All over the world, running is something people do for fun. Whether it’s a beachfront jog on a spring morning, or a half-frozen couple of miles down a gravel road somewhere in Iowa.
In Kenya, running is a way of life.
Halfway around the world, hundreds of hopefuls awake each morning and take off down dirt roads in packs. Some have shoes, some don’t. Men and women. They all go out with the goal of being discovered. Many have dreams of becoming rich and making a living.
A living off what?
More importantly, how fast those legs can cover distances ranging from 800 meters to 26.2 miles.
For two Iowa State cross country runners, running was not a means to money. Rather, it was a means to a higher education.
Sitting next to one another on a bench in the hall of Lied Recreation Athletic Center, Festus Lagat and Stanley Langat look every bit the “cross country runner.” Slim and lean with bright eyes and easy smiles, the two look like peas in a pod. In a way, they are.
Both runners are in their first season at Iowa State. Lagat is a redshirt sophomore and transferred to Iowa State from Gillette College in Gillette, Wyoming. Langat is also a sophomore, and came to Ames from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Lagat and Langat were paired as roommates in the fall. Since both of them are from Africa, and even the same part of Kenya, this living situation allows them to enjoy aspects of their native culture with each other.
“I can feel like I’m at home,” Langat said.
Though they came to Iowa State from opposite sides of the country, before that, they came to the U.S. from neighboring towns in Africa, over 8,000 miles from the cornfields of Iowa.
“We eat the same food and speak the same language,” Lagat said.
In fact, their hometowns in Kenya were only two hours away from one another.
The two are from an area famous for producing world class professional runners, and they both grew up in a culture where many people spent their time training in the hope of making a living as a professional runner. So, like many of their fellow countrymen, they ran.
The journey of Festus Lagat
The oldest of three boys in Eldoret, Kenya, Lagat knew early on that he wanted to run competitively. Growing up, he was inspired by the many professional runners from his home country. Lagat also knew he wanted to be different from all the other guys trying to run professionally first, instead of collegiately.
After graduating high school in 2013, Lagat spent 2014 and part of 2015 focusing on training when he heard from a friend about applying for scholarships to run in the U.S.
Lagat then had the opportunity to apply to Gillette College. In 2015, he flew across the ocean to run cross country and track for the Pronghorns. Lagat couldn't wait to get started.
“My assistant coach drove down to Denver to pick him up," said CJ Kozlowski, former head cross country and track & field coach for the Pronghorns described Festus’ arrival on campus in a phone interview. "They got back around 3 a.m., we told him [Lagat] to just sleep in and we’d get him started later -- Festus said no. He wanted to train.
"My plan was just to have him jog around and loosen up, but he wanted to do the workout. He was just flying. I had to take him to Taco Bell at 3 a.m. just to get him some food.”
In his first competitive cross country season in the U.S., Lagat made it to the 2015 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I men’s cross-country championships, placing third overall individually, and helping Gillette to a fifth-place team finish.
“He said he came here to run,” Kozlowski said. “He was very coachable. He is one of my favorite athletes I’ve ever coached.”
In the 2015-16 NJCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, Lagat placed first in the 1000-meter race, and at the 2016 NJCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Lagat finished first in the 800-meters and the 1500-meters.
In the summer of 2015, Iowa State men’s cross country assistant coach Jeremy Sudbury spent ten days in Kenya attending training camps in Nairobi and Eldoret.
Yes, the same Eldoret that was Lagat’s hometown.
That’s where Sudbury met Lagat for the first time.
“I’ve known him for about three years,” Sudbury said. “He wasn’t a qualifier yet [when we first met in Kenya]. He went to Gillette for two years, then got recruited by Iowa State. He’s extremely hard working.”
Hard working is no exaggeration. His second year at Gillette, Lagat took 18 credit hours in the fall and 24 in the spring in order to graduate on time and meet eligibility requirements.
Lagat then had the opportunity to transfer to another college. He visited Iowa State in March of 2017 and made the move to Iowa in August.
“I’m excited to be here,” Lagat said. “I want to remain focused and pass class and thank the school for the scholarship they gave me.”
But the biggest change for Lagat from Kenya to the U.S. has been the training style.
“In Kenya you just wake up and run,” Lagat said. “Here there’s modernized rules and a training program. In Kenya, you just run.”
And of course, Lagat also noted that the weather in Wyoming was similar to that of Iowa, so he felt a little more prepared for the notorious cold weather that’s fast approaching.
Lagat is majoring in criminal justice here at Iowa State. After finishing his degree, he hopes to continue running and shift to a professional racing career.
As for this cross country season, Lagat said that the team is strong, and the coaches are expecting even more from them.
“It’s up to each one of us to do our best and make the school proud,” Lagat said.
The journey of Stanley Langat
The youngest in a family of six, Langat grew up in the town of Molo, Kenya, not far south from where his teammate Lagat grew up in Eldoret, Kenya.
About the time he was in high school, Langat heard of one of his neighbor’s children getting a scholarship to run in the U.S. That’s when he realized that running could be more than a potential professional career. It could also be an avenue to a better education.
Some difficulties in high school helped Langat start running around 2010. It wasn’t long after that when he learned that he could continue to study in college by earning scholarships.
“I heard from my friends about scholarships,” Langat said. “I wasn’t sure about it until I saw my neighbor went to United States on a scholarship. I figured if this running could make you better, and apply for more education, it would be more better for me.”
That’s when Langat made the decision he was going to meet the NCAA requirements and then train seriously. He would run at any school that gave him the chance.
“My community helped me to finish high school,” Langat said. “Now I’m going to do my best to run and finish my education.”
Langat’s opportunity arose when he ran in a time trial in Kenya. There were a number of coaches from the U.S. in attendance, and that’s where Langat was recruited by Liberty University.
His freshman season of cross country, Langat was Liberty’s number one runner in each of their last four meets. He placed third overall in the 2016 Big South Cross Country Championships, and came in 22nd in their regional qualifying meet, rounding out his first collegiate cross country season with All-Big South, Big South Freshman of the Year and All-Region honors.
Ironically enough, Langat didn’t even have a cross country coach.
“Men’s cross country didn’t have a coach,” Langat said. “They kind of shared coaches with the women. We got a coach in outdoor track.”
Coach Tim Sykes came on to coach the outdoor season, and Langat said they had worked well together.
Following that first track season, Langat had the opportunity to transfer schools, and figured out that he could go to school closer to Des Moines, Iowa, where a relative of his lived.
Iowa State offered just that and more, especially on the competition side.
“Being in the Big South Conference, I would compare it with conferences like the Big 12,” Langat said. “The Big 12 is a very high competitive level. I said one day, God-willing, I would go to a Big 12 school and compete.”
And here he is.
Langat described being part of the Iowa State cross country team as truly a team experience. He said the main focus is just that, and it feels like all the guys have your back. He went on to say that it’s a very good team and they’re going to “attack the Big 12.”
“I’m really grateful. I’m thankful to the coaches and the school. I’m very thankful to the school for everything,” Langat said. “I’m in good health and I can call my parents and know they’re good as well.”
Langat, a kinesiology and health major, wants to finish his degree and is entertaining the idea of coaching in the future when his own running career is done.
Of course, Langat hopes that day won’t come for some time yet.
“God-willing, I’m going to continue running,” Langat said with a smile.
When asked about these two Kenyan peas in a pod, Sudbury noted first and foremost, their hard work and resiliency.
“Both are incredible athletes,” Sudbury said. “They’re veterans. They’ve been in college so they’re not total freshmen [to the sport]. They bring energy and serious focus.”
As the two picked up their bags and stood from the bench in Lied, Sudbury came around to discuss practice. Both listened attentively, posing an occasional question or interjection about the plan for the day.
Then they headed to the locker room side by side for an afternoon of doing what they do best -- running.