The run in Greensboro is almost over for Paul Chelimo.
The runs toward NCAA titles, which were sealed surprisingly early with the runner-up finishes from two straight outdoor track championships when Chelimo quit the UNCG program during the winter.
The runs in the parks at Hamilton Lakes and Bur-Mil, preparing himself for that national stage.
And the runs on spring evenings on a school track, keeping his conditioning as some of the city’s strongest distance runners gave chase and talented age-group runners shook their heads in amazement.
Chelimo, a five-time All-America who will graduate from UNCG on May 9 with a degree in public health, will enter the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. On May 13, the native of Chebiemet, Kenya, will head off to Fort Jackson, S.C., to begin basic training, with Chelimo’s year expected to finish with a U.S. citizenship and a move to Portland, Ore., to train with the program’s Dan Browne, a 2004 Olympian.
Chelimo’s, and the Army’s, goal? Making the 2016 Olympic track and field team that will go to Rio de Janeiro.
“I thought that would be a good chance having a coach after college, someone who can support me and be able to focus on my goals for the Olympics,” Chelimo says. “If I go to the Army, I’ll forget about looking for money for upkeep. The only thing I have to focus on is the Olympics and qualifying for the Olympics and representing the U.S. Army in the Olympics.”
Chelimo, 23, whose second-place finishes in the NCAAs came at 5,000 meters, hopes a familiar face might be able to join him. He has done his own recruiting of former UNCG teammate and fellow Kenyan Paul Katam, the NCAA runner-up at 10,000 meters last June who left UNCG to join the Army’s Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program. Along with Abraham Kemboi, the UNCG track program this year has seen three of its Kenyans leave to enlist in the U.S. Army.
“I had been working with Katam really well,” Chelimo says. “Having Katam again on the same team would be a good thing. That’s one of the things I’m doing.”
When Chelimo completes basic and military occupation specialties training, he’ll get connected with Browne, a young coach but one with an impressive pedigree. Browne, 38, is a West Point alumnus who made the 2004 team in two events, the 10,000 meters and in the marathon. Browne has trained with Alberto Salazar, the 1982 Boston Marathon winner, in the Nike Oregon Project and with Bob Larsen, who coaches 2014 Boston winner Meb Keflezighi.
“He has what I consider the talent to make this Olympic team; no question in my mind,” Browne says of Chelimo. “He’s national caliber right now and has potential world capability. He’s young. His stride is world-class. I like his mentality. He sets his goals high, and I’m hoping that I can help guide and advise him to even greater things.”
Chelimo is interested in the 5,000 meters, in which his best time was 13 minutes and 21 seconds at a meet in California in April 2013, and in the 1,500 meters, in which he has recorded a 3:37 in Kenya. Galen Rupp (13:22.67), Bernard Lagat (13:22.82) and Lopez Lomong (13:24.47) claimed the U.S. Olympic trials berths in the 5,000 for the 2012 London Games. At 1,500 meters for the same Olympics, Leo Manzano (3:35.75), Matt Centrowitz (3:35.84) and Andrew Wheating (3:36.68) ran slightly faster than Chelimo’s best.
“It’s going to be on me and him working together to help get him in his peak race fitness at the right time at the Olympic trials,” says Browne, a major in the Oregon National Guard and the winner of 17 U.S. titles. “There’s a lot of science behind it, but just a lot of professional knowledge going into helping get to a peak performance at the right time.”
Chelimo, who remains interested in work that will improve water quality in his native country, has spent part of his spring in Greensboro working a Church World Service internship, assisting refugees with citizenship and English classes and with their medical, Social Security or Division of Motor Vehicles appointments.
He also has continued to train. On a recent warm April evening, a small handful of the area’s most accomplished runners joined him for a workout that included 20 400-meter repeats on a school track.
Each of Chelimo’s 60-second laps left them breathless, with one in the group stepping off the track to empty a stomach that boiled over. Around them, other runners at good-but-slower paces marveled at how much track Chelimo covered with each stride, his heels rising waist-high behind him.
“I feel like I’m running backward,” Suzanne Ingram said.
Greensboro’s Steve Cowie, a marathon veteran and one of the chase-pack leaders, says it was special to run in Chelimo’s footsteps.
“There are very few people who could do that workout,” Cowie says. “He was encouraging us all to try to do our best in our own workouts as well. It was a memorable experience.”
Likewise for Jamestown’s Stevven Anderson, who dominated the Greensboro Race Series last year and is performing an encore in 2014.
“The time I got to spend with such an elite runner and great person was priceless,” Anderson says. “He took me into his house, sat and talked running while having a glass of Kenyan tea. I had the pleasure of doing quite a few workouts with this young man. He has the heart of a lion.”