Obsie Birru had been building steadily toward a crowning achievement.
Kennedy Kithuka just added to his dominating reign.
Both claimed wire-to-wire victories at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics cross country national championships Saturday at Fort Vancouver National Site.
Birru, a senior at Grand View University in Iowa, placed 18th at the NAIA cross country championships as a freshman in 2008. She was eighth as a sophomore, then finished third last year.
“It was a good experience,” said the Ethiopian-born Birru, who was adopted at age 12 into a Des Moines, Iowa family. “It was definitely four years of a work in progress, and I finally got it today. It’s awesome. I’m excited.”
Birru finished the 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) women’s course in 17 minutes, 15 seconds — nine seconds ahead of Azusa Pacific’s Lauren Jimison. Cascade Collegiate Conference champion Karlee Coffey of Eastern Oregon, last year’s runner-up, was 27 seconds behind Birru in third place.
Kithuka, a sophomore at Wayland Baptist University in Texas, was in front of a small lead group of runners for the first half of the men’s 8-kilometer (5-mile) race.
Just like last year.
After two laps of the 2-kilometer course loop, Kithuka found another gear and left everyone far behind.
Just like last year.
“I started well,” said the Kenyan. “In the first 2K, I was just relaxing, then I saw guys hanging behind me, but I knew I was stronger and kept pushing. In the second loop, I went pushing up. I was feeling strong. That was my plan: In the first loop 2K, I see how they are and see the competition and just hang with them. When I look and see they are not there, then I kept going. The last lap I relaxed a little bit because I knew I was alone.”
Kithuka won in 23:15 — 44 seconds ahead of Oklahoma Christian’s Silas Kisorio, another Kenyan and the 2009 NAIA champion before Kithuka arrived.
Kisorio’s OCU team won the team title by a 93-188 margin over Cal State San Marcos. The San Marcos women captured a third consecutive team title, this one by an 81-92 margin over Azusa Pacific.
Concordia senior Junia Limage, a Fort Vancouver High School graduate, led local runners, placing 23rd in the women’s race in 18:15. Northwest University senior Paige DeLapp (Evergreen) was 142nd in 19:46, and Concordia sophomore Kristina Cupp (Vancouver Christian) was 311th in 21:57.
Northwest University junior Matt Porter (Hockinson) was 98th in the men’s race in 25:44.
There were 312 men and 323 women competing.
After a cold, wet week leading up to race day, conditions were rather good. The course was soft but not slippery and muddy as it was for last year’s NAIA championships, the temperature was chilly but not cold, and the sun even tried to peek through the clouds.
Whatever the conditions, as Birru said her coach told her, is the universal truth about cross country: “Hey, you’ve just got to be tough. Everybody has to run in it.”
Fort Vancouver National Site will host the meet again next year.
Kithuka had injury struggles during both indoor and outdoor track seasons last year, building throughout cross country this fall to return to his pinnacle.
“I was running slow, because it was hard for me to run,” he said. “But I think I’m good now. I just say, ‘Thank you, God’ because I’m good now. Maybe in track I’ll be good also, and run well. … Today I proved that I’m back now and ready to run well.”
Kithuka was leading with Kisorio second at each of the four laps. Kithuka’s lead was about 10 meters at the midpoint, but that almost doubled in the first 150 meters of the third lap and Kithuka never looked back.
Not surprisingly, he likes running in Vancouver.
“Coming here, I was a champion,” Kithuka said. “Now I’m a champion again. I'm so happy for that. It’s a good achievement, because God has given me a lot of strength to run with. I think I have potential because I keep training hard — just trust in God and keep working on my training.”
Saturday was his best time of the season, and 47 seconds faster than his time last year on the same course.
“The course is good,” Kithuka said. “It’s a good place to run cross country. I think it was better than the conditions last year. Last year, it was slippery and muddy. I was moving easier. I was feeling good and I was moving.”
Kithuka broke into a huge smile as the finish line approached — just like last year — and folded his hands in prayer. He was “just finishing strong and I was feeling good,” Kithuka said. “I had to remember God and say, ‘Thank you God. I won this race again today, like last year.’ ”
Birru had already opened a lead of about 20 meters when runners reached the “short loop turn” about 1.2 km into the race. Her advantage grew steadily from there.
Not that she knew that.
“I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to see until the race is ended,” she said. “I like to stay grounded and stay relaxed and stay in good spirits until it’s over. The results show it. I don’t think about it too much.”
With several runners seeking to claim a crown following the departure of two-time champion Justyna Mudy of Shorter University in Georgia, Birru was not worrying about her place or her time. She was being happy.
“My coach knows I don’t like splits,” Birru said. “I don’t like to get splits from him as I’m running. I just like to say, ‘I’m going to run happy, and whatever happens, happens.’ I just pray and go.”
Her race plan “was to run relaxed and stay happy, but stay competitive out there,” she said. “If Karlee or Lauren got ahead, I was going to run with them, but it happened that I just got out well. For a while, I just kind of settled and waited for the girls. When nobody showed up, I just kind of took off. My strategy wasn’t really to lead, but once it happened, it was like, ‘Well, I’m comfortable.’ I just decided to go with it.”