Kennedy Kithuka made a long journey to become a collegiate runner.
So did Karlee Coffey, but in a different way.
Kithuka came to Wayland Baptist University of Texas from Kenya and became champion of National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics men’s cross country last year at Fort Vancouver National Site.
The 30-year-old Coffey, last year’s national runner-up — by four seconds — and the top returner in the women’s field, began her collegiate running career at Eastern Oregon University a decade after her high school graduation and two years after the birth of her son gave birth to her running.
Both are fine with the cold, wet week leading up to this year’s races.
Kithuka said he likes the nationals course, which for men is four laps of the full 2-kilometer loop covering 8 km (5 miles) — and he is looking forward to the expected weather conditions.
“I also like the rainy, muddy conditions,” he said. “In Kenya, cross country is run during the rainy season in February, so that is what I like to run in the most.”
Coffey has run on the nationals course — modified for the women’s race to cover 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) — since last year’s race to prepare for Saturday. She is also acclimated to the area’s weather — and this week’s cold and wet forecast is just fine with her.
“I run well on technical courses, and that’s definitely a technical course,” Coffey said. “I’m hoping the nastier it is, the better it will be for me, just because I’m used to it. Living in La Grande, I was used to the cold, windy, nasty conditions; and living in Portland the last year and having lived here before, I’m used to the rainy, wet, mucky stuff, too. If that’s the case, I think there are people in the upper part of the field that it will rock their world a little bit if it’s nasty.”
Kithuka dominated last year’s championships, leaving the field behind by the midpoint of the race and winning by 39 seconds. Only two of the top 10 finishers were seniors. Oklahoma Christian’s Silas Kisorio, who won the championship in 2009, faded to 10th.
“I don’t really remember that much about the race,” Kithuka said. “I remember crossing the finish line and the feeling of celebration. I thought that there would be more competition, but there was not a lot ... only the first 4K did the others stay with me, then nobody after that.”
A hip flexor problem that started before indoor track limited Kithuka’s training during the last year, but believes that he is back to top form. He was third in the 5,000 at outdoor track nationals in the spring, and beat Kisorio by 28 seconds to win the Sooner Athletic Conference cross country championship.
Coffey, who did not compete in any sports while attending La Grande High School, took up cycling while living in Colorado after high school. Married and living in Portland, she changed her workout from cycling to running after her son Eliott was born in 2007.
She was back in La Grande and a full-time student at EOU in fall 2008, and ran in the Seattle Marathon that November. Later that school year, she talked with coach Ben Welch about competing for the Mountaineers. In the fall of 2009, an academic sophomore but a freshman in eligibility at age 28, she became a collegiate runner.
Coffey’s age is not the only thing that makes her a non-traditional student.
Now divorced and living in Portland again for almost a year, she takes classes online and does workouts on her own. She transports herself to meets and returns to campus periodically “just to check in” and see her family in La Grande.
Coffey said she has “always been self-motivated anyway.” She is passionate about running and determined to do the best she can to make her atypical situation work.
Coffey placed 12th at NAIA cross country nationals in her first season of competition, before finishing second last year by the narrowest of margins.
The top seven runners finished in a span of 22 seconds. Shorter University’s Justyna Mudy, who won a second consecutive NAIA championship, was the only senior among the top nine.
Coffey said she was “shocked” to be running with the lead group. As hot on Mudy’s heels as she was, Coffey conceded the race to the defending champion and 5,000-meter track champion.
“I consciously made the decision in the last 800 meters, going up that hill, I was thinking, ‘Oh, she’s going to win,’ ” Coffey said. “I kind of let her go, and I think if I were to (be in that situation) again, it’s like I have enough fight in me now and I’ve matured as an athlete. I’ve learned how to win. ... I had it in my head that she was unreachable, and now I know that nobody is unreachable — including myself. There’s always somebody faster.”
Coffey was NAIA champion in the indoor 3,000 meters this past season. She was runner-up at the 10,000 and fourth in the 5,000 at the outdoor championships. She steadily overcame an early-season injury this fall, finally feeling like herself in time to win her second consecutive Cascade Collegiate Conference individual title.
“I think this year is going to be a phenomenal race, just because the field is way more talented and more strong. Last year, there was a handful of us that ran away. This year, I think there are going to be a lot more people up front. ... The biggest thing going into this is that I’m going to run as hard as I can and leave it all out on the course. If someone were to beat me, I know that they’ll deserve it.”
IF YOU GO
■ What: Cross country national championships for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
■ Who: Qualifiers include 32 teams plus individuals for each race, 100 men and 105 women.
■ When: Today. Men’s 8-kilometer (5-mile) race at 10:30 a.m.; women’s 5-km (3.1-mi.) race at 11:45 a.m.
■ Where: Fort Vancouver National Site, Fort Vancouver Way and McClellan Road. Start/finish line on parade grounds in front of the East Barracks.
■ Cost: Admission is free.