"I don't think there's any question about his upside," said Maryland track coach Andrew Valmon, who was also the coach of the American men's Olympic track team in London. "My phrase with him is, 'The sky is the limit.'"
His friends call him by his nickname: Kika (pronounced KEE-kah).
"He is very fascinating," said fellow Maryland distance runner Becky Yep. "He tells all sorts of stories."
By the fall of 2011, there were rumors on campus that men's track might be eliminated. Punyua and his teammates first learned of the decision on a November afternoon when they sat in a semicircle between the starting line and high-jump pit and were told by athletic director Kevin Anderson that a university commission had recommended their team be cut. Some of the hardened athletes — who by necessity have become accustomed to pushing forward when their bodies resist — began to cry.
Anderson — who inherited a dire budget situation when he arrived as athletic director in 2010 — seemed disconsolate, too.
"It's very hard for me," Anderson said. "Every time they look at me, I'm thinking, 'What are they thinking?'"
The cuts were implemented because the university, weathering football and men's basketball revenue declines, could no longer support 27 sports. The other discontinued teams are men's tennis, men's swimming and diving, women's swimming and diving, women's water polo and women's acrobatics and tumbling.
To Punyua and other affected athletes, the moves felt as personal as a breakup with a longtime partner.
Punyua struggled to understand the economics. In order to keep pace for the best coaches, recruits and facilities, large universities such as Maryland have shoveled money into the only teams with the potential to generate profits — usually football and men's basketball. When they falter, the "minor" sports are often casualties because there aren't enough revenues trickling down to support them. As of 2011, there had been a net loss of more than 300 teams in men's Division I sports since 1988-89, according to the NCAA.
The irony is that the disbanded teams are often the ones schools boast about because of their members' performances in the classroom. Maryland men's cross country —eliminated after last season — earned a perfect score in the most recent Academic Progress Rates, a measure of whether athletes are on track to graduate.
The season ends
Valmon and the other coaches didn't completely understand Punyua's fragile state until he pulled out of the Colonial Relays in April. Punyua was so drained he sat out the ACC championships several weeks later.
At the time of the 5K, he was taking vitamin B6 and another prescription medication to try to halt a bacterial infection.
"There was just so much going on," Punyua said. "I'm running [in the 5K], but I'm not running as fast as I usually do. It was a mental thing. It wasn't physical."
Bass remembers watching the 5K on live video from his living room. "It was night and the curves were dark. And then, all of a sudden, he didn't come out of a curve. I sat up and thought I missed something," Bass said.
It was as if the runner had disappeared.
In reality, he was walking by himself across the football field on the inside of the track. He stopped to put on his warmup clothes, looking dazed.
"He had a lot on his plate," Valmon said. "He's not only young in age, but he's young to the sport. There are no Cliffs Notes. There is no cheat sheet for how to handle all this."
Running for Kenya
In the months after the April race, Punyua entertained offers to transfer to other colleges.