In Year 1, NCAA Berth for Richy Bikko

By Mark Selig, Daily News-Record

EMU's Richy Bikko stretches before cross country practice
EMU’s Richy Bikko stretches before cross country practice MonEMU’s Richy Bikko stretches before cross country practiceday. (Photo by Nikki Fox)

Richy Bikko’s mind and body were arguing with one another, and the body was making a compelling case. It wanted to stop. It had been programmed to run for only 400 meters – 800 maximum – at a time. To finish this race, it would have to cover 10 times that distance, and it said there’s just no way a kid with no cross-country background could complete such a task.

But Bikko’s mind had a retort, one that began to sway the Eastern Mennonite University star. He thought about his family, God, everybody back in his native Kenya, as well as himself and “all the glory in life.”

Advantage: mind.

In Bikko’s first race as a member of the EMU cross-country squad in September, he beat all his teammates and finished the five miles in 27 minutes, 52.40 seconds – good for only 59th place among 85 runners at the James Madison University Invitational, but a harbinger of better things to come.

The 5-foot-7 Bikko’s mindset, along with a ninth-place finish at the Division III South/Southeast regionals last weekend in Greensboro, N.C. (27:25), has helped him earn a spot at the NCAA’s D-III championships in Cleveland on Saturday.

EMU student-athlete Richy Bikko continues to impress in his first cross country season
Richy Bikko continues to impress in his first cross country season.

Bikko, a junior rookie, is the first Royals runner since Andrew Jenner in 2000 to reach the national meet.

“It’s pretty phenomenal and rare any time you get somebody running cross-country for a first time to be able to make it to nationals,” Matt Dougherty, head coach, said Monday.

Initially trying to prepare for soccer season, Bikko became an indoor track star during his senior year at Harrisonburg High School, and then he flourished in outdoor track shortly thereafter.

During his first two years at EMU, Bikko ran the 400-meter and 800-meter races during track season but chose to lift weights in his own time while some of his teammates did cross country in the fall.

A new voice, however, encouraged the sinewy Kenyan to run long-distance. A graduate of Houghton College in New York, Dougherty joined the Royals this year, replacing both the school’s cross-country and track and field coaches, and immediately supplied motivation.

“He said from the recent [track] people he coached, they’ve done cross-country and their times have really dropped,” Bikko said of his new coach’s advice. “That convinced me.”

Just like when Bikko did track to prepare for soccer back in high school, he became a cross-country star while merely trying to train for track.

Bikko placed 16th in his second-ever cross-country race, and then he won the third – the Royals Invitational on Oct. 3 – by a whopping 1 minute and 49 seconds.

“It’s been a really big surprise,” Bikko said. “I actually didn’t expect to get this far. I just did cross-country to improve myself for track.”

He kept improving, and in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championships on Halloween, Bikko finished in second place, behind only perennial small-college All-American Ricky Flynn of Lynchburg.

Everyone involved with EMU running is surprised by Bikko’s instantaneous success, even though he had been so productive in track. But Bikko’s ability to drown out pain and soreness has allowed him to rely on his natural athletic gifts and transition to the more cerebral event.

cross-country teammate Cody Stutzman
Bikko’s cross-country teammate Cody Stutzman says, “Your mind has to say no to your body and push it beyond where it wants to be pushed. Richy definitely has the mental capacity to push himself.”

“It’s just as much of a mental sport as it is physical because you constantly have to be pushing forward and pushing your body forward to new levels,” track and cross-country teammate Cody Stutzman said. “It takes a lot of pain. Your mind has to say no to your body and push it beyond where it wants to be pushed. Richy definitely has the mental capacity to push himself.”

Bikko has embraced the fact that there are sacrifices he must make in order to become and stay a good athlete. When considering cross-country he was concerned about sacrificing what little free time he had left after classes, homework and his job working in the school’s cafeteria. Then he thought about how much faster he could become.

The optimistic runner has had to refrain from eating such favorite guilty pleasures as french fries and ice cream but notes that his body has been demanding less and less junk food as he cuts it out of his diet.

Bikko has a simple way of rationalizing. If he’s thirsty in a race, he tells himself that the quickest way to hydrate is to finish the race already.

It’s that type of mentality that has made him a star.

“I don’t think there’s any other way – if he didn’t have that positive mindset – in your first year, you wouldn’t go so far,” Dougherty said. “In the race on Saturday, it was faster than he had ever gone out in a race, feeling anaerobic, kind of like, ‘I’m not going to be able to hold this.’ The thought crossed his mind, but he’s able to turn it around right away, refocus on a task, like ‘No problem, I’ve got this. I’m going to recover.’

“And he did.”