On Oct. 7, in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, Caroline Kurgat won her first cross country race of the season. That’s nothing new for her—she won two events the past two years, too—but this time, she beat a substantially larger field. More than 350 runners finished the race, and all nine UAA runners made the top 150. Caroline, with her overall victory, helped the unranked Seawolves finish third out of 34 teams (eight of which were nationally ranked).
It’s an impressive victory, but it’s even more impressive when you realize Caroline is still relatively new to the sport.
“After I graduated from high school, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “So I started running.”
The road to nursing school
Caroline comes from Eldoret, a high-altitude city in western Kenya. It’s her family, she said, that pushed her to pursue running as a path to college.
A medical laboratory science and pre-nursing major, Caroline wanted to study nursing long before she arrived in Anchorage. “I think it’s just one thing my dad really wanted me to be,” she said. Back in Eldoret, her dad introduced her to several people working in the nursing or medical field, making the career seem more like a reality. “He always motivated me and helped me through it,” she added.
But there was one major problem. In Kenya, students take a test at the end of high school that determines their academic future. College students don’t choose what they study, their results do. Though Caroline was accepted to a Kenyan university, she didn’t make it to the nursing program.
So that’s when she started running, thanks to the strong influence of her aunt. If Caroline couldn’t study nursing in Kenya, her aunt reasoned, then she could earn an athletic scholarship and study in the U.S. instead.
“I wasn’t really up for it,” Caroline admitted of the initial idea. “It was really hard. There were several times I was debating if it was worth it, but she kept pushing me and she helped me through it.”
From Kenya, Caroline contacted about 20 American universities to see where she might end up. UAA made the application process simple, she said, and after communicating with Assistant Coach T.J. Garlatz, Caroline boarded three transcontinental flights not knowing a single person in Alaska (thankfully, the team’s other Kenyans immediately invited her to a dinner of familiar food from home).
Bound for Bellingham
Though Caroline keeps in frequent touch with her family (including phone calls to her aunt every other weekend), the move wasn’t the only big change. She was also joining a competitive running program and starting as a college student. That transition can be intense even for American runners.
Caroline is now used to fitting in two-hour weight room sessions and 13-mile runs between her classes, but at first, she said, “it was a real challenge, just being away from family, then [adding] school and running.”
It’s worth noting that long-distance runners are the only UAA athletes who compete all year long (cross country in the fall fades to indoor track in winter, then outdoor track in spring.) That means Caroline and her teammates are always balancing academic and athletic responsibilities, with a little help from professors and coaches.
“I just like the way the athletic department and the professors work with the students-athletes, because they really help us a lot,” she said.
Accommodating her schedule can be tricky, though. Take last weekend, for example. While the rest of the team flew to Bellingham on Thursday for the GNAC championships, Caroline had to wait. Why? On Friday, she had a urine analysis lab practical—an active exam she couldn’t miss.
After completing the test, Caroline headed to the airport with a coach, flew to Seattle that evening, then drove two hours to meet the team. Roughly 12 hours later, she was in uniform at the starting line.
And she still dominated the morning race. Caroline claimed her second straight individual conference crown, beating the second-place finisher by nearly a minute as UAA cruised to its eighth GNAC title in the past nine years.
Next up: Nationals
Keep tabs on Caroline. The UAA cross country team heads to West Regionals in Monmouth, Oregon on Nov. 4. The Div. II national championship in Evansville, Indiana is Nov. 18. Click for details and results.
And though her cross country career ends at nationals, she has two more seasons of track remaining. Caroline plans to graduate with her nursing degree in December of 2019, making the most of all those miles.
“I think this is one of the best opportunities,” she said of the chance to run and study as a student-athlete. “I really appreciate having it.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement