Running to Win: Cross-Country Star Chased Dreams to Columbus State

spring 2011 focus      From Focus magazine, Spring 2011 >>

By Kathy Gierer

Columbus State University's champion runner, Meshack Koyiaki, owes his success to a childhood fascination with an animal in his native Kenya.

Baby zebras led Koyiaki to Columbus, Georgia.

As a youngster, Koyiaki was living with his maternal grandmother, who doted on him as the youngest child in residence. After observing baby zebras near her home, he decided to try for a closer look.

"I was so little that they weren't scared of me," Koyiaki said. "I started chasing them and chased them all day. At the end, I didn't catch any. I was supposed to go look for the cows and bring them back home. I forgot about everything but the zebras. It was how I started running."

Koyiaki hasn't stopped running and has no intention of doing so anytime soon. One of three seniors on the men's cross-country team, Koyiaki recently completed a stellar season. He won every race on the 2010 regular season schedule and was named Peach Belt Conference runner of the year for the second straight year. Koyiaki was PBC runner of the week four times during this almost-perfect season.

Michael Crouch of Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., was a familiar name and face to Koyiaki, who had already beaten Crouch three times. Their fourth meeting was for higher stakes. Crouch, Koyiaki and the rest of the field competed in the NCAA Cross-Country Championship in Louisville in early December.

None of their previous races had been through snow. "I'd never raced in snow before," Koyiaki recalled. "It snowed for three straight days, Wednesday through Friday, and the race was Saturday. I looked at the snow and thought, 'No way.'"CSU's Meshack Koyiaki outpaces Michael Crouch at an NCAA regional meet in Charlotte, N.C., but Crouch managed the snow better in Louisville to defeat Koyiaki for top national Division II honors later in the season.

Koyiaki's running style and preparation aren't conducive to snowy terrain. "I use my toes and the balls of my feet," Koyiaki said. "I started out in short spikes and changed to longer ones, but they were not working either. I woke up that morning and, usually I run two miles as a warm-up, and I usually sweat. That day, I ran three miles and I was still cold. I'm skinny and don't have a lot of body fat, and I was really cold. I said, 'Let me just do what I can do.'"

His second-place finish became the only major blemish on Koyiaki's otherwise flawless season.

Koyiaki has competed in his last cross-country event for CSU, but he still has a season to run track for the Cougars. He's unable to visualize peeling off his uniform for the final time.

"This is my home," Koyiaki said. "There is nothing better than being a CSU alumnus. I don't want to think about my last race. I'll always be a part of this program. It's been amazing. Our team is like a family unit."

Fellow senior John Neill praises the teammate he and other close friends call by his middle name, Lerionka. "His personality is very humble," Neill said of Koyiaki. "People don't realize what a great athlete he is. Here at CSU, we have the number one runner in the nation, but nobody knows it. When he lost to Crouch, he didn't pout, and he made no excuses."

Neill and other teammates enjoy visiting Koyiaki at the apartment he shares with the team's third senior, Nicholas Kering, and graduate assistant Benson Kimetei. (Both are also Kenyan.) "Their home is open and very inviting," Neill said. "When you go there, he'll fix Kenyan tea and food."

A favorite food is Ugali, a cornbread made from scratch. "You put it on a plate and chop up beef or chicken," Koyiaki said. "Then you add collard greens, onions, tomatoes and little oil and mix it together. I like to fix Kenyan tea too. You take water and milk and boil it, then add sugar and Kenyan tea. People coming here from Kenya bring tea back for us."

Koyiaki arrived at CSU in the summer of 2009, a raw talent needing to be molded. Enter veteran coach J.D. Evilsizer.

"I knew he had a lot of talent," Evilsizer said. "He just needed someone to give him the right direction to make that talent blossom. We used a basic training strategy any decent coach would use."

Koyiaki remembers those early days. "I didn't have much endurance," Koyiaki said. "I started doing 8-10mile runs, about 80-90 miles a week. Then we started on hill work too, mixing in the hills and long runs. Then we did speed work. He (Evilsizer) had a plan and it worked."

Koyiaki is the third oldest child in the blended family of Ann and Edward Koyiaki. He has two brothers, two sisters, three step-sisters and two step-brothers. He is the only one to attend college – and the only one to leave Kenya. He hasn't seen his family since he arrived at CSU.Coach J.D. Evilsizer, background, helped Koyiaki realize his full potential.

"I talk to them on the phone every weekend," Koyiaki said. "A plane ticket costs around $1,500, so you can't go there for a short visit."

Koyiaki's parents placed a strong value on education, not the norm for Kenyan families. "My mother didn't go to school," Koyiaki said. "My father went through the eighth grade. My mother can add and subtract and speak some English, but has no understanding of English. Her daddy believed that school is somewhere people go who don't have anything else to do."

Koyiaki's father had a different philosophy. The elder Koyiaki joined the police force and then landed a job as a presidential escort because he spoke better English than his colleagues. He served in that capacity until 2002 and is now a police officer in a leadership post, two years from retirement.

"My father let us go to school because he knew the importance of school," Koyiaki said. "He took me to school and said, 'If you drop out of school, go build a home somewhere else.'"

Koyiaki attended boarding school in the ninth grade. "It was my first experience away from home, and I was very homesick," Koyiaki said. "I was the youngest one in school. Everybody was bigger than me. I didn't get home for two months."

After high school and five months at home, Koyiaki and his father began looking for a training camp so he could run. He went to a camp at Kenyatta University, and a coach was recruiting runners for Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, Ga.

"A professor knew the coach and introduced Nicholas and me to him," Koyiaki said. "We got scholarships to Chattahoochee Tech. I checked out their website and found out about classes. I'm interested in business, though my grandma wanted me to be a doctor."

In the summer of 2009, Evilsizer was recruiting Kering for CSU. "I knew Nicholas had a friend who trained with him, but I didn't have enough scholarships for two. It turned out that somebody else didn't come and I offered one to Meshack," Evilsizer said.

As his time in a Cougar uniform draws to a close, Koyiaki dreams about the future. He plans to graduate in May 2012.

"After graduation, I want to try to qualify for the Olympics and maybe race as a pro runner," Koyiaki said. "I'd like to use my business knowledge to open businesses here and in Kenya. I'd like to open a school to help needy kids and orphans and maybe a training camp in Kenya to help kids get to America."

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Captions: (from top to bottom)
  • Spring 2011 Focus
  • CSU's Meshack Koyiaki outpaces Michael Crouch at an NCAA regional meet in Charlotte, N.C., but Crouch managed the snow better in Louisville to defeat Koyiaki for top national Division II honors later in the season.
  • Coach J.D. Evilsizer, background, helped Koyiaki realize his full potential.