11/13/2009 - Cross country: Wilde Lake's Punyua hitting his stride
In just under three months, Kikanae Punyua has become one of the county’s best
By Brent Kennedy for the Columbia Flyer
Wilde Lake’s Kikanae Punyua is a natural runner. Until a couple months ago, however, no one — himself included — knew it.
Punyua, who arrived in the United States from Africa in August as part of the American Field Service exchange student program, had never officially raced before he started school at Wilde Lake. In fact, back in Kenya where he grew up, running was typically done out of necessity instead of for recreation.
“When I was back in Kenya I never thought about running, it’s not (popular) like here,” Punyua said. “I never tried it before like this.”
What started as simply trying something new, though, has blossomed in to so much more. At the county championships Oct. 29, Punyua finished fifth. Then at the regional championships Nov. 5, he led for over half the race before taking second.
“He’s an amazing story,” Wilde Lake coach Whitty Bass said. “If you would have seen where he was when he first got here, to where he was now you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve watched it and I can barely believe it. People think, ‘Oh, he’s from Kenya he automatically should be a great runner,’ but it’s not that simple.”
Bass has seen the growth first-hand, not only because he’s the Wildecats’ coach but also because he and his wife are serving as the host house for Punyua during his time here. When Punyua first arrived in Maryland and was living with his welcome family, he still didn’t have a permanent place to stay.
He came out for the team in late August and shortly after Bass was contacted by AFS about potentially being Punyua’s host family. Having had experience with international students while serving as an Olympic coach in Morocco, Bass and his wife agreed to open their doors.
With the living arrangements out of the way, getting Punyua up to speed running-wise became top priority.
“We got him in, the only problem was the team had already been training together all summer,” Bass said. “It was tough. Here he’s a first-time runner and he was (well) behind everyone else.”
Making matters worse, Punyua’s body didn’t react well to his first couple times out with the team running on concrete and asphalt.
“That first week, his ankles swelled up to the size of grapefruits,” Bass said.
“It was so painful, all the injuries,” Punyua said. “I wanted to be out running, but I couldn’t. (I put on) lots of ice.”
Bass said the initial setbacks cost him almost a week of training and, when he was ready to start up again, Punyua had to go back to smaller mileage amounts. He started with one-mile runs and slowly built himself up.
At the Howard County Invitational Sept. 11, Punyua’s first official race, he finished 46th with a time of 18:54 on Centennial High School’s course. Two weeks later in the Bull Run Large School race he was 23rd with a time of 17:57.
Despite the low finishes and having to take it easy in the ensuing days after races to allow his body to recover, Punyua was undeterred.
By the middle of October he had begun knocking minutes off his time and was suddenly placing in county tri-meet races. Among the other highlights was winning the championship of the Southern Invitational Bulldog Division.
And by the end of the month, he put it all together for the post-season.
His time at regionals last week of 16:51 on Centennial’s course was two minutes and three seconds better than at the Howard County Invitational.
This Saturday at the state championships, Punyua will get another shot at Hereford’s course (the site of the Bull Run) and at adding another chapter to his already unbelievable story. But no matter how he does, Punyua says he’s found something he’ll be able to take home with him.
“It’s something I’ll definitely continue with, because even my brother is running too,” he said. “I have the talent, so I can’t stop even when I go back to Kenya.”
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