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Meet Habtom Samuel, UNM track and field's freshman 'mega-star' on the rise

Jan. 29—There are few surprises with Habtom Samuel. The times, his personal bests, are what they are: 7:45.61 in the 3000 meters, 13:13.74 in the 5000 and 27:20.08 in the 10,000.

All of which aren't quite collegiate records — but they're close. Really close. So, maybe it isn't surprising that Samuel broke three straight UNM records (the aforementioned 7:45.61 in the 3000, 13:14.85 in the 5000, 3:59.12 in the mile) in three straight indoor meets this season.

Or that he recorded the fastest collegiate mile in the history of the Albuquerque Convention Center, which roughly translates to an astonishing 3:53.91 at sea level.

What might be surprising is that he'd run plenty of 1500s over the years in competition, and yet, never a real, bona fide mile. Sure, going sub-four is no longer the impossibility it was once thought to be before Roger Bannister clocked a 3:59.4 in the 1950s.

But running a sub-four mile in your first live mile? Sitting in the bleachers at the Convention Center, Samuel parsed that time, that result briefly.

"I'm pretty satisfied," he said casually.

After a Mountain West Men's Cross Country Athlete of the Year honors following an NCAA national runner-up finish, Samuel's speed training as a long distance specialist this winter has produced more than a few results to be pleased with. Heading into February, Samuel, 20, is in striking distance for qualification in the indoor 3000 and 5000 NCAA championships.

And among other things, enjoying his freshman year with the Lobos.

"The people love the sport (here)," Samuel said. "I like to be here — New Mexico is good for me."

Born in a small village outside Keren, Eritrea, running was always part of Samuel's life. He ran to school. Back from school. "All the time, (it's) running," he laughed.

Samuel took to soccer initially, realizing quickly that running on the side would only help him on the pitch. Another realization followed shortly thereafter: "It's better to start running in Africa," he said. "The soccer is not really a good opportunity."

By 2018, Samuel was pulling top-ten finishes in the Eritrean U20 Championships. In 2020, he finished second in both the 3000 meter steeplechase and the 5000. Then he won Eritrean bronze medals in the 3000 and 5000 over the next two years before a 17th place finish in the World Cross Country Championships last February put him firmly on the radar of college coaches.

Among them, former New Mexico head coach Joe Franklin. Samuel, drawn in by the promise of UNM's facilities and the opportunity to train at elevation, committed and arrived in May after a prolonged visa process that saw him spend time with some fellow Lobos in Australia.

But Franklin left for Louisville in June. Darren Gauson was named head coach at the end of the month, inheriting a talent working through a slight learning curve: for instance, Samuel's usual weekly workload in Eritrea amounted to roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles), absent a real focus on tempo training.

"Here, it's 100 miles a week," Samuel added.

There was also the fact that until Minnesota's Roy Griak Invitational in September, Samuel hadn't actually competed since February — nearly a seven-month layoff between races. Gauson even remembered him being a little "rusty" entering the event.

In a sign of things to come, Samuel shook it off and ran a 23:36.4 8k in Minneapolis, first place in his first collegiate meet — with a 24-second cushion between him and second place.

"He's surprised me a little bit, but," Gauson said, "he is a mega talent. Really had an amazing pedigree before, so anything he does now is probably not going to surprise him."

And for Gauson, crossing paths with Samuel couldn't have come at a better time. After taking over for Franklin, Gauson weathered a whirlwind summer of "life stuff" while trying to figure out how to get his plan in motion.

Namely: addressing that while UNM's women's track and field has been tremendously successful in the recent past, the men have simply been "really, really good."

"We're really trying to balance our emphasis," he said. "And we want the men to be amazing, we want the women to be (amazing). We're really dual-focused."

Samuel, in more ways than one, is the understated face of those efforts. Not only did he power UNM to its first men's cross country conference championship since 2014, Samuel's been an invaluable part of an indoor season that's seen the Lobos rise to as high as 12th in the national polls.

"As a staff, we're always talking about, 'if we have 16 guys on the distance team, we're as focused on (the 15th and 16th guys) to be better,'" Gauson said. "That's gonna push (fellow freshmen Lukas Kiprop and Evans Kiplagat) and Habtom. You know, Lukas and Evans are pushing Habtom. If it wasn't for them, Habtom probably wouldn't be quite as good as he is because he'd just be training completely alone.

"And the other way around — if it wasn't for Habtom, maybe Evans wouldn't be an All-American (in cross country) if he wasn't chasing after him the whole time."

Nor is Samuel one to let any of the success go to his head.

"I've worked with some All-Americans in the past who were kind of a handful at times, because they really think they're very good," Gauson, the former head coach at Bradley, added. "Habtom, he's not that type of character."

After all, the results are what they are.

"I'm happy to be here," Samuel said.