He was just new to the Central State University – and the United States – and he was facing his first dilemma.
To solve it, he relied on an old standby solution:
Emmanuel Birgen had just arrived on the campus in rural Greene County from a small village in Kenya a few days earlier. He was a distance runner and would be competing for the Marauders cross country and track and field teams.
After one of his first workouts, he said he returned to his dorm room, showered, did some studying and fell asleep.
“I woke up and it was past midnight and I was hungry…Really hungry,” he said.
He knew the school cafeteria was long closed, as was the convenience store on Brush Row Road next to campus.
He still didn’t know anyone at CSU except head coach James Rollins and assistant Solomon Branch Jr. and the cell phone he’d brought from Africa didn’t work here.
But his legs sure did and that was his answer.
“I knew the bike path that goes past our campus goes all the way to Xenia and I thought a store would be open there,” he said. “I just put on my track stuff and went over to the path and ran to Xenia to a store.
“I bought some Mini Wheats, the big box, and some milk too and then I ran back to campus and had a big bowl full,” he said with a grin.
The roundtrip through the darkness was a little over six miles.
“I’ve heard that story,” Rollins laughed. “It’s pretty crazy.”
And yet so true to form.
That’s why, around much of the CSU campus, the talented sophomore — now a year removed from that late-night cereal sprint — is simply known as “The Running Guy.”
“Coach Branch measured out a course around campus that I train on and the students see me running all the time,” he said. “They don’t know my name or that I’m from Kenya so they just call me The Running Guy.”
Over at the track inside McPherson Stadium it’s the same.
“That first year he was here, he literally ran everywhere,” Rollins said. “At practice, he’d ask to go to the bathroom and then run off to it and run back. Any other guy, when he gets a break, he just walks over and back.”
Running is second nature to Birgen, who said it goes back to his upbringing in Mosoriot, Kenya, a village in the western part of the country, not far from Uganda.
“Growing up, I ran two miles on a dirt road to my primary school every morning,” he said. “At lunch, I’d run back home to eat and then run back to classes. Then I’d run home again at the end of the day.”
That’s eight miles a day just for school.
Because he’s dealt with some shin injuries this year, he said he does much of his training on a treadmill now. He said he does about eight miles a day and at least 50 a week.
All that running is paying off – and not just in Mini Wheats.
Two weekends ago he was named the Most Outstanding Track Athlete at the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) Championship in Albany, Georgia.
He won the 10,000 meter race on a Friday and two days later finished third in the 1,500 meters and came right back and won the 5,000 meter event.
Friday afternoon at the rain-delayed Toledo Collegiate Invitational, he finished third in the 5,000 meters at 15:49:07, trailing only two University of Michigan runners.
Rollins – who was an All American hurdler at CSU in the 1990s – said Birgen is the best distance runner CSU has had in the past quarter century that he’s been around the program and may be the best in more than 50 years, going all the way back to the early 1960s.
That’s when the school had NCAA College Division national champions Leslie Hagedus and William Moore and All Americans like Josh Ruga, Choice Phillips and Ted Seymour.
And with Birgen, this is just the tip of the iceberg, Rollins said:
“He’s getting a PR (personal record) almost every time out now. He just keeps getting better and better.”
‘Home of Champions’
Birgen’s village is in Nandi County in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province.
“Where I’m from, we call it the ‘Home of Champions,’” he said proudly. “It’d all the same area, kind of like Wilberforce and Xenia and Fairborn would be here.”
To make his point, he offered the names of several legendary runners from the area:
—Wilfred Bungei from Kabirirsang won gold in the 800 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, silver at World Championships in Edmonton in 2001 and World Indoor Championships in Birmingham in 2003.
—Pamela Jelimo, who was born in Kiptamok, took gold in the 800 meters at the Beijing Olympics and the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul and bronze at the London Olympics in 2012.
—Conseslus Kipruto won gold in the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the Rio de Janiero Olympics in 2016 and the World Championships in London last year and took silver at the World Championships in Moscow (2013) and Beijing (2015) .
—Birgen’s cousin Solomon Kessio, who now lives in Germantown, ran for the University of Cincinnati track team. And cousin Isaiah Kessio ran for Wright State and now lives in Fairborn, he said. Lilian Jelimo from Kapsabet ran for UC, too.
“It’s all according to how we were raised up,” he explained. “We all run to school or wherever we need to go.”
Solomon Kessio once told John Bach in a story for the UC Magazine how he grew up in a mud hut. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing.
Birgen said his situation was a little different. His dad managed a tea plantation and they lived in a house on the property.
Tea is major crop there Birgen said, then smiled: “I started drinking tea when I was three years old.”
His parents are retired now and are farmers he said. They have a few cattle, goats and chickens and raise things like maize, potatoes and tomatoes.
He said his parents stressed education:
“They said, ‘Give yourself 10 years to study and run track and focus on nothing else. And if you do that — if you get an education – you’ll find your life has changed and you’ll never regret it.’”
His older sister, Sarah, ran track at Oral Roberts University and at Tennessee Wesleyan and now works in Georgia. Her twin brother ran in Finland and is an engineer. Another sister went to college in Belgium and other siblings went to universities in Kenya.
When he was growing up, Emmanuel said he admired Wilfred Bungei:
“I was still in primary school and I’d see him in practice every day. One day I went up to him and said, ‘How do you do this?’ He told me I had to dedicate myself all the time. And then when I saw him on television win gold at the Olympics I thought, ‘I can do this, too.’”
He said his sister pushed him to use his running to find a college and pursue his own dream.
He speaks three languages and has a 3.0 grade point average studying biology and chemistry at CSU. One day wants to work as a nurse back home so that means going to a grad program elsewhere, he said, because CSU doesn’t offer nursing.
“When I was growing up I’d see some people who were sick and would end up dying because they couldn’t get good medication,” he said. “Their deaths were preventable. Their illnesses were treatable and could be managed, but there were long lines to get help.”
He said the region’s hospital might have only one doctor and a couple of nurses there and sometimes they all were working elsewhere because of short staffing.
“People die waiting in line,” he said quietly. “I want to be able to go help save lives.”
It’s thanks to a bit of luck that he even began his schooling at CSU.
Rollins said he was contacted by another college coach he knows who told him he had looked at a Kenyan runner of note, but was unable to offer him a scholarship. He thought he’d be a good fit at CSU.
“Right after that I got a call from Emmanuel and I assumed he was that runner,” Rollins said with a chuckle.
Rollins began the recruiting process only to find out, as he put it, that he had “gotten mixed up.” Birgen was not the athlete being recommended by the other coach.
CSU stuck with the 24-year old Birgen and as Rollins said with a smile: “The rest is history!”
The right fit
That history was ill-fitting last season, Birgen’s first at CSU.
“He had a lot of potential, but after each race last year he’d go, ‘Coach, I’m feeling pain,’” Rollins said. “We took him to our trainer and she would look at him and do different tests. We checked if there were any fractures, everything we could think of.”
But the pain persisted.
“We never put 2 and 2 together until one day we were talking and we started to wonder about his shoes,” Rollins said. “We thought, ‘Could they be the problem?’
“We sent him to a shoe store to get his feet measured. And sure enough, he was wearing shoes two sizes too small!
“When he had left Kenya someone gave him a pair of shoes and when he got here I asked him what size he wore. He looked in them, told me and we gave him new ones the same size.”
Birgen shook his head about the snafu: “They were size 9 and I found out I wear 10.5 (10 ½ ). I didn’t know I’d been wearing the wrong size so I never said anything.”
With properly fitted shoes, his emergence has been remarkable this season.
He’s gotten better nearly every race.
He said he is especially motivated by teammate Juan Scott, the Dayton Dunbar product who is the reigning NCAA Division II 110-meter hurdles champion.
“When we go to a competition, he always tells me to think of winning and nothing else,” Birgen said. “And when I saw him win the national championship, I thought that I’m in the same situation, so that’s now my goal, too.”
Rollins doesn’t discount anything for Birgen:
“He’s come a long, long way here.”
And it all began late one night with a six-mile run for milk and Mini Wheats – the big box.