On Friday, April 9, the Goshen College men’s cross country team competed at the NAIA National Championships in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They finished 22nd in the nation. This is the story of the runners and how they did it.
The huddle of seven runners formed a purple polka-dot on the field spotted with teams in every color of the rainbow. It was a few minutes before 12:30 p.m. and humid, but not raining, although rain from the day before had already turned the ground to mud. The air was thick with energy.
“One, two three, Huwezi kufa!” The team from Goshen College shouted its motto, a Swahili phrase that means, “You won’t die.”
“You won’t die so you should go hard,” Nelson Kemboi, the team’s top runner from Eldoret, Kenya, explained. The seven Maple Leafs who jogged to the start line intended to do just that.
The gunshot sounded, and the wall of over 300 competitors surged forward like water breaking through a dam.
A minute later, the pack of GC runners noticed turbulence ahead of them. A runner had gone down and a pile up was forming.
Jackson Steinmetz didn’t realize what was going on until it was too late.
“I couldn’t jump it, so I went down with them,” he said.
Steinmetz knocked heads with another runner, rolled over and was up again before two seconds had passed.
Steinmetz is a sophomore film production and communication double major from Bluffton, Ohio. After not making the Nationals team last year and struggling with a hip injury during the fall 2020 season, Steinmetz was eager to prove that he could compete at the national level.
Steinmetz said the mishap “was actually pretty exhilarating.” The next two miles were so fun, he recalled, he ran them with a smile on his face.
Salvador Escamilla was the first Maple Leaf to hit the one-mile mark. That was just how he wanted it.
“I’m much more comfortable attacking and holding on,” the senior said.
A native of Elkhart, Indiana, Escamilla has been running and progressing since high school. He finished third on the team at Nationals last year, but his career took a literal hit in October when he collided with a truck on a bike ride and ended up in the hospital with a bruised lung, a broken collar bone and a missing tooth.
“When I woke up,” said Escamilla, who has dreams of running as a pro after college, “I wasn’t sure what was broken or what was messed up.”
His first thought was, “Will I still be able to run?”
Although Escamilla’s injuries have healed since then, he is still working to get back to where he was before the accident.
He’s left with questions: “How far have I been set back, and is this big setback able to be recovered?”
By the end of the first mile, Escamilla said he was already gassed. He didn’t care.
“What I wanted to show, especially to my teammates,” Escamilla said, “is that even after everything that has happened, I’m still gonna give it my all for my team.”
The first GC jersey Escamilla saw was at the two-mile mark, and it was worn by Liam Elias. The two were running side by side when a third purple jersey shot past; it was Kemboi, and he was moving fast.
Kemboi had hung back in the first couple miles of the race. In fact, he went through the one-mile mark in fourth place for the team. That was how he liked it.
“As I go, I get momentum,” Kemboi said.
Hanging back at the beginning means he can speed up throughout the race and pick people off.
“It’s so fun, dropping people,” he said. “I love that.”
Kemboi, a first-year nursing major, started running seriously soon before leaving Kenya to study at a community college in Nebraska. He transferred to Goshen College after a year because he was recruited to run on the cross country and track teams, and because he was attracted to GC’s nursing program. Since joining the team, Kemboi has finished first on the team in all five of the cross country races he’s entered.
By mile three, Kemboi was moving up toward the front 10% of the field. Meanwhile, GC’s second pack was also seeing some action.
The plan had been for the last three GC runners to work together for the first three miles of the race before breaking loose to the finish. While Solomon Wiebe-Powell lost contact with his teammates soon after the start of the race, Dan Kipchumba and Manny Villanueva were still together when they hit the three-mile mark.
That’s when Kipchumba shifted to a new gear. After a rollercoaster fall season, the junior was finally feeling good on his feet and was ready to put the frustration behind him.
Kipchumba, a junior nursing major from Eldoret, Kenya, first came to GC on a visit to a friend and, after meeting the college’s cross country team and coach, Rustin Nyce, he decided to transfer from the community college he had been attending.
Kipchumba had decided to sit out the 2020 season in order to save his eligibility for an extra year when he found out two days before the conference meet in November that, due to COVID-19, he would receive a free season. Kipchumba was in no shape to compete, but he raced anyway and finished 11th on the team.
Over the next four months, he worked to rebuild his fitness and placed 8th on the team at the Mustang National Preview meet on March 20. He hoped to improve on that spot at Nationals.
When Kipchumba took off at mile three, he was in pursuit of Escamilla, whom he could see in the distance.
“I was trying to close in on Sal,” Kipchumba said, “and Sal was trying to close in on the next person.”
That next person was Steinmetz, and Escamilla made it his goal to keep him in sight.
“I was hurting bad,” Escamilla said, “but I prefer it that way.”
He managed to maintain the gap through the rest of the race.
By mile three, Steinmetz’s smile had faded.
“The race was quick and the thick mud on the course made my calves burn,” he said.
A side cramp developed around mile four that would pester him for the rest of the race. The sophomore thought about all the hard work and energy that had gone into this moment, and pushed on.
“How bad do you want it?” That was the question Liam Elias was asking himself a little farther ahead. In second place for the team, the junior had executed a surge at mile three, and was battling the fatigue that was setting in.
Elias is an environmental science major from Bothell, Washington. He has been a scoring runner at almost all of the meets he’s competed in since arriving at GC.
In the last few years, Elias has struggled with intestinal issues that threaten to hinder his running. Making it to a meet like Nationals requires disciplined adherence to a strict diet. Now, in the last mile of the race, Elias kept himself going by imagining the burger and Oreo milkshake he would reward himself with afterward.
When Kipchumba sped off at mile three, Manny Villanueva, didn’t let that faze him. A first-year business major from Stryker, Ohio, Villanueva said he knew making Nationals was a goal of the team when he chose the school.
“I came ready to push myself and be pushed,” he said.
This race was a chance to push himself, and Villanueva took it. With so many competitors in the race, the first-year knew “there was always someone in front of me that I needed to pass.”
That motivated him to keep moving up.
The course in Cedar Rapids is shaped like a figure eight, with a bottle neck in the middle that runners pass through six times over the 8-kilometer race. On this particular day, recent rains had turned the middle section into a huge puddle the runners had to splash through each time they passed.
Wiebe-Powell had never run on such a muddy course before, and said that while it made hitting a fast time hard, the mud was fun to run through.
Wiebe-Powell is a junior physics major from Elkhart, Indiana. He didn’t run competitively until he got to college and though he started off near the back of the team, he has slowly climbed through the ranks.
Wiebe-Powell surprised the team when he made the Nationals cut last year. But that’s how he is, according to Kipchumba.
“Solomon has just been Solomon,” he said. “He shows up when he’s really needed.”
The course ended in an 800-meter straightaway, with spectators lining both sides of the shoot. Kemboi flew down the straightaway to clock in a finishing mile that was faster than his first one. He crossed the line in 32nd place overall.
Elias, who came next, relied on the cheers of those lining the finish line to get him through the shoot.
“I could feel my form losing shape,” he said, and his brain felt like it was “flickering off.”
He could tell some of the people he had passed before were catching back up to him, so he strained to keep moving forward. Finally, his feet hit the mat, and he collapsed on the grass feeling light-headed and a little sick.
Steinmetz surged through the last kilometer, passing competitors in the shoot. Escamilla got through the shoot; that was all he could tell from behind the curly black hair that had fallen over his eyes, and that was all he needed to know.
Kipchumba finished his race at an all-out sprint. About 500 meters from the finish, he spotted a group of three runners ahead of him and decided to pass them. The four finished seconds apart, with Kipchumba the victor.
Villanueva came in with a kick and was followed 15 seconds later by Wiebe-Powell.
Soon, the team would learn that they were 22nd in the nation. Then, they would find out that Kemboi was named an All-American.
But for now, all the teammates could do was give each other hugs and low fives because, Elias said, “we didn’t have the energy for high fives.”
In the end, all they could say was that they hadn’t died.