Running to a National Crown: Proctor Completes Journey From Ethiopia to a U.S. Title
To finish off his collegiate track and field career, Gabe Proctor wasn’t going to be fooled again.
Competing for Western State Colorado University at the NCAA Division-II National Championship meet May 23, the former South Royalton resident and Mid Vermont Christian School graduate refused to fall into the usual traps while running against American International teammates Glarius Rop and Michael Biwott at the front of the 10,000-meter title race.
“Their tactic is to yo-yo back and forth, slowing up and speeding down, trying to break you with pressure,” Proctor said in a recent phone interview. “I wasn’t going to let them break me this time. Not to sound cocky, but I said, ‘This is my house,’ and I knew it was my race to win.”
Running in a familiar high-altitude setting — the meet was at Colorado State University in Pueblo, about three hours from Western State’s Gunnison campus — Proctor didn’t overexert himself to catch Rop and Biwott during the first five miles of the race, consistently running somewhere 5-10 meters off the front runners.
Heading into the last mile, Proctor struck, speeding ahead to win in a time of 30 minutes, 3.07 seconds, more than eight seconds ahead of fellow senior Rop and more than 20 ahead of Biwott, a freshman.
After only five years as a competitive runner — the native Ethiopian didn’t run his first race until he was a senior at MVCS — Proctor was a national champion.
“I just can’t believe it turned out just the way I planned,” Proctor said. “I’m an altitude runner, and I knew that was going to help me, but I was still more nervous than I’d ever been in my life before the race. I talked to one of my psychology professors who I turn to a lot for advice, and he helped me relax. He said, ‘Just think about your plan and execute.’ That plan was to be consistent, and that’s what I did.”
The success at Nationals was just beginning for Proctor, who two days later won the 5,000-meter run in 14:27.77, edging Rop this time by just 1.21 seconds.
“It was so much easier to be relaxed heading into the 5-K,” said Proctor, whose Mountaineers placed fifth in a field of 52 teams. “I already had my (10-K) title, I knew I was going to graduate with a title, so that was out of the way. It was a lot easier just to be confident and focus on just getting as many points for the team as I could.”
Things haven’t always been easy for Proctor, who grew up impoverished in urban Mek’ele, Ethiopia, until he was adopted at age 10 by Jim Proctor. At the time, Jim Proctor was the pastor at the United Church of South Royalton. (He has since moved on to pastor at a church in Corinth, Maine.)
With very limited access to media — “the only time I ever saw TV was maybe walking by a storefront,” Gabe Proctor said — he grew up without an inkling of knowledge about the world championship caliber runners hailing from his home country. He wouldn’t learn about Ethiopian world record holders such as Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie until after he came to the U.S., and the most extensive running he did as a youth in his homeland was scampering for hours to visit his grandfather in a rural part of the country in the summertime.
“We didn’t have a vehicle, so we’d have to run/walk for three-to-four hours to go stay with my grandfather for the summer,” Proctor recalled. “Staying with him is probably the only good memory I have about growing up there.”
With no track program at tiny Mid-Vermont Christian School, Proctor never considered track as a sport until connecting with Hanover High assistant coach Jeff Johnson as a senior. Practicing both with the Marauders and in one-on-one sessions with Johnson, it wasn’t long before Proctor was competing independently at Vermont meets. He placed second to St. Johnsbury’s Kyle Powers in the 3,200-meter run with a time of 10:14.58 and almost immediately earned a running scholarship for the effort. The following autumn, he was headed to Garden City (Kansas) Community College to compete for the NJCAA Division-II Broncbusters with free tuition and books.
“We thought it was a scam at first,” Jim Proctor recalled. “Three or four days after the indoor state meet, we get a call from some one who says, ‘Hi, I’m Dan Delgado from Garden City Community College in Kansas and I’d like to offer your son a running scholarship.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, who is this, my cousin Bobby?’ It turns out he had been trying to recruit the St. Johnsbury kid and came across Gabe’s time (viewing the state meet results).”
While grateful for the opportunity, Proctor described his two years at Garden City as “unpleasant.” While he placed sixth in 1,000 at NJCAA nationals as a freshman and was an all-American cross country runner as a sophomore, placing ninth at nationals, he wasn’t happy with the direction Broncbuster coaches were attempting to steer him.
“They wanted me to be a cross country runner, and I was more interested in track,” Proctor said. “It wasn’t the best experience athletically, but academically it was great. I got my associates degree and the classes were pretty difficult, a lot more difficult than high school. I think getting that degree really helped my confidence and my attitude heading into (Western State Colorado).
Red-shirting his first year with Mountaineers, Proctor went on to place 18th in the 10-K at outdoor D-II nationals as a repeat sophomore and rocket all the way to third as a junior while placing fourth in the 5-K. He shaved more than 1:19 off last year’s 10-K time and nearly 53 seconds off his 5-K to win both events this year.
Having received his bachelor’s in exercise science, Proctor hopes to pursue a career in sports management some day, but is firmly intent on extending his running career to the professional ranks.
He recently returned to Colorado after visiting with a club in North Carolina and is registered for a bevy of road races this summer in hopes of trimming his times even more. He said getting his 10-K time down to around 28:30 — his personal best is 28:58 at the moment — would earn him a much better shot at landing with a club.
“By next year, I want to (qualify) for the U.S. Championships in Iowa,” Proctor said. “It would be a lot easier if were on a club so I could do it full-time, but I don’t mind working (elsewhere) and training at the same time for as long as I have to.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.