OXFORD – Barnabas Kirui doesn’t want to underestimate the competition in this weekend’s NCAA South Regional cross country meet, but he does approach it with a certain lift in his spirits.
Winning the SEC can do that for you.
“It gets you thinking … Hey, I can do this,” said Kirui, a junior Ole Miss distance runner from Kaplong, Kenya.
Kirui posted a 24:24.75 time on the Ole Miss course earn the title on Oct. 31, in becoming the school’s first two-time SEC cross country champion.
The accomplishment was made more impressive by the fact that Kirui was coming off back surgery in May that caused him to miss the outdoor season.
Kirui heads to the regional in Tuscaloosa with the confidence of having beaten most of the runners in the event already since most are from rival SEC schools. One addition to the mix will be the entries from Florida State University.
To qualify for the national meet Kirui must finish in the top four among unattached runners and finish in the top 25 overall.
His goals are much higher than simply qualifying.
“I like his chances, and I like his chances at nationals as well. If he runs a good race he has a chance to win the thing,” said associate head coach Doug Blackwell, who works with the team’s distance runners.
The national meet is Nov. 23 at Terre Haute, Ind.
Nagging pain and stiffness in his back led a redshirt for Kirui during the outdoor season. He ran some indoor meets in the winter but was forced to lay low in the spring.
It was a disappointing time.
“Fortunately, over my three years here I’ve had really good relationships with teammates, and those are the people who helped me with cards and words of inspiration,” Kirui said. “Also, I am a Christian. I prayed a lot, and every time I prayed I asked that I could be well so that I could run again.”
Blackwell helped guide Kirui through a light rehab schedule at first, gradually gaining strength on his way to recovery. He ran in three meets before the SEC championship.
“I almost surpassed my expectations,” Kirui said. “I knew I was ready but not to that point.”
Blackwell knew Kirui was ready too. One of his greatest assets as a distance runner, his coach says, is how quickly he recovers physically between meets.
“It’s one of his attributes. God gave him the ability to recover, and it doesn’t take him as long as quote unquote normal people,” Blackwell said.
That’s important in helping Blackwell have Kirui ready from meet to meet. Now Kirui is ready for success at the regional and hopefully beyond.
“I think I’m in an ideal situation (for the regional),” he said. “If everything holds the same way, it’s possible. The thing is, the competition is really tough, and sometimes in the NCAA the competition comes from nowhere.
“But with our preparation, we have a shot.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal