Updated: Apr 4, 2019
By: Jarrett Felix
Considering I can still vividly remember his first NCAA championship, it’s hard for me to believe that Ed Cheserek is on the verge of completing his collegiate career. The Oregon senior enters the spring track season with big goals, both individually and as a team, before he sets his sights on the next stage of his remarkable track and field journey.
Cheserek’s run over the past four years has been incredibly memorable. He entered the ranks as a talented prospect, but not the world beater he is today. As a freshman, he was a big underdog against Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech, the defending NCAA champion. But in sloppy conditions, Eddy overcame Kithuka’s strong mid race surge and roared to victory in a thrilling comeback.
Of course, that could be seen as a fluke performance. As Cheserek hit the track for the first time, he would face a superstar in the distance ranks that shadowed even Kithuka. It seems hard to remember now, but once upon a time people were building the case that Lawi Lalang was the greatest distance runner in NCAA history. In 2012, Lawi ran 13:08.28 at the Millrose Games, pushing right alongside eventual Olympian Bernard Lagat en route to the indoor collegiate record. Later that indoor season, he won both the 3,000 and 5,000 meters against the experienced, title starved Chris Derrick. Then in 2013, he won the indoor titles in the mile and 3k with times of 3:54.74 and 7:45.94 before moving to outdoors and winning the 5k-10k titles.
By the time Ches was set to face him at the 2014 Indoor NCAA Championships, Lalang had already clocked a 7:44 for 3k and a collegiate record 3:52.88 in the mile. Lalang would now attempt the unthinkable 5k-3k-mile triple at the championships (at altitude), looking to cement his legacy as an all-time great. But Cheserek cut him off before things could even get started, stunning Lawi on the last lap of the 5k to win in a time of 13:46. After losing the mile, Lawi dropped the 3k from his agenda, allowing Cheserek to sprint away from everyone again for his third title in three tries.
It wasn’t until the next outdoor season that Cheserek finally lost a title bout, as Lawi gave him everything he could handle in a thrilling, record setting outdoor 5k finale. Lalang won the gold 13:18.36 to 13:18.71.
That freshman season, Cheserek won four NCAA titles, led his track compatriots to a team title and clocked bests of 3:36.50, 13:18.71 and 28:30.18. Ironically, as he enters his senior season, all of those marks still stand as his personal bests.
Since the first title, Cheserek has always been about winning. And not just individually. Although he has racked up a ton of titles, he has also doubled and tripled to try to help his team score as many points as possible. Who can forget his memorable DMR anchor at the 2016 indoor championships a few short minutes after the 5k where he rallied back with a herculean 3:51 1600 meter split to defeat Izaic Yorks and Washington?
I’m not sure anyone talks much about the sacrifices Cheserek makes for his team. He’s always racing a ton, focusing on the NCAA championships and then not doing much in the regular season’s aftermath. By the end of the spring, it has seemed he hasn’t had the stamina to go record chasing. In fact, the guy has been such a team player that some of us were shocked to see him on the performance list for the BU Last Chance Meet, where he truly and earnest chased a fast time. The result was a 3:52.01 collegiate record, stealing the honors from ... Lawi Lalang.
With too many titles to count, Cheserek has said he will look hard at grabbing collegiate records before his time is up. Some of those collegiate records will be very hard to get. The first, and perhaps most probable, is the 3:35.30 Collegiate Record held by Villanova’s Sydney Maree in 1981. The second, would be the 13:08.4 outdoor 5,000 meter record, held by Henry Rono from 1978 (although it’s worth noting Lalang’s 13:08.28 from the indoor season is faster). The final, seemingly impossible, potential record would be Sam Chelenga’s 27:08 10,000 meters. That time, set in 2010 at Stanford, is the fastest collegiate time by almost 20 seconds and is 80+ seconds better than Cheserek’s personal best.
It’s very possible that Cheserek doesn’t grab any of these records and, honestly, I don’t think he needs to in order to finalize his legacy. Because “King” Cheserek didn’t earn his crown by running fast times. His claim to the thrown comes from victories. The kid’s got 17 NCAA titles, not counting his team victories, and he’s still chasing a couple more. And this isn’t a sprinter, it’s a distance runner who takes on the longest, most grueling events the system offers.
I’m honestly not sure what things will be like when Chesrek does graduate in a few month’s time. The narrative in NCAA distance running has become very Ed-centric as everything revolves around “Will Ches win?” or “Who can beat Ches?” to the point where, when the guy loses to anybody it’s a massive story. The guy stretches his range from the mile all the way up through the 10k, racing the best guys at each level in each of their specialties and comes out with about as close to a perfect record as you can reasonably ask. His victories are historic and the upsets he slips into are even more so.
Cheserek is the face of NCAA distance running and we should appreciate him while we’ve got him. Because without him, it’s going to be hard to find a new polarizing star to get the people talking. So with one more spring left to build his legacy, let’s see if the King can turn it up a notch for his final regal rotation before handing over the crown.
Best of luck to whoever has to wear that thing next.