The crowd at Historic Hayward Field roared as the runners came around the Bowerman Curve for the final time in their sprint to the finish line.
Living up to their reputation as the best fans in the nation, the Hayward faithful had been engaged throughout the long 28 minutes that the men’s 10,000 lasted for, despite the fact that it was the final event of a long first day at the NCAA Track and Field Outdoor Championships.
By far the fan favorite of the event was Oregon’s Edward Cheserek. Due to the program’s fear of overworking their star freshman, seeing Cheserek actually compete within the friendly confines of Hayward has become something of a rarity. Thus the crowd reveled in the chance to watch the young man who has been heralded as the next great in Oregon’s long line of distance royalty.
Wednesday night Cheserek lived up to his billing. The Kenya native sprinted down the final straightaway alone after dropping the rest of the competition. The fans were on their feet as he crossed the line in first place with a final time of 28:30.18.
The victory for Cheserek marks the first time a freshman has won the 10K at the NCAA Championships since 1979.
“Absolutely phenomenal,” head coach Robert Johnson said of Cheserek after the meet. “You just don’t get kids like that as freshmen to come in and be as dominant as he is. He has done everything we have asked him and the best thing about him is he is humble as pie.”
Joining Cheserek on the track was a suitably impressive field for a National Championship meet. The highlights of the group included Texas Tech senior and top qualifier (29:05.77) Kennedy Kithuka, Stanford junior and Pac-12 10K Champion Joe Rosa, Oklahoma State senior Shadrack Kipchirchir and Wisconsin senior and 2012 London Olympics qualifier Mohammed Ahmed.
Also in the field were two of Cheserek’s Duck teammates, seniors Parker Stinson and Trevor Dunbar. Stinson was the second place finisher in the Pac-12 Championships.
One notable absence was Arizona senior Lawi Lalang. Lalang is the defending champion in the 10K, finishing first last year with a time of 29:29.65. This season Lalang decided to forgo the event and instead focus on the 1,500 and the 5,000.
At the signal the runners approached the line and the crowd fell silent, as everyone seemed to be holding their breath in anticipation. Then at the gun the breath was released in an explosive cry as the runners took off.
Kithuka jumped out to an early lead, looking to set the pace as the rest of the pack settled into their spots. Ahmed was in second while Cheserek found himself in fifth.
“I was like, just run smart and relax until the last 400 to go,” Cheserek said of his plan headed into the event.
Watching Cheserek run is something to behold. He carries himself with confidence and composure that seems out of place for someone so young. Rather than jumping out to an early lead, often he is content to sit on the heels of the leaders, using his blistering kick to outpace the competition at the end. Nobody has ever looked more relaxed while running a 10K than Cheserek.
“You guys talked to me after Indoors and I said don’t put any limits on this guy,” Stinson said of his teammate. “I see what he can do in practice, and half the time he is wearing sweatshirts and pants and he still runs pretty fast.”
At the five-minute mark of the race five athletes separated themselves from the main pack, as Kithuka, Ahmed, Cheserek, Kipchirchir and Stinson all pulled away.
“I executed the plan going with those guys,” Stinson said. “I wasn’t doing anything stupid.”
Each time the leaders passed by the Western Grandstands the crowd clapped and stomped, urging them on.
At the 10-minute mark Stinson fell off from the leaders, slowly dropping back into seventh place to run behind teammate Dunbar, with both athletes helping one another the rest of the way.
Cheserek finally made his move with only 200 meters to go, apparently at the prompting of Kithuka.
“Kithuka was dying and he just told me to go,” Cheserek said. “He didn’t want to slow people down.”
Kipchirchir tried to stay with him but couldn’t and Cheserek ended the race at a dead sprint all on his own. As he crossed the finish line he pointed towards the sky and threw up the Oregon ‘O’ to the delight of the crowd.
Kipchirchir finished second (28:32.31) while Ahmed finished third (28:43.82).
The Oregon fans had reason to cheer again as both Dunbar and Stinson finished in scoring positions. Dunbar crossed the line fifth (28:53.81) and Stinson came in eighth (29:01.39).
“I was trying to wait until the last 150,” Dunbar said, “but the crowd got so into it when Edward was kicking that I was like ‘all right, I am using this energy now’.”
Upon crossing the line Stinson collapsed to the track in exhaustion. Moments later Cheserek was by his side, helping him to his feet and leading him off the track with his arm around his shoulders as the roars of Hayward echoed around them.
Follow Christopher Keizur on Twitter @chriskeizur