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John Blanchette: Breaking Gonzaga records just one stop on James Mwaura’s long-running journey

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

He is too purposeful – and too young – to entertain the possibility that he’s chasing ghosts.

But who’s to say there aren’t a few pushing James Mwaura along his path?

If nothing else, there is a long, infrangible thread that links Gonzaga University’s sophomore running wonder with a couple of the sport’s enduring legends in this country and the renowned distance legacy of another.

And that thread pulls him back this week through Eugene, where Mwaura has a date at the dazzlingly remade Hayward Field for the NCAA Track and Field Championships. A double date, actually – he’s ambitiously tackling both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs, the latter going off on Wednesday evening.

“I just figured, why not?” Mwaura said. “I’m not really racing after nationals.”

He’d hoped to have at least one more start, at the Olympic trials that follow at Hayward next week. But a calendar squeezed by COVID-19 – and abridged further when he contracted the virus in March – left him with but one opportunity to meet the qualifying standard in the 10K, and that came up short.

Realistically, the Olympics as a destination was always going to be miles down the road anyway. Distance running is above all else a dues-payer’s game.

But realistic it is.

“If you could see the amount of work he puts in,” Peter Hogan said, “there’s nobody who wants to be better than James.”

Hogan’s perspective on this seems particularly germane. He is Mwaura’s teammate and roommate, and occasional foil – in the sense that, “I hold the school record for having the shortest time holding the school record,” Hogan said.

The reason? James Mwaura.

In 2019, Hogan took the Gonzaga 10,000 record down to 29 minutes, 37.54 seconds in a race in San Francisco. Twenty-two days later, Mwaura slashed more than 21 seconds off that mark at Stanford.

Then last month, Hogan ran 28:53.70 in Corvallis to reclaim the record – with Mwaura doing some of the pacing before dropping out, readying himself for a run at the trials qualifying time the next week.

“You could have run faster,” Mwaura told him.

“Whatever,” Hogan answered. “You’re just going to break it anyway.”

And he did – in 28:27.49. For those whose running days ended in PE class, that’s about 4:32 per mile – for more than 6 miles. It puts him among the top 10 runners in the Eugene field.

Gonzaga’s running story under coach Pat Tyson is maybe a dozen years in the works, so it can be tricky to assess records that are broken yearly. Consider, then, that Mwaura’s best times in both races would rank him in the top 10 down the road at Washington State, where the lists are populated by Ronos and Lindgrens and Koechs and Korirs, Olympic medalists or world record holders all.

It’s not hard to think of Mwaura on their path, and not only based on his results.

Stephen Kahura, his wife Sophia, James and his three sisters raised cattle and farmed milk in Limuru, a town of some 5,000 on the eastern edge of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, known for its verdant highlands – and, for 50-odd years, its splendid distance runners. In 2008, the family – abetted, possibly, by Sophia’s ardent prayers – won a visa in the annual U.S. lottery and made plans to move.

“We had to find, as you say, greener pastures,” Stephen said.

Mwaura was 7 when the family settled in Tacoma and naturally found an athletic outlet in soccer, as his father had. His aptitude in distance running was discovered in middle school – encouraged by a pastor – and blossomed at Lincoln High School, where he won multiple state championships in cross country and track and ran national-level times – and attracted recruiting interest from Washington, WSU, Oregon and Northern Arizona, among others.

And picked Gonzaga. This was Tyson’s Jalen Suggs.

“I just didn’t feel the connection elsewhere that I felt with Tyson and the guys on the team,” Mwaura said.

And here’s where that thread was knotted – Mwaura crossing the state to study and train in a city where Gerry Lindgren’s exploits had birthed a running culture. He’d also signed on with a coach who had run for Lincoln generations before, and who later ran and roomed with Steve Prefontaine at Oregon.

“James has the same deep confidence that Pre had,” Tyson said. “They’re different runners, but they share that – and like Pre, James is very independent. And I think that had a lot to do with his coming here.

“Maybe you don’t have the numbers of elite runners to run with as at an Oregon or an NAU, but maybe another school wouldn’t give you a long leash. I think about Pre – if he’d been controlled and told, ‘Don’t lead,’ you would never have had the excitement he created.”

And Mwaura’s Kenyan running heritage? Well, his mother recalled him getting a taste of that, too, when the family returned for two months in 2016. It was arranged for him to train with a small group of local runners – not the country’s elites, but older, accomplished competitors accustomed to the 8,000-foot altitude.

“My first time – an easy run – I remember getting dropped (by the group) within 15 minutes,” Mwaura said. “But by the end of a month I could stay with them for the whole runs. I took it as a challenge – and it sent me home with some confidence.”

It has only grown. Mwaura also broke the Gonzaga 5,000 record this year (13:36.18) only a month after recovering from COVID, and had only two track races under his belt before surviving the NCAA’s brutal regional qualifying.

“Every time you PR, you always feel like you want more,” Mwaura said. “I want to see what kind of potential I have and how far running will take me.”

And find what might be at the end of that thread.

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