Janine Ybanez/HIGHLANDER
Janine Ybanez/HIGHLANDER

If you have followed UC Riverside cross country over the past two years, you should be quite familiar with Faith. Take a walk around the facility and the walls are decorated with it. Look at the race results and it’ll sit right at the top of your page.

In fact, I first discovered Faith through word of mouth. The name often greeted with a smile and thrown alongside superlatives like “remarkable,” “gifted” and “unbelievable.” It wasn’t until last week that I met Faith face-to-face. And in almost an instant, she exuded every quality that those around the program had outfitted her with.

To clarify, this Faith that I speak of is not a belief or a feeling, it is rather an athlete. Her full name being Faith Kalondu Makau and her reputation being heralded as UC Riverside cross country’s newest superstar. Just closing out her sophomore season, the Kenyan-born runner has already earned a total of six top-10 finishes, two first-place victories and most recently, her very own Big West women’s cross country title all the while climbing up the UCR leaderboards for her time in the 6K.

These past two years have been a ride of nothing but success for Makau and it all seemed to culminate the final day of October 2015 when she earned that Big West title. “It was an honor and a blessing,” said Makau of the win. “When that gun goes off you know everybody has a fair chance and just to know that I won the race, I was just …” her voice trails off before breathing a sigh of content, “I was happy.”

And rightfully so. Rarely do redshirt freshmen earn the type of recognition that Makau did in her first year, finishing second on the UCR leaderboard in each race last season. And ever so rarely do they harness that to find even greater success as sophomores. Makau’s talent and work ethic has allowed her to defy both of these notions and she credits a good amount of her success to what she was able to glean from others in the program.

Most notably of which was former UCR cross country superstar and current program record holder in the 6K, Raquel Hefflin.

Last year, each time Makau finished second for the Highlanders, Hefflin was at the top. Now, Makau continually reflects on the lessons she learned from Hefflin as she looks to follow in her footsteps in becoming the face of the program. “The main thing I learned from (Raquel) is to have confidence in myself,” Makau professes, “(last year) I was always second guessing myself (…) she would just tell me that I work too hard to always worry.”

As is usually the case with top-level athletes, hard work has served as the primary catalyst to Makau’s ascent. Tales of her being the first one out on the practice course and the last one off of it are widespread. And her motivation to make her unparalleled work ethic translate into a tangible, memorable impact is unmistakable. As she put it, “I just want to do good. If I’m going out there to go run then I need to do the best that I can.” Clearly, up to this point, she has.

Makau’s journey at UCR began once she was successfully recruited by former head of cross country, Irv Ray, who — even after retiring this fall — has remained a key figure in her development. Ray was one of the first to notice Makau’s tireless work ethic, with her “natural gift, love for running and will to be the best” standing out strong enough for Ray to recruit her as intensely as he did.

Through a shared passion, Makau and Ray developed a partnership that allowed her to reach the level of success she has today. Considering this, both are also quick to tell you that Ray’s departure from the program wore heavy. The abrupt departure of a great mentor can often impede an athlete’s growth, yet, to no surprise, Makau attacked this hurdle in stride. “(Ray) reassured me that everything would be okay and it did turn out okay,” she says, “so I am definitely grateful for him.”

For whoever has been there to motivate Faith Makau through her career, they have been fortunate enough to witness the rise of a star. One gifted with the rare combination of natural talent, unparalleled work ethic and outright humility. More than once did Makau profess to me her goal to be the “best that I can,” implying that even greater accomplishments lie ahead and forewarning the entire conference that they may need to begin praying for a little faith of their own.