Updated June 7, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It sounds like a tough day in Kenya: Getting up at 5:30 a.m. Running a few miles. Opening up the grocery store. Checking on your crop of corn. Working from dusk to dawn.
But Kenya's Jacob Kirwa now has a tougher job. He's a student-athlete at the University of New Mexico.
"It's harder to be a student," said Kirwa, who will compete at 5,000 meters this week at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore. "I woke up in Kenya and there was no homework, no assignments, no worry about grades.
"In Kenya, I was a businessman and a farmer. Yeah, that was easier. At the end of the planting season, you had to be satisfied with your harvest, but you can hire labor and machinery to do the work and save your energy. I made lots of money, too."
So, why give up a good-paying job where you are your own boss, leave home and family, and come to faraway New Mexico to run, run, run - and study, study, study.
"My dad forced me to come," said Kirwa. "I wasn't happy leaving the money and going to a place I didn't know, but he kept on convincing me. I went with his decision because he's my dad and he knows a lot of things."
It's possible that not a lot of college students share that opinion that "father knows best," but what Kirwa's dad was looking at was the future and how it can be changed by a college degree. Kirwa also sees that educational carrot pulling him to the degree that waits at the end of that finish line. But it's not an easy race.
"I see what he is intending for me," said Kirwa. "When I get finished and get a job, I'm hoping I'll realize it more. Right now, I'm still at a point where I have to work really, really hard. It's tough to combine school and running."
Kirwa definitely has done well in the running part. He won the Lobo Invitation on Sept. 5 and broke the tape at the Notre Dame Invitation on Oct. 2. He was named the Mountain West Conference Men's Cross Country Athlete of the Week on Oct. 6. He has now won that honor twice.
Kirwa and six other members of the Lobo pack will be in Eugene Wednesday thru Saturday competing at the NCAA finals. The Eldoret, Kenya native, who won the 2010 MWC Outdoor title at 10,000 meters, knows it won't be easy running against the top runners in the nation.
Kirwa's strategy, in most races, is to hang with the pack and use his strength - his kick - to power past runners down the stretch. The stretch run is something Kirwa tries to look as the pleasant part of the run -- especially in his longer runs.
In a way, he looks at his final kick in a favorable light because it means the race, and the pain, is almost over. Kirwa likes to run. He also likes to stop running. You might say he gets his kick at the end in more ways than one.
"The race is hard at the beginning," said Kirwa of his cross country jaunts. "You start off thinking, `It's five miles!' When you get to the point where there is only a mile left, you think about almost being at the end.
"If I lose, I'll know what the problem is and I'll improve. But right now, I'm training to win. It's beautiful to win."
Lobo Jacob Kirwa
That's what Kirwa did at the Notre Dame run when he sprinted past Arizona State All-American Brandon Bethke to break the tape. This sprint thing by Kirwa doesn't come easy. He practices it in his runs around Albuquerque. He also works on visualizing a race's end that favors the Lobo from Kenya.
"When I get to race day, I don't think about not winning, of anybody beating me," said Kirwa. "I think only of winning. If I'm in the (lead) pack going into the last mile, I feel I'm going to win. When I train, I run really hard the last few laps and work really hard on my sprint."
Kirwa kicked past a lot of MWC runners to grab that conference crown at 10,000 meters. At the NCAA West Regionals, he ran a 14:02.01 to advance to the national finals at half that distance.
Kirwa came to UNM from Diné College (Shiprock, N.M.). He said it took awhile to get used to the New Mexico heat and altitude. He won two national cross country titles at Diné. He won first team All-Mountain West and All-NCAA Mountain Region honors in 2008 for UNM in cross country. He was fifth at the MWC Championships last fall. He said he is trying harder this season, looking for better results. So far, so good.
Kirwa said after his days at UNM are over he probably will return to Kenya, to the farm, to the store, but will continue running.
"I would like to exploit my talents for a while," he said. "In Kenya, people use running as a source of income. If you are a professional and win a race, it's a lot of money. You can make maybe $40,000 for a marathon. That's a lot of Kenyan money."