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Keri Lambert kicks it into high gear for Amherst College

  • Brian Beard/Creative Images<br/>Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.

    Brian Beard/Creative Images
    Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.

  • COURTESY NIAHLAH HOPE/AMHERST COLLEGE<br/>Keri Lambert finishes a race for the Amherst College women's cross country team this season.<br/>

    COURTESY NIAHLAH HOPE/AMHERST COLLEGE
    Keri Lambert finishes a race for the Amherst College women's cross country team this season.

  • Brian Beard/Creative Images<br/>Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.

    Brian Beard/Creative Images
    Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.

  • Brian Beard/Creative Images<br/>Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.

    Brian Beard/Creative Images
    Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.

  • COURTESY KERI LAMBERT<br/>Keri Lambert, second from left, stands with two Agriculture Officers hired by OneVillage Partners to help improve food security and farming methods in their African communities. Ngmombu Amara, third from left, was Lambert's host father during her summer 2011 trip to Africa.

    COURTESY KERI LAMBERT
    Keri Lambert, second from left, stands with two Agriculture Officers hired by OneVillage Partners to help improve food security and farming methods in their African communities. Ngmombu Amara, third from left, was Lambert's host father during her summer 2011 trip to Africa.

  • COURTESY KERI LAMBERT<br/>Keri Lambert poses with her three host  siblings, Kenie, left, Baindu, and Ngombu during her summer 2011 trip to Africa.

    COURTESY KERI LAMBERT
    Keri Lambert poses with her three host siblings, Kenie, left, Baindu, and Ngombu during her summer 2011 trip to Africa.

  • COURTESY KERI LAMBERT<br/>Keri Lambert works with a group of women in a community rice swamp.

    COURTESY KERI LAMBERT
    Keri Lambert works with a group of women in a community rice swamp.

  • Brian Beard/Creative Images<br/>Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.
  • COURTESY NIAHLAH HOPE/AMHERST COLLEGE<br/>Keri Lambert finishes a race for the Amherst College women's cross country team this season.<br/>
  • Brian Beard/Creative Images<br/>Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.
  • Brian Beard/Creative Images<br/>Keri Lambert competes Saturday in the NESCAC championship women's cross country race at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Lambert placed first overall.
  • COURTESY KERI LAMBERT<br/>Keri Lambert, second from left, stands with two Agriculture Officers hired by OneVillage Partners to help improve food security and farming methods in their African communities. Ngmombu Amara, third from left, was Lambert's host father during her summer 2011 trip to Africa.
  • COURTESY KERI LAMBERT<br/>Keri Lambert poses with her three host  siblings, Kenie, left, Baindu, and Ngombu during her summer 2011 trip to Africa.
  • COURTESY KERI LAMBERT<br/>Keri Lambert works with a group of women in a community rice swamp.

It’s 6 a.m. and Amherst native Keri Lambert wakes up to her watch’s alarm. She quietly ties 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 Amherst College 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 12 weeks during the summer of 2011, Lambert volunteered with OneVillage Partners, a nonprofit founded by Amherst alumnus Jeff Hall 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,” Lambert said. “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.”

What followed was one of the greatest breakout seasons Amherst College 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 team at the indoor track championships. Finally, 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.

The success continued into the fall. On Saturday, Lambert won the NESCAC cross country championship.

Coach John Adamson saw a direct link between Lambert’s African training and her growth into a champion.

“There was nobody to motivate her,” Adamson said. “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, who explained that exposing the leg above the knee was strictly taboo, 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, 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,” Lambert said. “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.”

Lambert’s national title was just the fifth in program history. The history major with an A-minus average also became the third Amherst female runner to be named an academic All-American.

Behind the accolades, however, is an Amherst Regional graduate who grew up just a few miles south of Amherst College and had never competed in a track meet until college. Lambert competed in cross country, softball and ultimate in high school. She also played club ice hockey. It was not until her freshman year as a Jeff that Lambert even considered running a year-round occupation.

“Keri’s a hockey player,” Adamson said. “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 Amherst track coach Cassie Funke-Harris.

“She’s a great teammate,” said Funke-Harris, citing Lambert’s choice to focus on the distance medley relay (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.”

Lambert still likes to keep things interesting. Her individual event of choice — the steeplechase — is a 3-kilometer race combining hurdles and water barriers.

“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.”

Now, after another summer spent training — this time on some greener routes around the campus of the Northfield Mount Herman School, where she served as a summer teacher — Lambert has no plans to stop her rise. Funke-Harris is thrilled for what could lie ahead.

“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.”

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