SMSU CROSS COUNTRY: The running man: The journey of SMSU’s Bashir Aidrus from across the globe to the National Championships

Independent file photo SMSU’s Bashir Aidrus competes in a track and field event in an April meet. The sophomore will represent the Mustangs this weekend in Indiana as the first-ever cross country runner to qualify for the NCAA National Championships.

MARSHALL – As Tom Hanks once said in the movie “Forrest Gump”, “One day, I just felt like running.” For Bashir Aidrus, that day was March 12, 2016.

That spring day not only marked the first time Aidrus started to run competitively, but also the start of a journey that is still ongoing.

Flash forward to Nov. 4 of this year. The Southwest Minnesota State University cross country teams were competing at the NCAA Central Region Championships in Kearney, Nebraska, and Aidrus and the Mustangs were looking to earn a strong finish to their fall season.

Aidrus said his goal before the meet was to qualify for Nationals and that he was shooting for a Top 10 finish.

“The goal was to go and qualify for Nationals. We looked up to see what it would take to qualify for Nationals; either be in the Top 5 which would be a guaranteed spot or the Top 2 individuals of a non-qualifying team,” Aidrus said. “The race started, the gun went off, it went great and it was fun. I ended up being second instead of in the Top 10 like we were shooting for.”

Heading into the final stretch, Aidrus said coach Dan Allen was telling him that once he reached the 9,000-meter mark of the 10,000-meter race, he should kick it into high gear because it was in third place.

“It was right after the 8K mark where Dan said, ‘Alright, that’s 8K. You have 2K left. Just relax that first 1K and once you get to 9K, I want you to drop the hammer,'” Aidrus said. “I looked behind me around the 9K mark and I saw a few guys from Augustana were coming. I didn’t want to be outkicked, so I thought, ‘This is my time to go.’ I ended up outkicking one guy who was ahead of me because at that time I was third.”

When he crossed the finish line, Aidrus was excited to see his name in second place.

“It was exciting; I was very happy,” Aidrus said. “I had not imagined being second, and I can’t explain that feeling. It’s just amazing.”

With his second-place finish of a time of 31:38, Aidrus became the first-ever runner from SMSU to qualify for the NCAA Division II Men’s Cross Country Championships. He is the fourth runner in program history to be a national qualifier, with the other three (Rick Lee in 1973, Mike Harland in 1977 and Harvey Reckard in 1983) reaching the NAIA National Championships.

Before he would start his career with the Mustangs, Aidrus’ journey would begin on the other side of the world. Originally born in Somalia, Aidrus and his family moved to Uganda when he was about 11 or 12. It was there where Aidrus would attend boarding school. He said he and his friends would run for fun between the school and town, but spent most of his time playing soccer.

“We used to run just for fun because I was in a boarding school, so to get out of that boarding school we would run every Sunday, but that was just for fun,” Aidrus said. “We would just go into town and run or walk around, and then run back to school, but that was about it. I mostly played soccer. When it came to competitive running, I started in March of 2016 and that’s when I decided to run.”

After graduating from Nyamitanga Secondary School in Uganda in 2013, Aidrus and his family decided to move to America. They were settled in Waite Park just outside St. Cloud.

“It just randomly happened,” Aidrus said of their move. “They just dropped us here and told us we were going to St. Cloud and just settled us at Waite Park.”

Aidrus would then enroll at St. Cloud State University, where he was set to run for the Huskies’ cross country team. But when SCSU cut its program on March 2, 2016, Aidrus was forced to rethink his options. That’s when Allen gave him a call.

“By the time Dan was calling me, I was already going to SCSU for a few semesters and had started running. The same semester I started running was the same time they cut their program, so it was like a bad coincidence,” Aidrus said. “I was in a running club and I would just do things like road races, but when Dan called me, I was very excited because I always had wanted to be part of a big team. I came in for a visit a few days later and I was just so happy to be a part of the team and now here I am.”

Allen said one of his former teammates told him about Aidrus, and added that he was impressed with his passion to run at the collegiate level.

“One of my college teammates worked at this running shop and there was this group called the St. Cloud River Runners who would come in. One day, Bashir just showed up and this was after St. Cloud had cut its cross country program, so he didn’t really get a shot to run with them,” Allen said. “They called me and asked if I was interested in taking a look at him. He really bought into my vision as an athlete and was looking to run at the college level. It was kind of the perfect situation.”

When Aidrus went down that summer to visit SMSU, he was more excited to possibly have an opportunity to run on a collegiate team than anything. After finding out they had a computer science program, he was locked in.

“When I came to SMSU, it was over the summer and no one was here. I didn’t think much about the community or anything like that, I was just excited to come run,” Aidrus said. “When I came here and saw they had a computer science program, there wasn’t anything I wasn’t happy about. And I loved the big buildings so you don’t have to go outside in the winter, that’s a big plus.”

Aidrus’ career at SMSU didn’t get started right away; he wasn’t cleared by the NCAA until a week before the NSIC Championships in October of 2016. He would only run two races that year, finishing 59th at the conference championships before placing 106th at the Central Region Championships.

Aidrus said he had to learn how the sport of cross country worked in those two races and was forced to adapt quickly. In the offseason, Aidrus would suffer an injury that set him back throughout most of the summer.

“Last year I didn’t think I was that bad, the problem was I just didn’t know how cross country worked, so I was learning how to race,” Aidrus said. “Come this year, I didn’t do a lot over the summer. The only thing I did was biked a lot; there was no running all summer. I think the first time I ran was the last week of July because I was injured and couldn’t run before that.”

Allen said they are still developing Aidrus as a runner and that they treat his development carefully during the offseason.

“The big thing with Bashir is that he’s still learning how to run, train and race. It’s important how we handle his training since he’s still underdeveloped as a college runner,” Allen said. “Going into Nationals he’ll be one of the lowest in terms of how many miles per week he runs; most of the runners there will be between 90-120 miles per week whereas Bashir is only at about 65 miles a week. We need to make sure we’re building his mileage slowly and not overdo it.”

That work with Allen paid off in spades this season, as Aidrus ran in all but one race. He would go on to become an All-NSIC honoree, the first SMSU runner to earn such honors since 1990, as well as a USTFCCCA All-Region honoree. Aidrus credited his accolades to the improvement he’s made and that it’s given him a confidence boost in this part of the season.

“I can’t really explain that. I’m very happy that I’ve had a huge improvement,” Aidrus said. “Having performed well at conference gave me a confidence boost and I think that’s what drove my performance in Regionals. I’ve never been to Nationals, so this is going to be a fun experience.”

Allen said Aidrus is always ready to help out and is quickly turning into a leader in only his second season.

“He’s pretty even keeled and mature and he’s always happy and the first to volunteer to help out,” Allen said. “He’s also taken his development and turned it into more of a leadership role. He pushes people and his passion leaks to the other guys on the team. It’s been fun to watch him grow.”

Aidrus said Allen has had a big influence on him as his first coach and he’s thankful for the time Allen has put into his development.

“I personally like Dan; I like how he works with me. I haven’t had any other coach before him, but even if I did have one, Dan would be the person who would work best with me,” Aidrus said. “He’s the one that’s helped me reach my potential and where I’m at today, and I’m very thankful for him.”

On the other side, Allen said Aidrus presents an interesting challenge as someone who hasn’t been coached before and has so much room for development.

“It’s fun coaching someone who hasn’t really been coached before. Most kids have had that rigor and direction from their high school coaches and he didn’t have that,” Allen said. “It’s a blast teaching him what are the benefits from training and running and other things. It can also be frustrating at times when it comes to patience and understanding, but he hasn’t had the experience that other athletes had.”

Today, Aidrus and Allen will start the roughly 800 mile and 12 hour drive to Evansville, Indiana for the 11:30 a.m. race on Saturday. Aidrus said he’s nervous about running with some of the best athletes in the nation, but is looking forward to the experience.

“Talking about it just gives me goosebumps. I didn’t imagine going to run against the best in the nation,” Aidrus said. “I am very nervous, but I’m very excited and I’m hoping this is going to be a lesson for me so that in my upcoming seasons if I make it again I’ll know how things are going to be.”

Aidrus added he wants to improve on his time from Regionals and become an All-American, but also just have some fun.

“I want to go for being an All-American,” Aidrus said. “What I have learned this season is that we always underestimate what we can do, so I just want to go and have a fun race and maybe run a faster time than I did at the Regional and if things go well, get a medal.”

Allen said he doesn’t want Aidrus to overthink his approach to the meet and that most of the preparations will be on Thursday during their course walkthrough.

“As of right now, we haven’t talked much about our approach other than the mental preparations. We don’t want him to start to overthink things,” Allen said. “A lot of it will come Thursday when we walk the course and then get into more details about what we need to do to be successful.”

When he is out on the course, Aidrus will have some familiar faces on the sidelines. He said that a handful of his teammates are making the trek to Indiana to show their support, and he is extremely grateful to have such fantastic teammates.

“They are one of the biggest reasons I am where I am today, because if they were not who they were, I would not be running as much as I do. They make practice and everything fun and are just the best. They’re good friends outside of running and they’re great company,” Aidrus said. “Some of them will be driving from here to Evansville just to come and cheer for me, and that means a lot. Not everybody just randomly drives from Marshall to Indiana just to go cheer for someone, and I am very grateful that I have them in my life. I’m hoping that we will improve together as a team and I’m just looking forward to the upcoming seasons.”