Kenyan runner trail-blazing with Vols

Barefoot days back home lead to collegiate career

If Peter Sigilai happened to chuckle a little bit as his feet struck the ground, you could certainly understand it.

Sigilai, the first Kenyan to run cross country at Tennessee, also is the first member of his family to attend college. And he got here the same way he got to school every day in his hometown of Longisa - by putting one foot in front of the other.

Growing up, Sigilai was subconsciously training. If he wanted to get somewhere, running was almost always the best way to get there.

He and his classmates ran between five and seven miles to school. They ran home for lunch. They ran back for afternoon classes. And they ran back home at the end of the day.

"We were kind of training without knowing," Sigilai says. "We had to wake up in the morning, and we had to run to school. We don't have cars. We don't have shoes, mostly, when we are young."

Oh yeah. Sigilai ran barefoot.

"When we were young, running from home to school, we were running barefoot," said Sigilai, a junior. "We weren't thinking, 'We don't have shoes on' because it was something common."

There's not a lot common about Sigilai, whose journey to Tennessee began with a two-year stop at Rend Lake College. Several runners from Kenya, a country known for producing world-class distance runners, have landed at the two-year school in Ina, Ill.

That's where Tennessee cross country coach George Watts went looking for talent when he decided to add international runners this season. Three Kenyan runners visited Tennessee, one of whom opted for Auburn and another decided to turn pro.

But Sigilai was still interested in the Vols, and Watts changed his pitch. He sold Sigilai on Tennessee by telling him he could open the door for other Kenyans and African runners.

"He was going to be the trailblazer here," Watts said. "It's more comfortable, obviously, when another teammate comes with them. There was a hope of doing that, but when I realized he was going to be the lone guy, I just said you've got to come in here and think of it as being the trailblazer. The guy who's going to open the door for other potential guys from your country or (other) African kids.

"I think he liked that idea."

Sigilai also is a trailblazer in his family. Of his six siblings, he's the first to attend college. Most people in Sigilai's hometown make their living growing sweet corn and tea, and Sigilai said higher education is largely viewed as an expensive luxury.

When he first raised the idea of attending college with his family, his brothers didn't exactly understand why he needed to go.

"My brothers were objecting very much," he said. "They couldn't believe it. They were like, 'You just need some money to waste?'

"The universities are very scarce. We have like three major universities (in Kenya). It's very competitive. There are other small colleges. Still, you have to pay. It's something uncommon if you went to a university. It's something great. Not everybody can achieve it. It's not easy."

Neither was the training to get here. Just running through Longisa was tough enough.

"Where I live, people are sometimes scared when they see you running," he said. "They don't know much about running. They're like, 'What's going on? Why are you running like that?' Some people were scared, like 'Is there something chasing you? Are you running for safety?' Sometimes I could be running, and they'd be like 'Is this person mad?'

"People expect you to shake hands. And obviously you can't do that while you're running. It was kind of weird. Then you don't get better when you're training alone, most of the time."

So Sigilai began training with other runners in a nearby town, which is eventually how he wound up at Rend Lake.

That transition wasn't easy, either. The first member of his family to travel to the United States, he was a stranger to the pace of American life. He was taken aback by the food and the technology. Basic infrastructure, like a network of paved roads and sidewalks, are uncommon outside of Kenya's capital city, Nairobi, Sigilai said.

Even the running hasn't been effortless.

In both his seasons at Rend Lake, Sigilai suffered injuries in mid-October. Those injuries, which Sigilai attributes to running on concrete, aren't uncommon for Kenyans who come to America, he said. As a result, Sigilai often trains on the crushed gravel trail on Cherokee Boulevard in Knoxville or on grass trails alongside the Tennessee River.

"With the exception of a little bit of soreness here and there, he hasn't had the injury problem," Watts said. "We're fortunate about that."

They've also been fortunate to have Sigilai on the team this fall. He has set the tone for UT in two of his four races and finished 22nd at the SEC championship. He's pushed Michael Spooner, an All-SEC performer last year, and the two have worked well together this season.

Today, they'll lead Tennessee into the NCAA South Regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and possibly the NCAA championships on Nov. 23.

And in the spring, Sigilai will run middle distances for the track team as well, the kind of versatility that led Watts to offer a scholarship in the first place.

"I just want to get my degree," Sigilai said. "If I go back home, I'll be able to help people. I want to run. I want to make this a career at some point."

He's already making his presence felt here. He's turned on a few of his teammates to his favorite kind of tea from Kenya. And his sense of humor has helped make the transition to Tennessee a little easier, too.

"He's fit in well with the guys, but I think he's also been able to find his place without having to change his eating habits or his culture that much," Watts said. "The guys like him a lot. His sense of humor's coming out. He's really a pretty funny guy. He'll say something, and we're all like, 'That's really pretty funny, Peter.'

"He's got a sense of humor, and I think that relaxes him. He's relaxed around the guys to where he could come out and have fun and bust on a guy every once in a while. He's fit in pretty quickly."

Even standing out has helped him fit in.

Back in August, the team went up for a pretty tough 11-mile training run at "The Loop" in Cades Cove. Sigilai, wary of running on the paved trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park because of his injury history, stayed on the soft shoulder whenever possible. As a result, he fell behind the pack and missed a turn.

When the team finished, Sigilai was nowhere to be found. Turns out even a trailblazer like Sigilai can get turned around from time-to-time.

David Clabo, a junior from nearby Gatlinburg, joked that Sigilai might just wind up in North Carolina. Eventually, an embarrassed Sigilai found his teammates, but only after running an extra 18 miles.

"He really felt bad. He was actually embarrassed he had gotten lost and been out there for so long," Watts said. "The next week we went back up there, he made sure to run a little harder."

No word on whether he was grinning.

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