(ALAMOSA, Colo.) – Alamosa, Colorado is not quite heaven, but Benadine Chelimo didn't know that in August of 2018 when she sat at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya waiting to board a plane. "I was just feeling excited and nervous to be in America and see this country because everybody always talks about it in a good way," said Chelimo, "I thought it was like heaven."
Nearly forty hours, three plane rides and a four-hour drive from Denver later, Chelimo made it to her dorm room in Alamosa, finally able to get some rest before her first day of classes and training. She needed it. The fall semester brings excitement, new beginnings, and fresh opportunities for all college freshmen. For members of the Trinidad State cross country team, fall also brings long hard workouts in the thin air of the San Luis Valley. Though Chelimo had done some running back home in Kenya, she was not prepared for the rigors of training under the tutelage of Coach Lauren Masterson.
Masterson was worried about her incoming freshman at the start, "when Benadine showed up I was a little unsettled. Her right leg kicked out awkwardly when she ran, she clearly hadn't been training for the previous few months, and she hardly spoke a word. I wasn't sure how she'd get through classes with how quiet she was, and I was pretty sure she wasn't going to be much of a runner with her lack of fitness and inefficient running form."
Chelimo, however, showed she had a special something that Masterson desires to see in all of her athletes during the first hard work out of the season, fearlessness. "We were working out at Cole Park on a hot day in August," Masterson recalled, "We had told Benadine to only run half of each interval at whatever pace she felt comfortable, as we had no idea what she could manage. She took off with teammate Toni Moore from the start. Toni was in very good shape and Benadine had no business trying to run with her."
Chelimo quickly fell behind and then stopped half-way through the interval as instructed. Over the next few minutes she laid on the grass of the community park gasping for air. The coaches figured that would be it for Chelimo for the day, as she appeared to be suffering a heart attack more than recovering.
"It was not pretty," remembered assistant coach Kyle Masterson, "She was breathing so hard I thought she may need an inhaler or something. I told her that was enough for the day and she could just jog slow until the rest of the team finished the workout. But then when I called out that we'd start the next interval in 15 seconds Benadine pulled herself up and said she'd try another."
Once again, Chelimo took off with Toni Moore, fell behind, stopped half-way through, and fell into a heaving, sweaty lump on the grass. Just as before, the coaches told her that was enough for the day and she could just cool down. Again, just as before, Chelimo pulled herself off the ground before the start of the next interval and took off with the other girls.
"I couldn't believe it," recalled Coach Masterson, "she was looking like she needed a trip to the hospital one second and then taking off with no fear the next. That's when I thought we might have something if we could get Benadine in shape and fine tune her mechanics."
The trip to fitness was not a short nor easy journey for Chelimo. "I used to hate training so much," she recalled with a laugh. "The first two months were so hard, especially Tuesday's and Friday's when we would do speed workouts. The only thing in my mind keeping me going at that time was the fear of losing my scholarship." Little did Chelimo know, that thought never crossed her coaches' minds. They were encouraged by her fearlessness and toughness, even when they could tell she had no desire to be doing workouts. After some time Chelimo started to realize her coaches weren't going to be pulling any support from her. "I thanked God that I have awesome coaches who understand me and accept me the way I am".
Chelimo missed becoming an All-American in Cross Country during that freshman season by only a few spots. The following spring, she followed her now close friend Toni Moore to an All-American finish in the 3,000 meters at the NJCAA Indoor Track & Field National Championships.
When the outdoor track season started Chelimo took up a new event, the 3,000-meter steeplechase. The steeplechase is a brutal event that entails hurdling large, heavy barriers that do not fall over like hurdles when you hit them while making laps around the track. To make it even more difficult, one of the barriers has a 12-foot pit of water to land in. The event is widely regarded as the most grueling in track and field and the most exciting to watch, as errors and fatigue often lead to dramatic and painful falls and pileups.
"The steeplechase is an event where one must be fearless," commented Masterson, "It requires one to run to exhaustion while jumping over 30-inch barriers. The last few laps an athlete is at a high risk of hitting a barrier, which can be very painful. This year Benadine had to watch a girl break her leg over the water barrier prior to her own race. Benadine's fearlessness early on with us here at TSJC told us she could be a good steeplechaser."
Chelimo wasn't so confident in the beginning. If she didn't like the hard workouts before, things were definitely not getting easier. She would get comfortable enough with the event to place seventh at the NJCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, much more than what was expected when she first arrived in Alamosa. Any coach would be pleased, and most athletes would be satisfied. Chelimo was not.
"In the summer I told myself 'I am tired of running bad, I need to change my attitude toward running and accept it as part of my job'. I started training with friends who were better runners through the summer. With a better attitude and focus on improving my weaknesses I started improving."
Improve she did. Chelimo was the Trojans top runner throughout the Cross Country season, leading TSJC to a Region IX Championship and a seventh place finish at the NJCAA Cross Country Championships. It was the Trojan's highest team finish since the program was brought back in 2016. Chelimo finished twelfth individually, 35 places higher than the year before. The high finish bolstered her confidence heading into the indoor track season where she set higher goals and vowed to be at her very best every race.
"My key for track season was to be more responsible. I felt I should be doing my part as a student and athlete better. I told myself that I would go into every race to compete and do my best." Chelimo would go on to set top ranked times in every distance from 800 meters to 5,000 meters during the indoor season. At the Indoor National Championships she finished fourth at 3,000 meters and seventh at the mile distance, both All-American performances.
Coach Masterson felt she was right on the cusp. "Benadine battled so well in both races. She never backed down. But at those big races you have to make all the right moves and be at your absolute best to win. She was close, but came up just a few seconds short of a national title in both races."
For her final outdoor season as a Trojan, Chelimo would need to be more fearless than ever. The steeplechase loomed again and Coach Masterson set high goals. "I didn't tell Benadine from the start of the season that I thought she was capable of battling for a National Title in the event, but it was on our minds throughout the season as we prepared her."
In April, Chelimo broke the school record and ran the nation's leading time at a meet in California. This showed Chelimo she might finally be able to win a National Title, but only seven days later an athlete from Iowa Central Community College ran a time thirteen seconds faster. The two athletes would remain first and second ranked going into the NJCAA National Championships in Hobbs, New Mexico, where Chelimo would face her biggest test of fearlessness and determination.
"It was very hot and windy on the day of the 3000 meter steeplechase final," recalled Coach Masterson, "Benadine had competed in the 1500 meter preliminary rounds only a few hours before. I was afraid that her legs would be tired from that race and maybe we had made a mistake letting her run the 1500m also."
After a slow start to the race, Chelimo moved to the front, somewhere her coaches did not want her to be on a windy day. "The leader on a windy day has to run against a lot more wind than the rest of the competitors," explained Masterson, "We felt she should be tucked in behind some others to conserve energy, but in the middle of the race she was all on her own as far as that decision goes."
Things looked even more grim when an opposing runner fell. The spikes of that runner sunk into the calf of Chelimo, leaving a deep gash, and pulling off one of her shoes.
"When my shoe came off I became more aggressive," Chelimo recalled, "I started telling myself I needed to win the race, no options. So, running with one shoe didn't bother me. I was focused on winning."
With the same fearlessness she displayed on that first day of training in Alamosa, Chelimo continued to lead, putting pressure on the other runners to keep up. Only the runner from Iowa Central remained into the last lap. Coach Masterson recalled, "Benadine was second as the last lap started. I could see the look of determination on her face, but knew that anything could happen as runners sprint on tired legs."
Chelimo followed the leader for most of the final lap. With 150 meters to go both runners came into the water barrier together, but Chelimo cleared the obstacle with a slight edge. A few meters later she had inched ahead just a little more. For the final 120 meters the two runners were separated by only a few feet, but Chelimo never budged. She hit the finish line only a few strides ahead of second place. Chelimo was a National Champion.
"It feels so good to have come so far. I can only say that following my coach's plan and dedicating myself to doing my best was what made the biggest difference from when I arrived at school to when I became a champion," says Chelimo.
The title in the 3000m Steeplechase was the first ever National Title won by a female athlete at Trinidad State Junior College. Some have come close in the past, but it was Chelimo's fearless effort that broke the barrier to the top of the podium.
Alamosa, Colorado may not quite be heaven, but for a distance runner as fearless as Benadine Chelimo it can be the ticket to a gold medal and the title "National Champion".