FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas distance runner Stanley Kebenei missed most of the 2014 indoor season because of mononucleosis.
The illness didn’t keep Kebenei from embracing an enormous challenge when he was healthy enough to compete at the Stanford Invitational on April 4. He wanted to jump right into a 10,000-meter event, refusing to simply ease his way back.
“He’s not afraid to stretch his legs so to speak,” Arkansas track coach Chris Bucknam said last week. “Most guys don’t step into the 10K if they don’t feel like they’re 100 percent, and he goes, ‘Coach, I want to run a 10K the first outdoor meet I can. I need to feel the pain. I need to feel that length of race.’ …
“It gives you an idea of kind of competitor he is. His ego doesn’t get bruised. He doesn’t live by a win or a loss. He knows it’s a process, and he’s not afraid to go in there, grind it out and get in shape.”
Kebenei’s determination should serve him well at this week’s NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. The junior — who feels like he’s finally back to himself after a long recovery from mono — begins a rugged road when he competes in the semifinal round of the 3,000-meter steeplechase today.
It’s the first step in what could be three distance events in three days. Kebenei also will run in the 5,000-meter finals on Friday and will compete in the steeplechase finals on Saturday if he advances out of the semifinal round.
It will be the first time Kebenei has run both events in an NCAA Championship meet.
“The toughest part is to bring that mindset of, ‘Yeah, I have to do this,’” Kebenei said. “Sometimes you might be in good shape, but you might not be ready mentally.”
Kebenei, who is from Kenya, believes he’s ready for the challenge after working his way into shape over the past few months.
He first realized something was wrong in January, when he struggled during a 3,000-meter event. He finished behind runners he would normally beat after finishing third in the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the steeplechase last year and following it up with a sixth-place finish at the NCAA cross country meet.
After being examined, Kebenei was diagnosed with mono. He didn’t run for six weeks, missing the SEC and NCAA Indoor events. Arkansas narrowly missed out on winning the NCAA Indoor championships, too, and Kebenei’s absence played a role.
“It was really tough,” Kebenei said. “Every time I went to the indoor track and saw all the athletes competing, it was really tough on me. Especially when I don’t get to compete for the school I love. … But I knew at the same time I had to get healthy.”
Kebenei feels rejuvenated and his production could be vital to Arkansas’ hopes of winning the outdoor crown this week. Doubling in the distance events isn’t easy, but Kebenei ran well in winning both at the SEC Outdoor Championships last month.
He was successful in qualifying during the NCAA West Preliminary meet two weeks ago, too. So Bucknam said the distance runner should be prepared for the workload.
“He has proven himself in the last 12 months to be one of the best distance runners in the country,” Bucknam said. “He’s feeling good. He’s got a bounce in his step. You can’t count him out scoring big points in both the steeple and the 5K.”
Kebenei expects to score in both events. He set goals of winning the steeplechase and collecting a top-three finish in the 5,000. The points would be big for the Razorbacks, who have 15 athletes competing at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Kebenei plans to come through after missing the NCAA Indoor Championships.
“The mono took me down, but I’m here to race again,” Kebenei said.