The Army Private is on the short list of “A” standard qualifiers in the men’s 10,000 meters.
Joseph Chirlee is a man shaped by time.
On May 30, Chirlee ran 10,000 meters in 27 minutes, 43.96 seconds on a track in Wageningen, a historic town in the central Netherlands. It was more than a 30-second personal best, dipping under the Olympic “A” standard of 27:45.00. Instantly, he moved from marathon dropout to short-lister for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team at 10,000 meters.
“This has been my dream to try to make the Olympics for the U.S. To be one of the contenders is even making me happy,“ says Chirlee, who has the eighth fastest qualifying time heading into Friday night’s 10,000 meter final at the U.S. Olympic Trials held at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field.
But performance times are composed second by second from everything else leading to them, and for Chirlee, a 32-year-old Specialist in the U.S. Army, it’s the times before his 10,000-meter best that have shaped the position he will find himself in tomorrow night when 24 men contend for three spots on the team that will represent the United States in London later this summer.
In August of 2006, Chirlee immigrated to the United States from his native Eldoret, Kenya. He settled in Georgia, and for those four years he lived, worked and raced on the roads. It was during this time that he set many of his personal bests: 2:12:10 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon in 2007; 62:18 at the Philadelphia Distance Run, since renamed the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon.
Chirlee enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 2010 and became a citizen three months later. “I decided to serve because of the way [the U.S.] helped me. Let me give back by serving the country,” he says.
Chirlee was selected to be part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) with the goal of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Marathon team at the Trials race this past January in Houston. It wasn’t to be, however, as Ryan Hall, the fastest American ever over 26.2 miles, took the race out on a suicide pace with six men in tow, of which only three survived. In the time of 38 minutes and 25 seconds—the lead pack’s split through 8 miles—Chirlee raced. Then, in the ninth mile—for Chirlee, 5 minutes, 10 seconds—he twisted his ankle. Chirlee slowed down, but after 21 miles, with the seconds piling up, he dropped out.
In the two months following the Trials, with his Olympic hopes seemingly dashed, Chirlee returned to military and was nearly deployed to Afghanistan.
“I didn’t know what to do next,” says Chirlee, who hadn’t raced a track 10K in six years, and had not even broken 29 minutes for the distance. “The 10K wasn’t in my mind since I haven’t done the 10K in the U.S.”
Chirlee made a final appeal to the WCAP Commanding Officer: Let me train for the track trials, and if I fail, I will return to military life.
The Army accepted his appeal, and Chirlee bought a pair of spikes. That was in March. Chirlee went on to recruit Scott Simmons, coach of the American Distance Project in Colorado Springs, Colo., to guide his buildup toward the Olympic Track & Field Trials.
“He was erratic in training,” Simmons said. “He needed structure and discipline. He needed a focus.”
Any time Chirlee would offer a compromise to a challenging workout proposed by Simmons, the coach would tell him to just give it a try.
“And if he tried, he found out he could do it,” Simmons says. “His feelings are important, but may not always be right. It was what he wanted to do versus what he needed to do.”
Chirlee’s first race was at the Stanford Invite on April 6, where he finished an inconspicuous fifth in the 10,000 meters, running 28:32.41. The race was a signifcant step forward for Chirlee.
“It was my first motivation that made me to think, OK, I can run under 29. It gave me the motivation to go for under 28,” he says. He returned to Stanford for the Payton Jordan Invitational a few weeks later on April 29, where, despite being relegated to the slower Section 2, he ran 28:16.36.
Chirlee began to believe, and Simmons observed a different change. “His mechanics cleaned up a lot. He’s become more of an athlete than he was in the fall.”
After Stanford, the hope was for Chirlee to compete in a stacked 10,000-meter race in Hengelo on May 27, but the race was full. Three days later, Chirlee made his mark in nearby Wageningen, where Chirlee kicked in the final 100 meters to sneak under the Olympic “A” standard by 1.04 seconds.
It wasn’t just that race, however, but a full 32 years that have lead Chirlee to the starting line of the 10,000-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Trials. As a schoolchild in Kenya, he remembers singing about the legendary Kenyan runners, Kip Keino, Richard Chelimo and Moses Kiptanui.
“They are the legends that made me to be motivated about running. And I ended up loving running so much. I [said] one time, maybe I would want to be one of these guys,” Chirlee says. “I’m thinking I still have time.”