Hitting His Stride
By Dick Patrick ’72
The pace is slow and the strides are short and stiff as Peter Kosgei ’11 departs Ferguson House for an early morning run. Heading out Campus Road past Minor Theater and the Bristol Center before turning left down College Hill Road, he could be any student or faculty member out for a fitness run, dressed in tights and a long-sleeve shirt on a cool August morning.
As he reaches the bottom of the Hill and turns right onto Route 233, the pace quickens. Now he’s warmed up. His carriage is more erect; the strides are quicker, more powerful. Clearly he’s a competitive college runner.
“This is my favorite route,” he says. A couple of strides later he adds, “But my teammates don’t like it so much.” There’s a soft laugh.
In a few moments, it’s evident why teammates wouldn’t share his enthusiasm for the course. He veers right onto Reservoir Road. “There are some hills coming,” he says.
Soon they’re in view: Three sections of hills stretching more than a mile. Kosgei doesn’t slow as he ascends the increasingly steep grades. He’s not wearing a chronograph and he has never measured the course despite countless workouts here. The time and distance are not important to him. He relishes the effort and the challenge the hills offer his legs and cardiovascular system. “This is where I have built my strength,” he says.
That strength has made him the greatest runner — and arguably the greatest athlete — in the history of the College. Hamilton never had an NCAA individual running champion before Kosgei, who as of year’s end had collected nine such titles. The senior and native of Kenya is a man for all seasons: He has won once in cross country (2008), three times indoors (2008 mile, 800 meters; 2009 mile) and five times outdoors (2007 steeplechase, 2008, 2009 steeplechase and 5,000). He owns every school outdoor track record from the 800 through 5,000 and every indoor record from the 800 through 3,000 except for the 1,500.
The last time Hamilton had a runner of comparable distinction was in 1932, when recent grad Walter H. Pritchard, the namesake of the school’s track and field facility, took seventh in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and was second in the mile at the 1932 NCAA Championships.
Little competition as a youth
The running game has changed a lot since Pritchard’s era. International track and distance running has come to be dominated by East Africans, led by Kenyans and Ethiopians. Kosgei is from a village in the Rift Valley, which has produced scores of top runners, and a tribe, the Kalenjin, who traditionally are the top Kenyan runners.
The twist with Kosgei’s story is that he wasn’t a competitive runner until he entered Hamilton. Yes, he had the traditional rural Kenyan background of walking or running about 1.5 miles from his family farm to his primary school. He’d usually walk on the way to school in the mornings and coming home in the afternoons. He typically would run the round-trip distance at mid-day, when students would go home for lunch.
When he attended Kapsabet High School, an all-boys boarding school, he competed just a handful of times in what was closer to intramurals than interscholastic competition. He was more focused on academics, particularly the sciences. He was proud of his straight-A average; his goal was to score well enough on national exams to be admitted to a college in his own country.
Then the course of his life — and the athletic fortunes of Hamilton — were changed by the establishment of the Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project. The organization is the brainchild of Mike Boit, a former world-class middle-distance runner from Kenya who studied in the United States in the 1970s, and John Manners, a former journalist at Time who lived in Kenya as a child, returned as a Peace Corps volunteer and has chronicled Kenyan runners for five decades. The goal of the longtime friends was to bring American college opportunities to a region that was neglected educationally.
A first flash of brilliance
Kosgei was selected in the second year of the program in 2005 after he and 340,000 other seniors took the national high school exam that largely determines which students will advance to college in Kenya. Every year, Manners gets a list of the scorers by region and targets students in the western Rift Valley. He tries to contact all the students in the area who get A’s on the different sections of the test.
“Those kids get invited to apply,” Manners says. “They complete an application, which is basically an adapted version of the common college app. I want to see how they’re going to respond to questions like that. We also need the family data. We’re looking, frankly, for hardship cases for the most part. We want kids from needy families. Partly because that’s the right thing to do and partly because they’re also easier to sell. The colleges want them, too.”
Manners interviews the candidates. Once he has a sense of their academic potential, there’s an SAT boot camp. There’s also a 1,500-meter time trial. “Running is not a totally irrelevant consideration in our admission process,” he says. “It’s marginal, but it’s there. It has worked out that about a third of our students have gone on to run in college.”
Holds 9 national titles and 11 Hamilton running records: indoor 800m, 1,000m, mile, 3,000m, 5,000m, distance medley relay, outdoor 800m, 1,500m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and the home cross country course record.
2010: Finished 6th in NCAA Division III men’s national cross country championships, 4th in Atlantic Region championships despite competing only occasionally to concentrate on academics.
2009: Division III Men’s Cross Country Atlantic Region Athlete of the Year; won 7th, 8th and 9th national titles with NCAA victories in indoor mile and outdoor steeplechase and 5,000m; NCAA Division III Men’s Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year; NESCAC Most Outstanding Male Performer in both cross country and outdoor track and field.
2008: Division III Men’s Cross Country Athlete of the Year and track and field Runner of the Year; won national Division III titles in cross country, indoor 800m, mile, outdoor 3,000m steeplechase and 5,000m; NESCAC Most Outstanding Male Performer.
2007: Division III Men’s Cross Country Atlantic Region Athlete of the Year; NESCAC Most Outstanding Male Performer in cross country; won Division III 3,000m steeplechase for first national title.
Kosgei blew the field away in his time trial, with a performance that Manners remembers as 4:15 and Kosgei contends was 4:11. What matters is that no one since has come close even to the 4:15, which converts to a 4:34 mile. In Division III, there are plenty of 4:30 milers from high school. But consider that Kosgei ran the time at about 7,000 feet — a lung-sapping altitude worth several seconds compared to a sea-level effort — and on a dirt track in training flats, not in racing shoes on a synthetic surface common to U.S. prep runners. And he was not a consistent trainer. In short, he was a prospect with outstanding potential. He just needed to find a school.
Arrival: ‘It felt cold’ — in August
Manners typically targets academically selective schools in the Northeast for his students. “They’re all top-of-the-heap colleges,” he says. “The kids don’t have discretion about where they apply, and they know this going in.” Students’ preferences and ambitions are considered, but ultimately realism must rule.
Hamilton cross country and track coach Brett Hull had been in contact with Manners and expressed an interest in Kosgei, who applied Early Decision. The college currently has two other KENSAP students, one who runs and one who doesn’t. KENSAP runners are becoming more common now that the program may be sending 50 students per year to the United States.
“We haven’t had a Division I runner yet, though several of our kids would have been good D-I runners, Peter most outstandingly,” Manners says. “Most of our good runners have been in D-III in part because Hamilton and Williams have been most receptive and most nurturing to our kids. The rest of the NESCAC schools are into it now. They know.”
So in August 2006, Peter Kosgei arrived at Hamilton, after his parents had sold some farmland to pay for the airfare. “I remember telling someone it felt cold,” Kosgei says. “Students told me, ‘You think it’s cold now in mid-August? You’re in big trouble. Wait for the winter.’”
It wasn’t the weather that was the most difficult part of the transition. Freshman year is a trial for most students. What if you’re from rural Kenya, having grown up without running water and electricity, Swahili is your main language, and suddenly you’re in classes at Hamilton surrounded by students familiar with all the modern conveniences?
Kosgei had problems with spoken English. “I should have noted that from his TOEFL score,” says Manners, referring to the Test of English as a Foreign Language. “His writing and reading scores were fine, but his listening score wasn’t so good. I didn’t pay attention to that and I should have, because it was a real problem.
“He arrived on campus and felt immediately lost. He couldn’t understand what his teammates were saying. He couldn’t understand what lecturers were saying. If it was written on the board, he managed OK. He just had trouble adjusting to the American accent.”
‘Stressed out’ and struggling
Kosgei ran one cross country race and won. But things weren’t nearly as smooth in the classroom, his top priority, because of the language barrier. He felt overwhelmed as he received early test and quiz scores.
“The language problem was difficult,” he says. “I wasn’t used to the habit of looking for help, going to professors and asking them questions. I think the lowest grade I ever got in high school was B-plus. When I took the first few classes at Hamilton — calculus, chemistry, physics, writing — it was crazy. After a few weeks I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to get an A in this class.’ I couldn’t deal with it. I was very stressed out. I put a lot of pressure on myself for getting good grades.”
In October, he left school for the rest of the term. Manners and Peter Rono, a Kenyan who won the 1,500 at the 1988 Olympics and is now a running shop owner/businessman who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mt. Saint Mary’s, drove him from Clinton to Rono’s home in Lyndhurst, N.J.
Three months with Rono and his wife were what Kosgei needed to ease the transition. He had a mentor from Kenya who had negotiated the U.S. education system. Rono did more than provide some familiar Kenyan food; he assigned workouts and odd jobs. Kosgei had time to watch TV and become more comfortable with the American version of English.
He resumed school in January, much better prepared to handle the rigors of Hamilton academics. Chemistry became his choice for a major. “My high school was different. We had to take all three sciences – chemistry, biology, physics – all four years,” Kosgei says. “My chemistry teacher was very good. He inspired me.”
Meanwhile he had to learn about track, getting familiar with regular training and competitive tactics. At the end of his first year, in 2007, he won his first NCAA title, in the 3,000 steeplechase. He wasn’t considered one of the leading contenders going into the race. He made a name for himself in the final.
“I didn’t know I was going to win,” he says. “When I came to the last lap and was still with the leaders, I thought, ‘I’m not going to let the national title slip away in the last quarter mile.’ So with 300 [meters] left, I went for it, no matter what. I was surprised when I made a move and nobody responded.”
Back on track and winning
Under the direction of Hull and assistant Steve Bellona, Kosgei was getting in shape and developing a killer instinct. He was on his way to becoming a Division III sensation. In the fall of 2007, he took second at the D-III Cross Country Championships. Then he went on a tear.
At the 2008 Indoor Championships, he won the mile and 800 with the finals only about 90 minutes apart, coming the day after preliminary races in each event. “That’s a really hard double,” Hull says. “Not many attempt it because the finals are so close together. After he won the mile, he came off the track and could barely walk. I told him, ‘You don’t have to run the 800.’ He said, ‘Let me see how I feel.’ When he went off for a warm-up, he had a huge limp. But he toed the line. I didn’t see him limp during the race. He gutted it out. He was in fourth or fifth with 300 to go. He just put the hammer down and pulled out a big win.”
About a month later, he gained increased credibility by placing second in the steeplechase at the Penn Relays, a major meet attracting top Division I and II talent. It turned out to be his only loss of the year.
At the D-III outdoor championships, he defended his steeple title and added the 5,000. In November 2008, he won the D-III cross country title by the convincing margin of 10 seconds. In 2009, he won the indoor mile title and again doubled in the steeple and 5,000 at the outdoor championships. In the 5,000 final, he had to run much of the 3.1-mile race without a shoe, which came off about mid-race.
“I really wanted the 5K and steeple double,” Kosgei says. “When I lost the shoe with about 1.5 miles to go, I felt like, ‘If I stop to put it on, these guys are going to take off and throw in a 54-second 400.’ So I was like, ‘No. I have to finish barefoot, even if I have to crawl to the finish line.’ He won by one second, his foot bloodied and swollen.
In the fall of 2009, seeking a second consecutive cross country title, he demonstrated toughness in defeat. After an impressive pre-championship season, he came down with swine flu, which had reached campus and hit the cross country team particularly hard. Still, he tried to win. He pushed the early pace and was the leader until about a half mile was left. Then his body hit the wall. He wound up 43rd.
“It was a magnificent performance,” Manners says. “It was also tragic. He was so talented, wanted it so much and pushed so hard. The body just didn’t agree.”
Running — and studying — with a purpose
When he’s healthy and in shape, Kosgei is a formidable opponent. He is fast — he has run sub-49 seconds in a 4x400 relay. “I don’t know anyone who can stay with him for the last 400 in D-III,” Bellona says. “He’s got a fifth, sixth, seventh gear. When he wants to, he goes.
“What impresses me is that his heart and mind are in the process when he picks up the shoes and steps on the track. When he goes out there, he goes out there with a purpose. He really thinks a race. He has learned how to race.”
Kosgei applies the same sense of purpose to his studies, which remain a priority. He took a break from indoor and outdoor track in 2010, electing to spend more time on classes. He has spent much of his campus time near the office of Chemistry Professor Karen Brewer, working on problems, helping her with research and conducting work on his senior research thesis.
“What he is doing on a basic level is making glass out of chemicals,” says Brewer, who is also associate dean of students for academics. “Instead of melting sand, we make it from chemicals and do it the kinder, gentler way. We go from room temperature up to really high temperatures with the glass, like 1,000 degrees Celsius, in a furnace. The most important part of making the glass is that we put in the elements at the bottom of the periodic table, rare earth elements like europium and terbium. When we shine light on them, they fluoresce. They glow. These elements are used in fluorescent lighting and in some ways for computers and televisions.” Kosgei, she says, “is devising new ways of putting these rare earth elements into these glasses chemically.”
The senior project is an extension of Kosgei’s work for Brewer, who is collaborating on the research with Physics Professor Ann Silversmith. “He’s quiet in general, but he’s got a real good sense of humor,” Brewer says. “He likes to try things on his own. He’s not afraid to try new things. He’s dependable. He works hard. He’s quietly enthusiastic.
“He’s very humble about his running. He doesn’t see it as a big deal as it relates to academics. It’s part of what he does, but it’s not his entire identity.”
Finishing strong in the classroom
Kosgei has been finishing his chemistry thesis and applying to graduate schools. He is interested in obtaining advanced degrees, working in the United States and eventually returning to Kenya. He’d love to be able to continue running after college, though landing a professional contract could be difficult. But he’s an appealing prospect who has great range, is undertrained and has potential to improve significantly — not unlike his situation when he entered KENSAP, though at a much more advanced level.
Between running and academics, he has learned a lot, not just about fluorescence or race tactics but about himself and dealing with difficult circumstances.
“It’s going to be tough combining grad school and running,” Kosgei says. “I think I have learned to push myself to my limits.”