United Through Running

Munir Isahak (L) and Eric Wicklund talk over strategy before a race.
Munir Isahak (L) and Eric Wicklund talk over strategy before a race.

Feature written by Concordia sports information student assistant David Youngs

MOORHEAD, Minn.---
They grew up in different parts of the world and took different paths to Concordia but junior Munir Isahak and Eric Wicklund have become uniquely united through running as Cobber teammates.   

The two are products of the local high school running scene with Isahak competing for Fargo South High School and Wicklund excelling Moorhead High School. They have taken their ability to an even higher level at Concordia because the two continue to push each other through their bond with running.

While Wicklund and Isahak have become the driving force that has pushed the Cobbers to new levels on the course, it is their shared love of running that has brought out the best in each other. It also highlights the completely different paths they took to get to where they are today.    

Isahak was born in Sudan and began his life there with his family. He started school in Sudan where he spoke both Arabic and his tribal language of Massalit.

Munir's life would change forever when he was eight years old. In the midst of the Sudanese Civil War his village was attacked, forcing him to flee on foot to the neighboring country of Kenya. In the chaos, Munir lost contact with his parents. He hasn't heard from them since that night.

Once in Kenya, Munir lived at a refugee camp with his grandma for roughly four years. It was there where he began to learn English, Swahili and a few other languages.

While he and his grandma lived at the camp, Isahak watched other refugees leave for the United States every six months through UNICEF - a nonprofit dedicated to the health and protection of children and families around the world.

"For you to come to the United States you had to go through a process," Isahak said. "That process takes anywhere from six months to six years.

Munir and his grandmother waited for their turn as 65 families were selected each time UNICEF brought people over. That time came in 2013, when Munir and his grandma found out that they would be headed to the United States.

"I was excited. Life was not easy there (at the refugee camp)," Isahak said. Everyone was hoping to get that opportunity to come to the United States because they know that there you get a better life and a better education. My family was getting to go to a better place and have a better life."

Isahak arrived in Fargo in September 2013 and began his freshman year at Fargo South High School.

There were many factors that helped ease the transition but Isahak admits that it was far from easy.

"It took me a while to get used to everything," Isahak said. Having people from Sudan, people that spoke Arabic (at South) and being in the same class as them made the transition easier, but it took a while."

One of those individuals who spoke Arabic was Muhend Abakar, who was born in Sudan and raised in Egypt. Abakar helped Isahak transition into the new setting, as the two formed a strong friendship. It also blossomed into something that would help shape Isakak's life to this day; his love for running.

"That's how I got into running, Muhend is one of the reasons why," Isahak said. "That's what they (Muhend and friends) did, and I was with them most of the time, so I had to do something. It was either soccer or running, so I chose running."

Isahak went on to thrive for the Bruins' cross country squad. He became one of the best runners in the state and finished fifth at the North Dakota state meet his senior year.

When it came time to look for a college to further his education, Isahak looked at MSU Moorhead, North Dakota State and Concordia. He chose Concordia because of the relationship he had with former head coach Garrick Larson and because of the school's strong science programs.

One of the main reasons Isahak wanted to stay close to home for college was because of his family. His grandma, who he was able to journey to the United State with, lives in the area and he didn't want to leave her to go to school.

"I could have gone to a different state and school if I wanted but with Concordia, I'm able to go home and see her every day, Isahak said "I see her basically every day. I need to be there for her because she has been there for me."

Munir Isahak (L) and Eric Wicklund grew up in different worlds but have become united in running for the Cobbers. Munir made his Cobber running debut in the fall of 2017. It also marked the first time that he would run together with Wicklund in a college meet. It wasn't the first time that the pair had been together as the two had met the previous year when Wicklund helped recruit Isahak to the Cobbers.

"We had a lot of conversations with him (in the recruiting process)," Wicklund said. "We thought we were going to lose him to MSUM, but we didn't. I don't really know how we got him, but it's been great."

Wicklund, who has been one of the Top 3 runners for the Cobbers over the past three years didn't even know if he was going to continue running collegiately after his freshman cross country season. The Moorhead Spud standout had been struggling with injuries and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and felt as if his running had plateaued.

"Every time I raced I felt horrible," Wicklund said.

But as Wicklund's freshman season progressed, his mindset changed, and things began to improve.

"I started getting better, I thought I was stuck and wasn't going to get any better," Wicklund said. "I realized that no, I wasn't going to be a professional runner, but that yes, I could get better. I was stuck in the mindset that I wasn't going to get any better with all these problems."

The following year, things improved for Wicklund and the Cobbers when Munir arrived.

"Part of me wanted to be nervous because of how talented he was, but I was so excited to have him on the team," Wicklund said.

Both Isahak and Wicklund have embraced the competition that one another bring to the table.

The two have an irregular daily training schedule due to Isahak's unique class schedule but have used that to get acclimated to each other.

"Eric probably knows me better than I know myself when it comes to workouts," Isahak laughed. He pushes me every time, and I try to push him too."

'We both have our (strengths) and weaknesses in the way that we train, and we keep each other honest," Wicklund said.

When it comes to training and races, Wicklund describes himself as the analytical guru who knows the times and splits while Isahak is the type of runner that does best when he "just goes out and runs." The two both agree that while their approaches to running are different, they balance each other out very well.

"He definitely keeps me from overthinking things, Wicklund said. "He gives me another perspective of that you can't worry too much."

"I couldn't do most of the workouts without him," Isahak said. "Having him there pushes me to hit the pace and do the workout the way it should be done."

Head Coach Laura Januszewski agrees that the different dynamics make both athletes stronger runners.

"Eric is very analytical whereas Munir is more laissez faire," Januszewski said. "There's a pretty good balance, because there's two extremes."

On race day the dynamic is no different, as the two often find themselves neck in neck in races.

"When I'm racing and I hear "go Eric" and then I hear "go Munir" I'm like, darn he's still there," Wicklund recalled. "That gap will slowly get smaller as the race goes on, and then we're racing against each other. Those are the best races, those are fun."

Despite the friendly competition, the two always have the team's best interests in mind out on the course, wishing nothing but success for one another.

"It's nice that we have each other's back and want each other to get to the finish line as soon as possible," Wicklund said.

Isahak added that the two usually talk strategy before every race to encourage each other and bond.

The two will compete in one of their final races together this upcoming weekend at the NCAA Central Region Meet at Wartburg College. Wicklund will graduate in the spring and he says that he'll miss the memories of competing and training with Isahak.

"It's just enjoyable to have a guy that is your equal, and in some regards your better, to be able to go out and do something that we love to do," Wicklund said. "That's a comforting thing when you're doing something as difficult as distance running."

Isahak, who will take the reins as the team's No.1 runner next year, is thankful for Wicklund's leadership as well as all that the running community has brought to him.

"Through running I've made so many connections, I've gone to so many places, found so many people, Isahak said. "I don't think that would have happened if I didn't run. It's been a way to express myself and get to know people and show them what I can do."