Kenyan Combination Hopes to Close Out Alabama Cross Country Careers with Another 1-2 Finish
They are more than just teammates. They are countrymen. They are training partners. They are roommates.
They are friends.
If everything goes right Saturday, they might briefly become adversaries as well.
When the starter's gun goes off at the NCAA Cross Country Championships at the LaVern Gibson Course in Terre Haute, Ind., a lot of the spectators will be zeroed in on Alabama graduate students Gilbert Kigen and Vincent Kiprop, who will be running for the final time together for the Crimson Tide.
Kiprop is still eligible for the outdoor track season in the spring, but this is it for Kigen.
After two years of pushing each other, they're among the leading contenders to win the NCAA individual title. When the final dash happens at the end of the 10K race, it wouldn't surprising to see them out in front, which is exactly what happened both the SEC Championships and at the recent South Regional.
"When we are 1-2, it's like both of us won," Kiprop said. "It would be great for us to be in that position."
Here's how close they are in terms of accomplishments this season:
Kiprop took first at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational on October 4, which was the first big national race of the fall. Alabama trails specifically for it, but it's also the beginning of the build up to the postseason and this race in particular.
Kiprop also won the SEC Championships on Nov. 1, finishing the 8K course in 22 minutes, 51.6 seconds, just ahead of Kigen (22:55.4). It was his second league title, en route to being named the league's Runner of the Year.
However, Kigen claimed his second South Region Runner of the Year crown after setting a new course 10K record (29:49.5) at the NCAA South Regionals at Tallahassee, Fla.
He out-kicked Kiprop (29:49.9) in the final moments, while freshman Noel Rotich placed sixth.
That led to being selected the NCAA South Region Men's Runner of the Year by the United State Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
Again, they finished 1-2.
It seems fitting considering how they basically followed each other to Tuscaloosa.
Both are from Kenya. Kigen is from Kipkabus, Kiprop hails from Kericho, about a two-hour drive away (three hours by bus) on the western side of the African nation.
Both came to American via a prominent junior college in track, Kigen with Central Arizona and Kiprop at Missouri Southern.
Both have a long list of accolades, but neither has won this race.
"I feel good," Gilbert said. "I'm just excited. I don't know what's next for me."
Perhaps the tandem can do it again, although neither is considered the favorite.
That distinction goes to Iowa State's Edwin Kurgat, another Kenyan who finished third at last year's NCAA Championships in Wisconsin. Kigen and Kiprop beat him during the outdoor track season in the spring, but he hasn't lost in cross country this season.
"This is my last country country race and I'm excited about this race," Kiprop said. "We've done our best and it means a lot to me.
"All I can do going into it is to do my best."
The gun is slated to be sounded at 11:15 a.m. CT.