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'Heart and soul' of KU cross country finishes off her career in style

Silent but efficient, Lona Latema marks her career finale with another feat of mental fortitude

3 min read
Kansas cross country runner Lona Latema runs at the 2023 national meet. [Kansas Athletics photo]

A thief rode on the Kansas bus to the cross country regionals this year.

One of the runners’ phones went missing. Star senior Lona Latema sought her out and asked “are you looking for anything?” Reserved and unassuming, Latema was the least likely, and therefore the best thief. As a joke, she had stolen the phone, impressing her friends with her deadpan delivery and prankster ambition.

Quiet, even when among teammates, Latema doesn’t speak to the media, but her running speaks for itself, and, among friends, her jokes do too.

Latema consistently set the pace at KU practice for five years, won multiple meets in the 1,500 and 3,000, and qualified twice for the NCAA Cross Country Championship. 

Latema, who, along with Chandler Gibbens, represented Kansas at the 2023 NCAA Cross Country Championships last month, finished her career with a bang. She placed in the top quarter of competitors in the 6k championship, finishing 62nd, topping her previous personal best by more than 7 seconds and her previous best result at the national championships by 39 spots.

At the end of Latema’s illustrious cross country career, R1S1 spoke with some of Latema’s teammates and coaches to see what makes the senior from Eldoret, Kenya so special. 

It started in COVID…

Latema came to America alone with no family. Her closest relatives were in San Diego, and for the first two months of COVID lockdown, Latema couldn’t go to them in California.

“She was stuck in the dorms with kind of no one and she had no social interaction with anybody for several months,” recalls coach Michael Whittlesey. “Her day to day was, in a dorm room by herself and then going out for a run by herself. For her to have that mental [fortitude], I think that speaks volumes of her as a person She's not gonna be rattled by too many things.”

“She just has some like silent strength,” says teammate Addie Coppinger. “We were always looking out for her because we just know that she, she doesn't have a family to go home to every, you know, few months. I would definitely have a hard time not seeing my family for a few years, especially over COVID when there was no way for her to get home."

Having succeeded in a solitary sport that challenges an athlete’s mental capacity, Latema’s ability to endure extended time alone with her own thoughts is par for the course. But she didn’t only display this tendency on her own, she brought it to practice and races as well.

A pace setter in practice 

For coach Whittlesey, Latema’s presence in practice allows him to push his team to places he couldn’t on his own.

“If I say, 'Hey, we're doing this work, we're gonna do a simple workout, and we're gonna start hitting this pace,' Lona will start hitting that pace and then start moving through it," Whittlesey said. "Then if I say, ‘ Let's start dropping pace even further,’ she'll go even faster than I'm asking."

Whittlesey feels that his whole team have benefited the most from Latema’s presence, but Kenadi Krueger, another of the Jayhawks to runners, has gotten a ton out of following Latema’s lead.

“Kenadi has used Lona as a guide," the coach said. "If I want to be really good, that’s where I need to be. It has really helped her out tremendously." 

Krueger says she has looked up Latema as a role model and the standard that she needs to meet.

“This year,” says Krueger, Lona “was struggling with sickness, and no matter what she would show up to practice with a smile on her face and give it her all. She just does not give up.”

Latema’s illness and can’t stop attitude followed her from practice to her races, and in her final season, she displayed strength and endurance that shocked — and even frightened her coach and teammates.

Til’ she collapses

“I've definitely had to like go finds our trainers” after a race, says Krueger.

Coach Whittlesey recalls races at Oklahoma State and Missouri where Latema “ran herself to the ground” and had to be helped off the course.

“It's a little bit scary for sure," Krueger added. "A lot of people are afraid to get to that point."

During the race at Missouri, Whittlesey said Latema was nowhere near where she typically would have been.

"She was struggling with illness," he said. “She told me she was sick beforehand, and I didn't realize how sick she was. You could see about a mile into the race that she was not going to be at the normal level that she would need. But the heart and soul of what she was battling for at that moment, was definitely inspiring to watch.”

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