There are a lot of ways we could take a story about Joey Nokes and his accomplishments.

For one thing, he speaks four languages — English, French, Swahili and Malagasy (as in Madagascar). Which is also the same number of musical instruments he plays — piano, viola, harmonica, guitar. He was student body president at Riverton High — and a prodigious eater. He has the dubious distinction of having eaten more than 30 slices of pizza in a single sitting when he was a high school student weighing somewhere south of 140 pounds.

Oh, there’s one more thing that might be worth mentioning: He has developed into a national-class distance runner. He is one of the leaders of BYU’s No. 3-ranked cross-country team as the Cougars enter the championship stretch of the season.

On Friday, he and his teammates will compete in the NCAA Mountain Regional Cross-Country Championships in Lubbock, Texas, which serves as the qualifier for the national championships eight days later. Nokes has had a strong season for the Cougars, who trail only Northern Arizona and Oklahoma State in the national rankings. He placed sixth in the Big 12 championships, 13th at the pre-national meet in Wisconsin, fourth in the Virginia Invitational and first in the BYU Autumn Classic. 

“He’s been our No. 1 or No. 2 runner this season,” says coach Ed Eyestone. “He’s a very good team leader.”

He made his best showing in the Virginia Invitational when he placed fourth against a strong field on the same course that will be used for the NCAA championships on Nov. 18. He finished one second behind Stanford’s Ky Robinson, who won both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at last spring’s NCAA track championships.

“That helped my confidence,” says Nokes.

Nokes was not a high school star, nor did he look like a future D-I distance runner. He wasn’t especially dedicated to the sport at the time, either. He had other interests. He was active in student government. He played other sports. He played viola in the high school orchestra and in a family orchestra/band. He and his five siblings all played instruments and performed together at weddings and other events.

Nokes began running after an older sister and an older brother took up the sport. “He dragged me to practices as an eighth grader,” he says.

But running, he adds, “was not the central thing in my life. I was consistent with it, but not obsessed with it until I got pretty good with it.”

BYU’s Joey Nokes in action at the Autumn Classic. Nokes and the No. 3-ranked Cougars will be competing in the NCAA cross-country regionals Friday. | Matt Norton, BYU Photo

He made a good showing in high school cross-country competition — he placed second in the state championships and qualified for the national meet (94th in a field of 200) — but he was almost invisible in track. He closed his prep career at the state track championships by placing 14th in the 1,600-meter run and 12th in the 3,200. His best times at those distances were 4:27 and 9:31. It was baffling, to say the least. Usually, if a runner excels in cross-country, he also excels on the track.

“My track times were not good,” says Nokes. “The guys on the team still give me crap about those times. I don’t know exactly why (they weren’t good). Maybe the sports draw different strengths — in cross-country, there’s grass and hills and that draws on my strength. I’m not suited for the mile; I’m more suited for the 5,000 and 10,000.”

He was recruited by only two other schools — Weber State and Utah Valley. Eyestone, whose team is a perennial national powerhouse, signed him anyway. “It’s funny,” says the coach. “He had no times to speak of on the track. We got him because of his cross-country chops.”

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Nokes, whose father Jeff is an assistant professor in the BYU history department, set aside running for two years to serve a mission immediately after high school graduation. The mission turned into a language potpourri. He was sent to Madagascar, where he learned to speak the Malagasy language, and later he was reassigned to North Carolina to teach refugees from Congo in the Swahili and French languages.

“The mission president thought I had spoken French in Madagascar,” he says. He drew on his high school French studies to fill in the language gaps.

After returning from his mission, he resumed training and gradually built up his training mileage as he matured — 75 per week as a freshman, 85 as a sophomore and settled on 90 this season after reaching 100 briefly in the summer.

“You wouldn’t think adding 10 miles per week would make much of a difference,” he says, “but it takes a toll on your body. I’ve been hitting 90 the past four months.”

Nokes made the travel team as a freshman, but didn’t score (the team’s top five). He improved dramatically last season, placing 52nd in the NCAA championships as BYU finished third in the team scoring. He also improved his track performances dramatically — a 4:08.43 mile, 13:29.30 for 5,000 meters, 28:05.38 for 10,000 meters, the latter two marks ranking sixth and eighth all time, respectively, at the school.

“Part of me wished I had redshirted my freshman year, but then I wouldn’t have met my wife,” he says. 

At the 2021 NCAA championships, he was introduced to Morgan French, a freshman cross-country runner at Utah State. This started a long-distance romance for a couple of years. They married and she transferred to Utah Valley, which is only a few miles from BYU. She finished fifth in the recent Western Athletic Conference championships for UVU, which is ranked 22nd in the nation. The couple does morning runs together on days there is another workout scheduled for the afternoon. It’s likely both of them will be traveling to the NCAA championships in a couple of weeks.

Looking ahead, he says, “I’ve been finishing in the top 10 to 15 in national-caliber races. I hope that’s a good predictor going into nationals.”

BYU’s Joey Nokes takes a selfie at the Big 12 Championships at Iowa State. Nokes and the No. 3-ranked Cougars will be competing in the NCAA cross-country regionals Friday. | BYU Photo