Is Edward Cheserek The GOAT of NCAA Distance Running? Why the Answer Isn’t That Simple

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By Jonathan Gault
May 22, 2017

When the University of Oregon announced on Sunday that senior Edward Cheserek will not compete at this weekend’s NCAA West Preliminary Round due to a back injury, it brought to a close one of the greatest careers of any runner in NCAA history. Cheserek will leave Oregon with 15 individual NCAA titles (plus two more as part of relays) and was the biggest reason why the Oregon men were able to win five team championships during his career (three indoor, two outdoor).

It didn’t take long for Cheserek, who won two Foot Locker high school national titles after moving from Kenya to New Jersey, to begin dominating the sport after stepping on campus in Eugene in the fall of 2013. His freshman cross country season culminated with a come-from-behind upset victory at the NCAA championships over defending champion Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech. Four months later, he showed that win was no fluke by sweeping the 3,000 and 5,000 titles at the NCAA indoor championships in Albuquerque. That was the meet in which Cheserek first unleashed his greatest weapon: a devastating kick that everyone from milers to 10,000-meter runners would come to fear.

By the spring of his freshman year, Cheserek was The Next Big Thing. Greatness was no longer a pleasant surprise, but an expectation. Every defeat was a headline. Cheserek was tasked with nothing less than carrying the fate of the most storied program in NCAA track and field on his slight shoulders. And he delivered, winning the 10,000 and placing second in the 5,000 to lead the Ducks to their first NCAA outdoor title in 30 years (Editor’s note: His narrow loss in the 5,000 to the Lawi Lalang, who had a 13:00 pb, was one of the more exciting races we’ve ever witnessed at an NCAA: A Race for the Ages: Lawi Lalang Defeats Oregon’s Edward Cheserek and 10,000 Screaming Oregon Fans).

Cheserek would be counted on to shoulder a similar load at every NCAA championship for the next three years, and though he had a significant amount of help from stars such as Eric Jenkins and Devon Allen, Cheserek was the leading point scorer on all five of the NCAA title teams that he was a part of. His ability to deliver on the biggest stages, time and again, was perhaps his most impressive skill.

Cheserek will graduate Oregon with 17 NCAA titles

Cheserek will graduate Oregon with 17 NCAA titles

Though his running career is far from over, he will never run another NCAA race. Naturally, the discussion turns to Cheserek’s place in NCAA history. Was he the greatest NCAA distance runner ever? It is an interesting question. In 2017, sports media is obsessed with the idea of the GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. Whenever a major sporting event concludes, we want to frame it in terms of the GOAT. Does the New England Patriots’ win in Super Bowl LI mean that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time? How many more NBA titles does LeBron James have to win to be considered the greatest basketball player of all time – or is that even possible? After Rio, is the greatest Olympian of all time Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt?

It’s not hard to see why this is the case. In the Twitter era, anything that can be argued will be argued by someone with enough time on their hands. We’ve even had a few of those debates on this very website.

The only problem with these debates is that, unlike the sports these athletes play, there’s no set of rules. In football, you get two points for a safety, three points for a field goal and six for a touchdown. But how much is a world record worth? An Olympic gold medal? And are all Olympic gold medals worth the same? You can argue Phelps vs. Bolt all day and never reach a conclusion.

It’s with that in mind that I approach this discussion of Cheserek’s career. If you want to argue that he’s the greatest distance runner in NCAA history because he won more NCAA track titles than anyone else, you’re allowed to think that. If you want to argue instead that the NCAA GOAT is Washington State’s Henry Rono because he broke the world records in the 5,000 and the 3,000 steeplechase during the spring of 1978 (and added two more that summer after the NCAA season wrapped up), that doesn’t make you wrong. But it doesn’t make you right, either.

I’ve outlined two cases below, based on two different sets of criteria: one for why Cheserek is the GOAT of NCAA distance running and one for why he’s not. You’re allowed to believe either one. Really. And if you don’t want to believe either of them, that’s okay too. My goal in writing this isn’t to convince you to that one opinion is right and the other is wrong. It’s to provide some context for a truly magnificent career, and maybe teach you a thing or two about some of the great NCAA runners of the past.

The Case For Edward Cheserek as the NCAA GOAT

There are a few components of this argument but the biggest one, by far, is winning.

The GOAT? Or one of the GOAT?

The GOAT? Or one of the GOAT?

“He certainly won a lot of championships,” said veteran coach Dave Smith, who has guided the Oklahoma State men to three NCAA XC team titles. “Showed up at the Pac-12 meet and national championships and just about won every race he’s ever run and I think that’s awfully impressive.”

In track/xc, no one at the NCAA level has won as much as Cheserek. His 17 NCAA titles across cross country and track are the most ever, two more than UTEP’s Suleiman Nyambui. Yes, two of Cheserek’s titles came as part of relays, and while including relays means it’s not exactly apples to oranges (Nyambui’s were all individual wins), Cheserek’s performances on those relays still enhance his case. In both of those meets (2015 and 2016 NCAA indoors), Cheserek was running two individual events and still anchored Oregon to victory in the DMR.

The latter was arguably Cheserek’s most impressive feat in an Oregon uniform. Just 32 minutes after winning the NCAA 5,000 title, Cheserek delivered a spectacular 3:52.84 1600 split on the anchor leg to defeat Washington and its anchor Izaic Yorks, who was fresh and had run a 3:53.89 mile two weeks earlier. The next day, he won the 3,000 title. Only Galen Rupp has completed the same 5k-DMR-3k sweep, and when Rupp did it in 2009, he had twice as much rest as Cheserek.

In cross country, Cheserek is the only man in history to win three straight NCAA titles. Rono, Steve Prefontaine and Gerry Lindgren were the only others to win three, but none of them did it three straight years. Their total NCAA titles pale in comparison to Cheserek, however. Rono won six (three XC, one indoor, two outdoor), Prefontaine seven (three XC, four outdoor) Lindgren 11 (three XC, two indoor, six outdoor).

But — and you’ll notice this a lot in this article — there’s a disclaimer. During Lindgren’s freshman year of 1964-65, the NCAA did not allow freshman to compete on varsity teams. So despite defeating eventual Olympic champ Billy Mills to win the Olympic Trials 10,000 in 1964, Lindgren had to sit out a year. Had he been able to compete, he almost certainly would have won a few more NCAA titles.

More stats:

  • Cheserek scored more points at NCAA track and field championships than anyone in history: 149 (91 indoor, 58 outdoor). That’s one more than Nyambui 148 (78 indoor, 70 outdoor), despite competing in one fewer meet.
  • Cheserek had phenomenal range, winning NCAA titles in the mile, 3,000, 5,000, and 10,000 on the track as well as in 10k cross country. He was also phenomenally consistent, winning at least four NCAA titles in his first three years. He “only” won two as a senior, but that’s without an outdoor NCAAs.
  • In all, Cheserek won 17 of the 21 NCAA finals he competed in, and never finished lower than third.
  • Cheserek holds the NCAA mile record of 3:52.01.

Cheserek is the GOAT if you value winning at the NCAA level above all else. Only Nyambui won nearly as much, but Cheserek has more titles overall and owned faster collegiate PRs in the 1500, mile, 3k and 5k — though Nyambui ran faster at several of those distances outside of the collegiate season.

The Case Against Edward Cheserek as the NCAA GOAT

Cheserek destroyed almost all comers at the NCAA level, but the difference between him and the other guys in this conversation — Rono, Prefontaine, Lindgren, Nyambui and Jim Ryun — is that he has not shown he can do it on the world stage. In 1978, Rono was the greatest distance runner in the world and broke world records at four different distances — 3,000 (7:32.1), 5,000 (13:08.4), 10,000 (27:22.5) and 3,000 steeple (8:05.4); the 5,000 and steeple marks still stand as NCAA outdoor records. Cheserek has never come close to any of those times as his pbs are 7:40.51, 13:18.71 and 28:30.18. In the summers in-between seasons at UTEP, Nyambui ran 3:35.8, 3:51.94 (mile), 13:12.29, 27:51.73 and won an Olympic silver medal in 1980 (Nyambui is shown wearing #649 at the 1980 Olympics in the photo to the right). Lindgren, who only lost once ever at an NCAA championship (Cheserek has lost four times), tied the world record at six miles (27:11.6) in 1965 and missed the three-mile world record by 0.6 of a second in 1966. Prefontaine was 4th in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 while still at Oregon. Ryun set multiple world records in the half-mile and mile while at the University of Kansas and took Olympic silver in the summer after his junior year.

Cheserek’s personal bests are nowhere near the world records in any events — though world records are broken with far less frequency these days. Is it possible Cheserek could have competed with the best in the world at the Olympics in Rio last year? Maybe. Cheserek was a better runner than Eric Jenkins in college, and Jenkins finished just .06 behind Paul Chelimo in the Olympic Trials 5,000. Chelimo went on to earn Olympic silver. Cheserek was also better as a freshman than Mo Ahmed was as a senior at Wisconsin. Ahmed was 4th in the 5k in Rio.

But that sort of stuff is speculation, and even if Cheserek had tried to compete at Worlds or the Olympics while in college, it’s unlikely he would have been in contention for a medal. Plus if he had gone for Olympic or pro success, it’s likely he’d have had to sacrifice some NCAA success (particularly indoors) if he was going to achieve it. Cheserek’s biggest races against pros were the Millrose Games in 2015 and 2016, where he finished 8th in the mile (2015) and sixth in the 3,000 (2016). Worth noting is that he lost to Jenkins and Ahmed in the latter race — so while Cheserek may have been better than them a few years ago, that may no longer be the case. Bottom line: we have zero proof that Cheserek is one of the world’s best distance runners.

“I value winning and competition and again, along those lines, he’s certainly done a great job,” Smith said. “However, I think when you talk about the best of all time, some of these guys from [the other] eras won a lot of races too. And not only did they win races, they were competitive not only against college kids but against the best in the world. And they were amongst the best in the world or were the best in the world in their events…If you’re looking at guys who were amongst in the best in the world, he may be there but he hasn’t been there yet. He hasn’t been to an Olympic Games or a World Championships or medalled set world records, those kinds of things.” 

And then there are all sorts of other complicating factors. Do you give Ryun and Rono (right) bonus points for succeeding in an era where tracks and spikes weren’t as fast and training theory wasn’t as advanced? Should Cheserek be penalized for having access to top-notch facilities and athletic trainers at Oregon? Does it matter that Rono was 27 years old when he ran his final NCAA race? Or that Nyambui was 29? (Editor’s note: Cheserek has an official age of 23). This stuff is hard.

Even something as theoretically simple as comparing their best times is complicated. Below is a chart comparing Cheserek’s PRs (all run during the NCAA season) with Nyambui’s best times during and after the NCAA season (many of the latter were set during the summer while Nyambui competed on the pro circuit between NCAA seasons). Which ones do you grade Nyambui on?

CheserekNyambui during NCAA seasonNyambui after NCAA season
15003:36.50N/A3:35.8
Mile3:52.013:57.893:51.94
3k7:40.51N/A7:43.65
5k13:18.7113:20.413:12.29
10k28:30.1827:58.327:51.73

All data from All-Athletics.com

***

Here’s what we can say: Cheserek was a rare talent and one of the best NCAA distance runners of all time. In terms of NCAA titles, he was the greatest winner ever, not only among runners, but among all sports. No NCAA Division I male athlete won more national titles than Cheserek did. For four years, he was the dominant figure in collegiate running and his impact was felt across the sport.

“You had [Josh] McDougal and [Galen] Rupp going at it [in the late 2000’s] and all races were always fast,” said Ray Treacy, who competed against Nyambui at Providence College and is in his 33rd year as coach of his alma mater. “When Cheserek came along, you expected the NCAA meet to be slow. People gauged off Edward. He changed the way races were run in the last few years, certainly, because I think people had a sense he couldn’t be beaten and a lot of guys were running for second in a lot of races.”

Occasionally, Cheserek’s greatness was boring. He won so many races, almost all of them in the same fashion, that they had a tendency to blend together. But he continued to push his limits, taking on audacious triples at NCAA Indoors the last three years. And when Cheserek did lose, you knew you had witnessed something special — the epic duel with Lawi Lalang at NCAA outdoors in 2014; Patrick Tiernan‘s magnificent run at NCAA XC last year; Josh Kerr‘s coming-out party at NCAA indoors in March. He elevated the sport. I’ve lost track of the number of athletes who told me they relished competing against Cheserek, that they were better athletes because he raised the bar.

“Ches is someone that you have to continually try to train and beat,” said Stanford’s Sean McGorty, who finished second to Cheserek at two NCAA championships last year. “And I really do enjoy having that. I think it would be easy to not feel that way with him constantly winning but I do enjoy it and I think it brings out the best.”

It is a shame that Cheserek won’t get the sendoff he deserves, the chance to compete one last time at Hayward Field in a Ducks singlet. But he leaves behind a towering legacy. Was he the greatest ever? I don’t know. Does it matter? He was great, and that’s enough for me.

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