Joseph Manilafasha isn't sure why he's so fast.
The Denver North junior cross country runner has only been running competitively for two years. Manilafasha picked up the sport because it "seemed fun," and in his first race he says he had a respectable finish. He guesses his time was somewhere around 20 minutes in the five-kilometer contest, but he's improved tenfold since. He doesn't know why he's better now; he just knows he is.
"I don't know, really," he says. "I train a lot. That's about it."
That training has apparently paid off. Manilafasha is much faster now than during that first race. The young runner says his best 5K time is 15:06, although he believes he can break the 15-minute barrier. And Manilafasha ran a near-perfect race at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional last year, finishing sixth to qualify for the Foot Locker National Championships.
"He wants to be an elite runner," Denver North coach Jeff Young says. "That's something you can't coach."
But to understand the desire, it's important to understand where Manilafasha came from. Burundi, an African nation engulfed in civil war from 1993-2006, was Manilafasha's home until about 1996, when his father was killed in the battles between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Not long after, his mother carried Manilafasha and his brothers to a refugee camp in Tanzania, where they stayed until 2001.
"It was tough," Manilafasha says about his time in the refugee camp. "But it was a good experience. You learned to get along well with people and be close to people. You learned to share things with everyone close to you."
Denied access to Canada because they couldn't speak French, Manilafasha and his family finally earned acceptance into the United States and moved to Denver about six years ago. When his family moved to the United States, they knew virtually no English. Now Manilafasha speaks four languages fluently, listens to Bob Marley and watches "Family Guy." And he runs -- sometimes more than he should.
"He's got a real propensity to over train," Young says. "He watches what he eats, he doesn't drink pop, he's very strict about his diet. He's only been running two years, but he's highly competitive. He never boasts about anything, he never misses a workout. He's committed 110 percent. That's what makes him an incredible human being."
And an incredible runner. Manilafasha won the Class 4A state championship last year with a time of 16:10, 22 seconds ahead of the next finisher. He then ran a blistering 15:13 in the Midwest Regional, finishing just eight seconds behind the winner. And at the National Championships, Manilafasha got off to a bad start -- something his coach says he is prone to do in faster races -- but recovered to finish 25th with a time of 16:07.
"Pretty much the whole race I couldn't move up," he says. "All the people there are just as good as you and as mentally tough as you. I definitely learned a lot."
"He should have done better," Young says. "When the gun went off, he was stepping back instead of forward to the line, and he was the last one off. It showed his immaturity as a runner. He doesn't really know how to react when things don't go as planned."
Young says that maturity will come with time. Manilafasha was able to get more experience this past summer, racing in prestigious road races and training hard in preparation for the fall season. Young kept the miles down in an attempt to not burn out his star runner, but 50-60 miles per week was still the norm.
And wherever he races, Young's team approaches celebrity status. Manilafasha is the main attraction, but his older brother, senior Eric Ndikumana, is also a solid runner. Another brother, Severin Ndagano, ran for North before graduating in 2006. The trio has given the Vikings quite a boost despite being a very small squad (only eight runners competed for North last season).
"It's funny -- all of a sudden people want to do things for us," Young says. "I call it the 'Joe Factor.' We run a lot of road races during the summer, we do a lot of trail running and people know us."
Some of the top colleges are hoping to get to know Manilafasha sometime soon as well. He's looking at Colorado but hopes to get offers from other schools as well. Young thinks Manilafasha will be an even better runner once he gets to the next level.
"He's going to be a hellacious 10K runner," the coach says. "Joe's going to be a great runner. Obviously he's the best runner I've ever coached, and he's maybe the best runner I've ever seen. I've never seen him collapse after a race. We ran eight races last season, and I think he set seven course records."
When he's not setting course records, Manilafasha -- as ironic as it may seem -- enjoys going for walks. But you'll seldom find him walking anywhere on race days. He has the state championship in his sights again, and it won't end there.
"I'm hoping to go to Foot Lockers again," he says. "I think I have a good chance of placing in the top 10."
He just isn't really sure why.