UP Kenyan runner Kiprono finding his way on the Bluff
One of the fastest runners on the University of Portland men's track team had never used a treadmill until about a month ago.
Growing up in the sweltering heat of the highlands of Marakwet, Kenya, running in warm weather was all freshman Reuben Kiprono knew. He would dash five miles to his high school everyday to avoid the consequences of tardiness — getting locked out or weeding flowerbeds.
But when Kiprono got on a treadmill in the Beauchamp Recreation and Wellness Center for the first time during one of the recent snow days, it was a foreign concept to him. He was terrified. He started off at a slow pace of four miles per hour, gripping onto the side railings and gradually increasing his speed.
The next day, Kiprono hit the maximum of 12.5 mph. One of the Beauchamp staff members had to tell him to slow down.
“I was running so fast that the treadmill was making a lot of noise,” Kiprono said.
The treadmill is just one of the countless things Kiprono has had to adapt to at UP. But as his comfort on The Bluff has grown, he slowly finds himself getting used to the treadmill— and a new culture.
Moving about 9,141 miles away from his hometown was a tough decision for Kiprono. As he adjusts to this new lifestyle, Kiprono hopes to become the best runner on the UP men’s track team one day. Head coach Rob Conner considers the team lucky to have Kiprono.
“It’s kind of a miracle, really, to say that he is with us,” Conner said.
Kiprono’s interest in running grew during his high school years. But it was not until he joined a summer training camp a few years later in Kaptagat, Kenya that Kiprono found it more than an interest. Prior to joining the camp, Kiprono never had the training that the other student athletes in the camp received. So as he pushed himself more and more, a commitment to running became a passion.
Coincidentally, former Pilots star-athlete and UP alumnus Woody Kincaid (‘16) spent a summer in Africa training and happened to meet Kiprono. Kincaid called Kiprono a “tough runner” and a “smart, ambitious guy.”
“I wasn’t there to recruit anyone; I was traveling through (Reuben’s) town and I happened to run with him,” Kincaid said.
Kincaid sent an email to Conner informing him about Kiprono. Conner was interested in Kiprono and immediately told him the procedures he’d have to take to get a student visa and to apply to the university. Nonetheless, the process was not so easy.
After two tries at a student visa—he was denied the first time— Kiprono was set to embark on a new journey to the United States. But leaving Kenya was not easy either: he had to leave his family and change his entire way of living.
Kiprono’s parents did not want him to come to the U.S. because they were concerned about the language barrier, food and even the weather. Swahili and a local Kenyan language called Kalenjin was all he knew.
“I never spoke English before (coming to UP) ,” Kiprono said.
And although Kiprono has been in Portland for a little over a year, food is still a complication in his daily life. There’s no Kenyan cuisine on campus to satisfy his taste buds. Back home, his mother and sisters usually make the food; cooking is typically reserved for women in Kenyan culture.
“During my first time (on my own), it was hard,” Kiprono said. “I was eating chicken and rice that I cooked on my own.”
One accommodation that the university suggested is having him choose the ingredients he wants from The Commons by asking one of the workers. This way, he could take them back to his apartment in Haggerty-Tyson to cook. But finding the time to do so was difficult with a full practice and class load.
And weather poses another problem. He learned to use the treadmill because it’s tough for him to run outside in the winter—he flourished last summer: The warm weather reminded him of home, which helped with his training.
Kiprono describes his move to the U.S. as a “total culture shock”. He was already shy and reserved before coming to Portland. Whenever he hangs out with friends or teammates at UP, he usually stays silent in conversations. He feels the stress and pressure of being away from Kenya, too, and misses his family.
“I felt isolated because I barely understand the topic and also kind of stressed because I am away from home,” Kiprono said.
Although it has been a difficult yet eventful ride, Kiprono is motivated and devoted to finishing his studies. He came to UP undeclared and is now looking into declaring sociology with a focus in criminology, in hopes of one day becoming a police officer to make his family proud.
So Kiprono aims to keep dashing along the Bluff, regardless of how bumpy the road ahead is.
He’s letting go of the side rails, one-by-one, and sprinting full speed ahead.