On Saturday in Arizona, the top high school cross-country runners in the Southwest will compete in this year’s regional championships.
Representing Colorado is the younger half of a brother act of first generation immigrants who have caught the eye of the state’s athletic community.
On a crisp day in Denver’s Cheesman Park, Cerake Geberkidane started his workout.
The man with the stopwatch is Steve Kohuth, the track coach at Denver’s East High School.
“Alright, runner, set? Go! Nice and smooth Cerake, nice and smooth,” he shouted.
Tall and thin, with a shock of wavy hair poking out over a neon yellow headband, Cerake breezes by casual joggers like a Porsche passing pickup trucks on the freeway.
“Punch it!” Kohuth yelled.
“Cerake is so fast,” the coach told this onlooker. “It’s just amazing to watch”
The East High senior dominates Colorado high school cross country this fall. A turning point came after last year’s state championship.
“I really wanted to redeem myself from last year’s performance,” Cerake admits.
In that race, he ran raced shoulder to shoulder with his older brother Ashi, who was a senior at East at the time.
“I really wanted to do 1-2 with my brother, because I don’t think anyone ran with a brother and placed one-two in state, so i wanted to be the first,” Cerake said.
But it didn’t turn out that way. Ashi did take the title, but Cerake came up short. He finished third.
Ashi has since graduated and moved on to Harvard where he’s playing soccer and may run track. He says last year’s state championship was a big disappointment to Cerake.
“Well to me, that really hurt him really bad not coming in second or even first last year,” Ahsi said. “So, I can imagine how hard he’s training now.”
Sports were big at home when the boys were growing up. Their parents emigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Ethiopia and settled in Denver, where their father played semi-pro soccer. Cerake also recalls his dad, a construction worker, intensely watching the Olympics.
“He would get really excited and then I would get excited and then I’d try to run in place, acting like I’m running with them,” Cerake remembered.
They were rooting for Ethiopia’s distance runners, especially the great Haile Gebrselassie.
Steve Kohuth, who’s coached Cerake and Ashi, says the brothers are proud of their heritage, but they are also proud Colorado natives.
“I think because of their names, because of their talent, because of what they’re able to do, I think a lot of people think they’re from Africa,” Kohuth said. “I think part of it has been almost a frustration though because Cerake and Ashi were born here in Denver.”
He says their brotherly bond seems to push them to do better.
“Maybe there’s some sibling rivalry there,” Kohuth opines. “Ashi is so successful and doing all these great things, so Cerake is going to show him 'I can do it too.'”
The competition doesn’t get in the way of their love for each other though.
“I’m so happy of what he had accomplished,” Cerake said. “I just want to follow his footsteps in that.”
Cerake says he’s been working harder than ever after losing to Ashi last year.
In one race this fall, he ran one of the fastest times in the nation, just off the all-time Colorado record set in 1993.
And in this year’s state championship, Cerake Geberkidane of Denver East High set a new course record.
Cerake did follow in his brother’s footsteps for a second-straight Geberkindane title.
Ashi says he’s proud of his little brother.
“It’s a great accomplishment by him,” Ahsi said. “It’s great to keep that in the family name and keep it going.”
But their competition lives on.
Asked who would win a race between the two of them today, each brother is convinced he is the fastest.