Jayhawk Insider: Sharon Lokedi’s wild Friday
On Friday, February 8, Kansas track & field senior Sharon Lokedi woke up with a big weekend ahead of her. The Eldoret, Kenya native was scheduled to hop on a Flight to New York on Friday afternoon and run in the 3,000 meters at the historic New Balance Track & Field Center at The Armory in the NYRR Millrose Games on Saturday.
Knowing this, Lokedi went for a five-mile base run in the morning to get her legs loosened up before hopping on a plane. After her run, the senior packed her bags and met Kansas track & field director of operations Rose Richmond to head to the Kansas City International Airport. When she met up with Richmond, the director of ops was on the phone, so Lokedi tossed her bags in the car, hopped in the front seat and off they went.
But before they could make it to the airport, Richmond got off her phone and had some bad news for Lokedi. Their flight to the Big Apple had been canceled.
“I got a call from a 1-800 number before Sharon got in the car that said the flight had been canceled,” Richmond said. “As soon as I got that call, I got on the phone with Anthony Travel (Kansas Athletics’ in-house travel agency) and started trying to figure out plan B and see what other options were out there, to see if another airline could get us there and just try to figure out what was going on.”
What was going on was mother nature decided to do what she does best. Gale force winds caused the cancelation of the flight and had delayed and canceled many other flights across the country on Friday, but Lokedi and Richmond were unaware of that at the time.
“When Rose told me the flight was canceled, I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s fine, maybe they will be able to find us another one,'” Lokedi recalled. “I was thinking that the weather was fine in Kansas and so we just continued driving to the airport and didn’t know what was going on for like 30 minutes.”
Richmond and Anthony Travel found a flight to New York, but it had become delayed and the idea of making it to the prestigious Millrose Games was becoming a little less realistic with every tick of the clock.
“Around that time is when Coach (Stanley) Redwine called and we started trying to figure out if it was worth the risk of waiting around to see if we could find a flight, and if it was going to get us there in enough time for her to be ready to run on Saturday,” Richmond said. “We started coming up with some other plans, and found some other flights, but we just weren’t sure that they weren’t going to get delay or even canceled too.”
Redwine was calling Richmond from Ames, Iowa, as he and distance coach Michael Whittlesey were with the KU middle distance and distance runners at the ISU Classic. The two coaches discussed their options and tried to decide what was best for Lokedi. The whole reason the senior was heading to the Millrose Games was to get an NCAA-qualifying time in the 3,000 meters, which she was almost guaranteed to do if everything went according to plan.
All the while, Whittlesey was on the phone with Lokedi, trying to get a gauge for what kind of mindset his star runner was in with all of the adversity hitting so quickly.
“We were driving around the airport and Rose was on the phone and Coach (Whittlesey) was talking to me on the phone,” Lokedi said. “He kept asking me ‘So, where’s your mind at right now,’ and I was just so confused and didn’t know what he meant and then he said ‘Do you think you can run today? Where is your mind at from a competition standpoint right now?’ and at that point I had only been thinking about the race in New York, so when he asked that I just told him I was ready to race tomorrow. But then he asked, ‘Well, where is your mind at as far as racing today?’ and I just was like ‘What?!'”
Obviously, things had not gone according to plan up to this point, so the coaches made a decision, one that needed to be made quickly as time was running out on the second option—the option that didn’t include Lokedi running in the Millrose Games.
“We definitely talked to the travel agents and tried find a different flight, a different airline, a different anything that would get her into the vicinity, but the winds were just so bad and some airlines were delaying flights, others were canceling, so we just had to make a decision,” Redwine said. “She hadn’t had the opportunity to race a 3K this season, and she needed that opportunity to race, so rather than sitting at the airport and possibly getting a late flight then not getting into her hotel until late at night, or not event getting to race at all, we had to go with the second option.”
That option was to have Richmond drive Lokedi to Ames and get her entered to race Friday night in the 3,000 meters at the ISU Classic—the same meet she had broken the school record in the same event a year prior. So the decision was made, and Richmond quit circling the airport, re-routed her GPS and set off with Lokedi for Ames, three-and-a-half hours away.
“We knew we had to get a race in with her,” Whittlesey said. “And we knew for sure that Iowa State would work and that she could get there in time, and we didn’t want to risk not having any 3K time whatsoever. Obviously, yes, the goal was for her to get a qualifying time to get into nationals, but she also didn’t have a time to get her into the fast section at conference if she didn’t run at all. We knew that the rabbit was still set to set things up for the 3K race and there was a good field, and even though it wasn’t an ideal situation for her, in terms of what she had done before, training-wise, on Friday morning, and having to sit in the car for so long before running, we just couldn’t risk her not having a race at all that weekend.”
So with the GPS set, Richmond and Lokedi stopped at a gas station to get some fluids to hydrate her for her race that night. Lokedi settled in the backseat of the car, put on some NormaTec boots to try to recirculate the blood in her legs and tried to get some rest, but the morning’s events should have been an indicator for how the ride to Ames would go.
“I turned on the boots, and they were ok, but I was just so crammed in the back of the car,” Lokedi said. “The boots just kept quitting, because there wasn’t enough room for them to work. They would work for two minutes, then they would stop. And then the battery was low, so then it was like, ‘What’s the point?’ I kind of tried to get comfortable and I eventually fell asleep for a little while. Somewhere along the way I remember there being an accident that slowed down traffic and took us around 20 minutes to get through. So we are just getting closer and closer to me having to race and we still aren’t there.”
Finally, Lokedi and Richmond arrived at the team hotel in Ames, and coach Redwine had worked out getting a couple of extra rooms with the hotel staff since the pair were not originally scheduled to be with the team. Lokedi settled into her room and had approximately 30 minutes before she was going to head to the track to try to prepare for the 7:20 p.m. invitational section 3,000-meter run.
“I got to my room, set my stuff down and tried to get ready for the race,” Lokedi said. “Eventually, we went to the track and I started talking to Coach Whit for the first time since talking to him on the phone near the airport. He was talking to me trying to prepare me for the race, but I couldn’t focus on what he was saying. There was so much going on that I could see him but couldn’t hear what he was saying and I was just getting emotional because of everything.”
But if anyone could go from running five miles on Friday morning, to getting a plane ride canceled, then driving to Ames from Kansas City to run in a 3K that same night, Whittlesey knew it was Lokedi that could do it.
“Obviously she was concerned that she had done some work in the morning,” Whittlesey said. “I tried to reminded her that, ‘Hey, this is easier than running a 10K, then coming back and running a 5K, and easier than running a 5K at conference, then coming back the next day and running a 3K.'”
Both of which Lokedi has done and done successfully, including last season when she won the 5K and 3K titles at the Big 12 Indoor Championship then two weeks later became a First Team All-American in both events at the NCAA Championships. She also ran the 10K and 5K in the same weekend three times during the 2018 outdoor season, winning both conference event titles, then eventually winning the 10,000-meter national championship before earning a Second Team All-America honor in the 5,000 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
“I told her that it was obviously not what we hoped for,” Whittlesey said. “But a race is a race, and if you go in with a mindset to compete and embrace that it will be uncomfortable, you can have a great race and it may be a better race than you anticipated.”
So Lokedi tried to settle down as much as she could after her overwhelming day and she toed the line at the Lied Recreation Center, and as soon as the gun went off, she locked in.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘You’ve gone through a lot, this is the time you have to prove to yourself and believe in yourself,'” Lokedi said. “It might have been the best opportunity I would have had in New York, and I would have maybe ran faster and got a better time, but everything happens for a reason and I went to Iowa, and even though I didn’t run as fast as I would have liked, I still got a lot out of it.”
Lokedi ran a great race, and although it wasn’t the time she was hoping for, it was still a great time. She finished second in the race with a final clocking of 9:06.65, which proved to be the third-fastest time in Kansas women’s history in the event, and the first-fastest 3K ever ran by a KU women’s runner after having run a five-mile base run that morning. (This is a proven fact because Lokedi also owns the top-two fastest times in KU women’s history and confirmed neither were ran after having run a five-mile run that morning.)
“She stepped up, I thought she competed well,” Redwine said. “I don’t think there is anything that can stop her from being great. Champions find a way to compete when it is time to compete, and she is a champion. To me, if you are going dwell on the negative, then you probably aren’t going to get a positive outcome. She knew her goal, and Coach Whit did a great job of letting her know what it was and how they were going about it.”
With all of the emotions of the day, Lokedi admitted to what finally got her in a mindset to race, and it speaks perfectly to the type of person she is.
“I was upset about not getting to go to New York,” Lokedi said. “But I finally just realized, all of the coaches and my teammates were there pulling for me and I didn’t want to let them down.”
“That is where she has always been,” Whittlesey said of Lokedi’s team-first mindset. “That is one of the greatest strengths she’s always had, that she has cared more about doing it for Kansas, cared more for her teammates than for herself, and has always put her focus on the fact that she has a job to do for her team. It didn’t certify anything to me about her, because she has always been that way and she has always done that.”
While the time was No. 3 in school history, Lokedi is sitting on the bubble of qualifying for the NCAA Championships in the 3,000 meters. She currently ranks No. 15 in the NCAA and the top-16 in the nation get in. Sure, she likely would have run a better time at the Millrose Games, as nine of the 10 competitors finished in under nine minutes, but she and the coaches aren’t dwelling on that.
They are in the process of working on making sure Lokedi gets a better time at the Big 12 Indoor Championship in Lubbock, Texas, February 22-23, to help her chances of qualifying for nationals. On her final season of eligibility, Lokedi, who already holds a time in the 5,000 meters that should easily qualify her for NCAAs (she currently ranks No. 3 in the nation in that event), the senior wants to be able to add that 3,000 to her agenda in Birmingham, Alabama, giving her one final run in the Crimson and Blue.
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