From Africa to All-America

By Matthew Hart, Assistant SID

It’s 6 a.m. and Keri Lambert ’13 wakes up to her watch’s alarm. She quietly ties on her running shoes and waits for the sun to come up so she doesn’t step on any cobras. When the moment arrives, the rising junior tiptoes out of her host family’s doorway and onto the red dirt road. Greeting the Sierra Leone morning, she makes the day’s first decision: right or left.

For twelve weeks during the summer of 2011, Lambert volunteered with OneVillage Partners, a nonprofit founded by Amherst alumnus Jeff Hall ’87, which works alongside Sierra Leoneans to help villages achieve self-sufficiency. During the day, Lambert toiled in the community rice swamps and talked crop yields and resource management with local agricultural officers. But each morning, before a cold bucket shower and a breakfast of rice and bananas, the Lord Jeff cross country and track star ran the red dirt.

“I’d started to take running really seriously,” said Lambert. “I knew that when I went I was going to find a way to fit it into my schedule. In Sierra Leone I learned more so than ever before what perseverance can do.”

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What followed was one of the greatest breakout seasons Amherst’s athletic program has ever seen. After two years as just another Lord Jeff distance runner, Lambert returned from West Africa and took Division III by storm.

First there was an eighth-place finish at cross country nationals and her first All-American award. Next came a ninth-place showing with her Distance Medley Relay (DMR) squad at the indoor track championships (a finish one spot shy of All-American status which still haunts Lambert and her teammates). Finally, the culmination: a national title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and a seventh-place, All-America performance in the 5,000-meter run at outdoor nationals.

Her head coach through it all, John Adamson saw a direct link between Lambert’s African training and her growth into a champion.

“There was nobody to motivate her,” said Adamson. “It brought her to the idea that it’s not about who she’s competing against. It’s only about the things that she can control.”

Between cobras and cultural differences, however, it was no easy task to train in the new environment.

“It was very strange that I was wearing running shorts,” said Lambert, explaining that exposing the leg above the knee was strictly taboo otherwise, making her a daily spectacle in the villages through which she’d run. “I was an anomaly.”

Returning home to Amherst, Lambert knew she was ready for bigger things than what she’d accomplished in her first two years as a Jeff, when her highest finish at any championship was a second-place showing in the NESCAC steeplechase finals as a sophomore.

“My enjoyment of running turned into taking it more seriously, more competitively too,” she recalled. “It was pretty much a year ago at this point that I really started to feel good and realize that I was in pretty good shape and ready to win.”

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Get comfortable if you’re planning to read the full list of Lambert’s accomplishments from last year: there are novels that are shorter. Her national title was just the fifth in program history, not to mention the Academic All-America award that followed, making the history major with an A-minus average Amherst’s third female runner to be so honored.

Behind the headline-grabbing accolades, however, is a public school kid who grew up just a few miles south of campus and had never even competed in a track meet until college.  A member of the ice hockey and cross country teams at Amherst Regional High School, it was not until her rookie season as a Jeff that Lambert even considered running a year-round occupation.

And make no mistake: her days on the ice are far from forgotten.

“Keri’s a hockey player,” said Adamson. “She races like a hockey player plays hockey. A lot of distance runners are methodical, measured, and precise. When it comes to competing, she’s not. She takes no solace in the PR. She wants to intimidate her opponents, to make them uncomfortable, to wear them down and beat them from the start. She’s a pretty tyrannical competitor.”

Hockey also gave Lambert a deep love of the team experience, something that quickly caught the eye of new head coach Cassie Funke-Harris.

“She’s a great teammate,” said Funke-Harris, citing Lambert’s choice to focus on the DMR instead of the mile during last year’s indoor season because it meant that three teammates could go to nationals alongside her. “She leads by example, by always doing the right thing,”

When she can’t compete with her teammates, however, Lambert still likes to keep things interesting. Her individual event of choice: the steeplechase, a race combining hurdles, water barriers, and – oh yeah – three kilometers of running. For Lambert, it’s a reminder of why she loves her sport.

“I love the weird things about running,” she said. “I love cross country because they throw you into hills, roots, weird obstacles. I like the DMR because it’s this odd mix of distance runners and a sprinter with this weird handoff. And then there’s steeplechase in the spring. It’s just the weird oddity of outdoor track.”

Two of Lambert’s steeplechases were particularly memorable. First, at the Little Three Championships on April 21, she won in 10:33.49, the fastest D-III time in the nation to that point. And like those morning runs in Sierra Leone, she did it, quite literally, by herself, when the event’s other two entrants withdrew at the last minute.

“It clicked for her there,” said Adamson. “She realized, ‘I’m the best there is at this level and this event.’”

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Lambert proved it to the nation in late May at the NCAA Championships in Claremont, Calif. With a stadium-record time of 10:27.32, she crossed the line over nine seconds ahead of her closest competitor.

Now, after another summer spent training – this time on some greener routes around the campus of Northfield Mount Hermon, where she served as a summer teacher – Lambert has no plans to stop her rise. Funke-Harris is thrilled for what could lie ahead, beginning with this fall’s cross country season.

“She’ll be in the hunt to win nationals, and I think she’s pretty hungry for that,” Funke-Harris said. “I don’t think we know yet what her ceiling is and that’s pretty exciting.”

Lambert already has one win and a NESCAC Performer of the Week award under her belt this fall, as she dominated the 453-runner field at last Saturday’s James Earley Invitational hosted by Westfield State. Winning in 21:30.11 on the six-kilometer course, the victory was especially sweet as she beat Middlebury rival Addie Tousley by over 20 seconds. Just two weeks earlier, Tousley had outkicked Lambert at Williams’ Purple Valley Classic, the race that marked Lambert’s first collegiate win in 2011.

And while Middlebury bested Amherst in the team competition last weekend, Lambert, one of three captains, will be the first to argue that better days lie ahead for the Lord Jeffs.

“I want the team to qualify for nationals,” she said. “Our region is really strong this year, but we have a lot of people on the team that peak later in the season.”

Eventually, of course, her focus will shift to the track, particularly to her beloved DMR. But when it comes time to defend the steeplechase title and follow up her historic junior spring, Lambert’s goals are refreshingly relaxed.

“Be fast. Love it. Enjoy the spring of my senior year,” she said. “That’s what that season’s going to be about.”

When hurdles arise and she’s tempted to lose that perspective, you can bet that she’ll remember those red dirt dawns on the roads of Sierra Leone and the simple choice of right or left.