After spending much of his lifetime on the run, running competitively in America didn’t initially interest one of Northern Arizona’s newest All-Americans.
Considering himself a soccer player, the eighth-place finisher at this year’s NCAA National Championship meet felt forced into a career he seemingly inherited upon his arrival to the country.
For Peter Lomong, the acceptance of running as a sport -- and not as a necessity -- needed to come naturally, not preordained by those who recognized his last name.
“When I came here ... my story was already written. I have always been one of those people like, I want to do what I want to do, like soccer-wise,” Peter said. “It stayed with me for years, throughout high school and when I came to college, and it was based on nothing, no hard work or anything.”
With his world-famous brother a former NCAA national champion and United States Olympian, Peter strived to make a name for himself and live life as his own person, away from the pressure-packed shadow of Lopez Lomong.
“That’s the hardest thing ever. It is so hard, it is so hard,” Peter repeated. “Everywhere you go, high school or whatever small event you are in, they say your last name and they automatically think you are a big star. People created who I am in a way, they just assume things. I played that character pretty well, but I did not perform results-wise with what people assumed.”
Arriving from a life migrating across South Sudan and Kenya, Peter ended up enrolled at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, where he completed his tenure as an all-state runner along with his brother Alex, who now runs for Ohio State.
While Peter now says he believes anything is possible and he has high ambitions for the sport he fell in love with, he felt compelled to run when he first moved to the United States in 2009.
“Who would I be if I did not have his last name?” Peter said, adding that the pressure coupled with the culture shock affected his grades, his mental health and who he was as a person. “I was in a dark place.”
THE ROAD TO FLAGSTAFF
Not too far in the past, Peter was a world away from an All-American performance at the NCAA championship. As a child, he worked in the vast openness of South Sudan, tending to a herd.
“I worked in cattle camps at 6 or 7,” he said. “Basically there are cows out in the middle of nowhere and you camp out. You go there for three or four months, you travel out and depending on the season where there's going to be water and grass for cows.”
A constant migration finally came to an end when Lopez made contact with his long-lost family, bringing him to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia in 2009 and into the care of Winston Brown and his family.
“I escaped death, because that’s something that was commonly happening all the time,” Peter said. “We have a Civil War. You are in a Civil War. You witness kids getting their throat cut off just because they don't want them to scream. So I think for me, I escaped death, I would say -- that's my story.”
While the stakes came down once in America, it would not be a simple transition for Peter, who said he spoke barely any English and had never attended school before ending up in a military academy. Lopez’s appearance on HBO’s Real Sports led to Peter and Alex finding a home in Virginia as they became acclimated to their surroundings.
Comparing it to sleepwalking through life, Peter repeatedly compared his early life in America to playing a character, pigeonholed into a sport with sky-high expectations.
While his achievements landed him at Northern Arizona, a place he elected to go to because of its rich running tradition, Peter’s first two years with the Lumberjacks looked the part of a useful runner for roster depth as opposed to an All-American and member of a national championship team coming off its second consecutive title performance.
Primarily running the 800 meters on the track while running on the cross country team, Peter earned a silver medal at the indoor meet in 2016 as a part of the distance medley team and competed at the conference meets as a sophomore in 2017.
Beginning to extend his endurance to the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters, Peter ran the races at the 2017 Big Sky Conference Outdoor Championships and had a seventh-place finish in the former and a 14th-place finish in the latter. Each result beat out his 23rd-place finish in the 800-meter preliminaries.
“I don’t think he was ever a middle-distance runner, I just think he had success in those events and probably from his background and training volume standpoint, wasn't doing enough running to be a distance runner,” said Michael Smith, Lumberjacks director of cross country and track and field. “So he gets here with this idea that ‘I am an 800 guy.’ I don’t know who told him that, but I don’t think that was ever really the case. It just took a little while to do the training.”
Adding how challenging it is to truly develop a distance runner, Smith said Peter likely ended up misassigned in events due to his desire to focus on soccer in high school as well as his lack of running history, as his first experience with school and sports came in 2009 at the age of 13.
Working through the extended process of developing a raw runner into an All-American distance athlete, complicated by the challenges of training at elevation, Smith said he could see the natural capabilities Peter held. Sending him into training groups with Matt Baxter and Tyler Day, the team’s top 10,000-meter runners and two of the best in the nation, Smith promised his young runner the results would come as he stayed closer and closer to the team’s best.
“You wouldn't have picked his capabilities for eighth a year ago, but you would have to know what we were working on in training to actually see,” Smith said. “We weren’t going to be able to predict what he was capable of until that training caught up with him.”
Smith added Peter eventually reached the point where he was completing all of the workouts alongside the team’s best, but had not had the opportunity to show it in competition. After winning the season’s first meet, Northern Arizona’s own George Kyte Classic, Peter went on to a 10th-place finish at Louisville, 43rd in the Nuttycombe Classic in Wisconsin and an 11th-place result at the NCAA Mountain Regional.
While the early races were mostly around 8K, with Peter tiring out near the end of them, Smith said it finally all came together on the most important day of the year, when Peter ran with the nation’s best in a 10K.
Running within a program as esteemed as Northern Arizona, Peter joined a group of just nine other runners to finish in the top eight at the NCAA championships. Among the group are Olympians David McNeill, Diego Estrada, Jordan Chipangama and Peter's brother Lopez, as well as current and former teammates Baxter, Day and Futsum Zienasellassie.
WORKING TO THE TOP
Peter continually credited Smith with being the key force to his success, as much mentally as physically.
“I feel like you owe everything to the people that woke you up,” Peter said. “When he came, he made me realize I didn't know anything and made me rethink my potential. He said you are the most powerful person. He saw that -- maybe that was some kind of psychology to get me going, but I felt like he saw me for me. We just linked and I am so lucky to have him.”
Striving to re-work running in Peter’s eyes, Smith said he understood the impossible position his runner was put in and could relate, likening it to wanting to read a book in school as opposed to being told to do so.
“My work was how do I make this running his, not this thing that he thinks he is destined to do and has to do,” Smith said. “You have that with a lot of siblings of great athletes. Him really owning that training this summer, I think that was really part of it.”
Adding he trusted his instincts, Smith decided to put Peter through a challenge three weeks ahead of the national meet, one that ultimately proved the runner’s complete trust in his coach.
With 100 miles assigned for training during the week of the Big Sky Conference meet, Peter remained home, while the rest of his team fought to win a trophy in Ogden, Utah. Unsure of the total at first, Peter double-checked with Smith before embarking on the runs, alone.
“I am most proud of him being courageous enough to take a chance on himself, to risk it for himself, and to bet on himself,” said Smith, who also praised Peter’s work during the summer leading into the year. “A lot of people will bet on themselves when they are certain of the outcome. We were asking him to do stuff he had never done, and alone.”
After running 10 miles at a 5:15 per mile pace Friday in Flagstaff, Peter continued the workout the same day his team captured another Big Sky Conference title. Saying his connection to the team drove him to fight through the challenge ahead, Peter pushed through another 20-mile run Saturday.
“Basically, I was in a competition with them. So I was like if I do well here, the boys are going to do well too. I want to hurt just like they are going to hurt too,” said Peter, who echoed the connection the team has to one another. “If you go through pain with people, that builds up something. You can have this union with each other, we might not meet up all the time each week, but when it is time for practice, it is a serious time.”
Fast forward three weeks from his solo run at Buffalo Park, and Peter found himself alongside an NCAA 5K champion while looking to aid his team in repeating as the national champs.
Smith admitted the typical progression is a roughly a top-40 finish one year, with a top-20 the next before challenging for the top-10. Breaking the norm, Peter moved up from not even running the NCAA meet a year ago, to a top-50 finish at one of the toughest regular-season meets of the year, to eighth in the nation, still leaving Smith in disbelief two weeks after the fact.
Peter admitted the plan for the team was for him to run together near Cory Glines and Luis Grijalva, with Andy Trouard around the top 20. Instead, he ran hard early on and resided near the lead pack for essentially the extent of the race, finishing just 20 seconds outside of the fifth-place finisher, Stanford’s Grant Fisher, the NCAA Outdoor 5K champion in 2016-17.
“He is just like, 'He was breathing hard and I wasn’t,'” Smith said of Peter and Fisher. “You have to believe you can do it. The real story behind it is I can physically prepare someone, but they still have to do it. You are asking someone to believe that with zero evidence of that and he believed it. That's the key right there.”
While Smith credits the success to Peter, the runner returns the merit to his coach.
“I feel like I am one of those people that sets expectations for himself. If it wasn't for Smith, I would have finished 30th or 40th,” Peter said. “But he made me believe in myself in a way that I could finish top 10 or I could win. He just gave me so much power, in a way to look more to myself, to ignore the critics -- none of that is real.”
Greeted by his teammates Day and Baxter at the finish line, with the duo taking second and third, Peter soon found Smith and eventually Lopez, who cheered on his brother’s performance in Louisville.
Peter said he cried with them all as he reflected on the journey, one that did not just begin 10K prior to the finish line, but years prior as he ended up halfway around the world from his birthplace.
“I am here and I can do this,” Peter said. “All the hard work that I did is paying off and it is worth it.”