Editor’s note: Not only were they racing against 23 other top teams in the country, Bison cross country members found a formidable foe in Mother Nature as well at the NCAA Division II Nationals Nov. 22 in Slippery Rock, Pa. ■ Sub-freezing temperatures and snow took their toll on the No. 3 ranked Bisons, finishing sixth overall. ■ Freshman Daniel Kirwa, who opened his career with seven straight victories, finished seventh with a time of 31 minutes, 30 seconds, well behind his regional time of 29:58. He and senior Artur Kern, who placed 15th in 31:41, earned All-America honors. ■ Arkansas Democrat-Gazette writer Doug Crise gives a compelling glimpse into the team, which appeared the day before Nationals.
Defenders of the Spear
By Doug Crise, © Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
The spear was Julius Kosgei's idea. To hear Kosgei explain it, a spear means having something worth protecting. It means feeling connected enough with those around you to stand between them and any threat from the outside world.
That line of thinking is right up Kosgei's alley. And if it means the Harding University men's cross country team gets more than a few stares when it arrives at meets carrying a large spear, that's just fine.
"In Kenya, the spear is what you use as a matter of defending yourself," said Kosgei, a senior and one of four Kenyans on the roster. "If you have the spear, no enemy can threaten you." At least as far as running is concerned, no one has threatened the Bisons.
Hardly anyone has even caught the Bisons. Harding heads to Slippery Rock, Pa., for Saturday's NCAA Division II cross country championships with an outside shot at winning a national title.
While Bisons coach Steve Guymon said, "everyone's got to run perfect" to topple national powers like Abilene Christian and Chico State, perfection is something the Bisons are used to.
Thanks to undefeated freshman Daniel Kirwa, another Kenyan, Harding is 7 for 7 in individual titles this season. As a team, the Bisons have claimed both the Gulf South Conference and Division II South Regional titles, recording a perfect team score in both championships by placing five runners in the top five.
Even by the standards of collegiate running, where foreign addresses are common, the Harding roster is a mishmash of American and international cultures. Stateside, the Bisons sport athletes from Chicago to Alabama to Connecticut. Beyond American borders, Harding has two Polish runners to go with the four Kenyans.
Guymon, previously an assistant coach at University of Kansas and head coach at Cordova (Tenn.) High School, was encouraged to maintain a foreign pipeline after replacing coach Bryan Phillips six years ago.
The challenge for Guymon hasn't been finding the athletes — connections from the Phillips regime plus Harding's overseas missionary work laid the groundwork before his arrival — but rather finding athletes who can compete at the national level while fitting in at a school with strict codes of moral and spiritual conduct.
Guymon has managed that. An added bonus that he didn't count on was what he called the "great amount of fun" that resulted from watching a team separated by language, background and culture form friendships that will last far beyond college.
Sometimes, that coming together meant recognizing the realities of life on a continent scarred by war and poverty. When Polish runner Artur Kern went with Kosgei to his home of Timboroa, Kenya, last Christmas, the two were forced to flee the city because of violence resulting from a recent political election.
"I was not so much worried," Kosgei said. "If it were a matter of going to war, I would go. But for him, he was kind of worried."
Meanwhile, the arrival of Kirwa, who is expected to battle Chico State senior Scott Bauhs for the individual national title, has taught the foreign runners a very American concept: taking a lesser role for the good of the team.
"I used to be maybe No. 1," said senior James Cheruiyot, another Kenyan.
"It's not good to have one runner who's No. 1 and another runner who's No. 100. You need all the runners to pull closer together." In doing so, the Bisons — spear in hand — have spent a season pulling away from the field.
"None of us are from here, so we form our own family," Kosgei said. "And people from the same family walk together."
Constructing a course
For the cross country teams, running in the NCAA Division II South Region Meet had always involved a road trip, either on a bus or in vans to Memphis, Tenn., Huntsville, Ala., or Florida. Not this year. With a berth in the NCAA Division II national meet on the line, Bison and Lady Bison runners woke up in their own beds, drove four miles north of Searcy to the Wyldewood Retreat Center, and took care of business.
The Bisons accomplished a first for the men's cross country team, with a perfect score of 15 points. The Lady Bisons also gained one of the two national-meet berths with a second-place finish.
The home-course advantage came mostly due to the work of head coach Steve Guymon and a little encouragement from an optimistic student assistant.
In 2006 at the regional meet in Memphis, Tenn., no one bid to host the 2008 regional meet. Guymon's student assistant Holly Skelton looked at him and asked, "Why don't you bid?" Guymon answered, "Because we don't have a course." Skelton replied, "We will by then."
So Guymon volunteered to host the meet, and the region's coaches confirmed Harding as the host institution. Within 10 days, the University had to submit a bid to the NCAA about a course it did not have, but the NCAA accepted the bid and work began.
Guymon says that he wanted a course that was different than most of the courses they run on, usually a golf course or a large park.
"Wyldewood is made up of rugged horse pastures," he said.
After designing the course, Guymon had a bulldozer blaze a trail through the hill in the woods. His sons and some student athletes filled holes, cleared trees, removed rocks and spread mulch throughout the trail. They added two gates so runners could cross the road, spent many hours cutting the course, and, because it is a pasture, removed droppings.
After the course was completed, the teams trained on it twice a week. Senior Julius Kosgei named the course "The Spear," which led to the teams' 2008 motto "Defend the Spear," which they said before each meet for motivation. It worked.
— Scott Goode