When Paul Ereng became UTEP’s cross country coach in 2003, he became the first Kenyan in that position in the US. But like runners the world over, Ereng soon found that the distance between Kenya and El Paso was like training for a 5k vs a marathon – vastly different.
And as a head coach recruiting prospective students from his home country, describing the landscape can be daunting.
“Totally different,” said Ereng, in describing the relative terrain and climate of El Paso to his native Kenya. “I think a lot of kids get a shock when they arrive in this terrain. Kenya is typically a higher altitude, very green, and doesn’t have the rugged mountains like we have here,” said Ereng. “But human beings are very good at variance. Every time they come to a challenge they rise to it.”
Ereng speaks from experience. He arrived in Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia in the late 1980s. “When I first arrived in August, it was humid and hot. The environment was almost like Kenya, very green – the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains — and very beautiful,” said Ereng.
“I didn’t know that within two months things were going to change. All of a sudden the place was bare, and there was no green anymore. Then the weather became very cold, and it was sometimes snowing and windy.”
The warm days followed by the long evening shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains often conspire to create a winter landscape laden with ice. The looming Franklin Mountains just outside El Paso can create the same ominous winter weather. The city’s annual Sun Bowl, first played in 1935 in the shadow of the Franklins, is perhaps the sports world’s greatest misnomer. Fog, sleet, and cold regularly greet arriving teams expecting to bask in winter sunlight.
Ereng modestly points to the past successes of UTEP’s track and cross-country programs as the primary draw for Kenyan runners who want to travel to the United States for their collegiate careers. “Runners want to succeed and go to school where success has been achieved before. That may be our biggest selling point,” said Ereng, who has coached 42 All-Americans.
Among the greatest in UTEP’s track and field history is Bob Beamon, whose long jump at the 1968 Olympics shattered the world record by two feet and remained unbroken for 23 years. It is considered by some the greatest feat in Olympic history.
“So when I describe to people the idea of coming to El Paso and being a great athlete, I always ask them ‘Did you ever hear of a guy called Bob Beamon? And they shake their head and say ‘No, never heard of him’,” said Ereng, laughing. “Even when I got a job here, I was excited to find out that Bob Beamon was a legend from this institution!”
He could also also ask his prospective student-athletes if they’ve ever heard of a guy named Paul Ereng. It’s fair to suggest that the head coach may be the program’s greatest selling point. The Kitale, Kenya native made a name for himself when he captured the NCAA 800-meter national championship in 1988. That summer he returned home for his country’s Olympic trials and narrowly made the national team, finishing third and capturing its final spot.
At the Seoul Games, he posted a personal best 1:44.55 in the semis and for the first time perhaps raised the question “Who is Paul Ereng?” to an international audience. In the final, he answered it.
With roughly 100 meters left in the race, Ereng surged past the top three runners to stun the field with a 1:43.45 finish. His final lap was a blistering 53.91.
Ereng’s fellow Kenyans remind the former world record holder that he is expected back regularly. “A few years ago there was a time when I didn’t travel back to Kenya for about three years. And when I went there I was a stranger. People were like ‘Oh, it’s you. Paul? Hey oh, we kind of forgot you.’”
His Olympic past is clearly a boon to the UTEP lineup. “Keeping in touch with people that you know helps a great deal. A lot of former Kenyan Olympians now are assisting track and field there now, one way or another, so I keep in touch,” said Ereng.
He knows that in order for his athletes to be successful in both Conference USA and nationally, it’s not just about improving their technique.
“The biggest thing that you have to understand as a coach is you have to play many roles and wear many hats at the same time. One thing that you have to understand is that you’re trying to be a very close person to this new athlete because now they don’t have a relative here. You become their relative. You’re almost like an advisor — everything,” he added.
The fruit of his recruiting efforts are evident. The women’s cross country team counts four native Kenyans among its five runners. It also includes El Paso native, sophomore Lilliana Valdespino. Last week, sophomore Lilian Koech of Eldoret, Kenya, was named the Conference USA Cross Country Co-Athlete of the Week. She’s clearly thriving in the classroom as well, earning a spot on the Conference USA Commissioner’s honor roll earlier this year as a biomedical major.
The men’s side is comprised entirely of Kenyan athletes, with sophomore Jonah Koech (no relation to Lilian) as the team’s lead runner. Along with the women’s side, the Miners’ men’s team captured the Kachina Classic title in Las Cruces, N.M., on Sept. 17.
In that race, Jonah was edged by another outstanding talent, senior Daniel Cheruiyot of Eldoret. Like Lilian, he was named to the league’s commissioner’s honor roll for his academic efforts.
The former Olympian offers an ostensibly simple, yet nuanced, explanation of how he is able to illicit consistently stellar results from his young runners.
“Try to both lead them and listen to them. The moment you look at things from that perspective, you get better results from the individual. Because they trust you, they work with you.”
Above: UTEP’s cross country team in action. (Courtesy Michael Reese/UTEP Athletics)