily run.

"So I was like, 'Dude, I ran yesterday for 12 hours. I've got to take a break,'" Cheserek said at the ceremony for the Bowerman Award, awarded to the top male and female athletes in college track and field, where he recounted his tale in December.

Cheserek passed his exam and, shortly after, left on a plane. He arrived at JFK Airport with no checked baggage in tow -- just an empty backpack on his back and his running shoes on his feet.

The training at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey, wasn't 60-mile treks to school, but in some ways it was almost more painful. If Cheserek weren't able to train at the local park, he had to choose between the 200-meter outdoor track that tightly wrapped around the St. Benedict's soccer fields or an indoor track that was 24 laps to the mile.

That made no difference.

He started dominating high school cross country and track almost immediately.

Over the next three years, Cheserek demolished school and national records. He broke cross country school or course records in 12 of his 21 races. He broke the 49-year-old indoor 2-mile high school record. He became the first high school runner ever to run a sub-14-minute 5K.

He made good high school runners (and some college ones, too) look outmatched. Even so, it was only a preview of what was to come at Oregon.

In Eugene, there is no language more universal than football.

For the Oregon track coaches to define exactly how special Cheserek is and explain just why he is so intimidating to race against, they need to turn to that language in order to find a more fitting analogy.

"Imagine you get a football kid who's pretty decent out of high school and he goes and wins the Heisman," says coach Robert Johnson.

"Freshman year," clarifies distance coach Andy Powell. "As a starting quarterback."

That puts Cheserek in uncharted waters.

Yes, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston both won the Heisman, but they were redshirt freshmen. Johnson and Powell are talking true freshmen.

Cheserek races as Manziel and Winston played college football. His brash and boisterous kick teeters on reckless, just as those two quarterbacks threw and ran without any abandon or worry for their bodies. They wanted to win the same way Cheserek wants to win, and their records are nearly the same.

"All of the success he has had at this young age, you'd think he'd be levitating off the ground -- at least just a little bit. Why not?" Johnson said. "But he's different in that sense."

Why not? Because levitating wouldn't help him get to his goal: to run until his legs stop moving.

And that fact alone makes him even worse to race against.

Cheserek slips into a room overlooking Hayward Field a few months before he's set to take the track by fire at nationals.

He just had a cup of coffee (black). He drinks two a day, every day.

He throws off his backpack, which reaches nearly to the backs of his thighs. It seems a minor miracle that the bag doesn't tip him backward all day.

His feet, which have literally brought him from a hut in Kenya's Great Rift Valley to the mecca of college track and field, tap the ground. His 122-pound body looks as if it could sweep away with the rain that's still stuck on this side of the Cascade Mountains this time of year. He's wearing size small wind pants, but he looks as if he's swimming in them. As he reaches up to adjust his Nike baseball cap (he feels naked without it), it's impossible not to imagine his arms swinging midrace.

This is Edward Cheserek? The kid who once ran 60 miles to get to America? The runner whose own teammates describe him as intimidating to race against? This is the kid who's poised to take over college track?

Here, away from the track, he moves slowly, looks young, speaks softly.

"I want to put my name up there like him," he says and motions to the track, visible through the rain-soaked windows behind him.

He's talking about Steve Prefontaine, the Oregon runner who put the track program on the map and helped elevate the sport but died at 24 in 1975.

This fall, Cheserek became the first runner since Prefontaine to win the NCAA cross country championship in back-to-back years as a freshman and sophomore. Like Prefontaine, Cheserek has become one of the hottest names in collegiate track and is being looked at as an Olympic hopeful.

Prefontaine ran for the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics, and Cheserek hopes to represent America as well, if his citizenship goes through. But he can't think about it now; he has a national championship meet before that decision will come.

"With life," Cheserek said, "I go day by day."

He pauses as if he's about to say a bit more then stops. His opportunities here are endless. He can truly go wherever his feet will take him, but he's happy to be exactly where his feet are right now -- in Eugene, home of one of his running idols. He's still in that shadow but is very nearly stepping outside of it.

He's at this crux because of one simple fact: He has never stopped running. And that scares people.

With a quick smile, he excuses himself, pulls on his oversized backpack and walks to the door. After all, he has a track practice to get to on time.