In the late summer of 2007, a young man from Eldoret, Kenya arrived at VMI on a track and field scholarship. Just a handful of months later, this man had not only survived the infamous VMI Ratline, but had become the fastest freshman in America at his trademark distance, the 800-meters. His freshman season had, in many ways, defied superlatives in a way few other VMI campaigns ever had. This young man’s name is Felix Kitur, and this is his tale.
Kitur grew up in Eldoret, currently listed as the fifth-largest city in Kenya, and quickly began taking advantage of two benefits he was born with: His location and his lineage. Eldoret is home to the IAAF’s (International Association of Athletic Federations) High Altitude Training Center, and according to Kitur, the altitude and hills provide an excellent environment for training.
“Many of the runners in Kenya come from Eldoret,” said Kitur. “That is true because of the altitude, hills and the facilities in the area.”
The young runner began taking advantage of this in elementary school, when he started running for recreational reasons. He did not take his running seriously, however, until high school, when the second of his two benefits began to kick in.
“My father was a three-time Olympian, and even now, he is a coach in Kenya. When I started high school, he provided me with training programs, encouragement and helped me become more serious about my running. He was, absolutely, my major running influence.”
This instruction from David Kitur helped Kitur claim a pair of high school records, as well as a berth in the 2006 Kenyan Jr. National Trials 400-meter event. By that time, Kitur had already received a visit from a family friend.
“The trend of Kenyans coming to VMI started when a coach at another school became friends with Coach Bozeman,” offered Kitur. “This coach was a native of Kenya, and he and Coach Bozeman had a plan in place. Well, this coach happened to be a friend of my dad’s, and my dad mentioned my pending high school graduation. He called Coach Bozeman, we all talked, and I ended up here.”
Kitur boarded a plane bound for the small town of Lexington, Va., with a population nearly 185,000 fewer people than Eldoret. He arrived in mid-August of 2007 and, along with other incoming recruits, faced the Ratline.
“Things were harder last year, with the Ratline and all, as it was harder to do the type of training I can. The expectations aren’t too bad now though, and I really enjoy things here,” stated Kitur.
With the Ratline, and the expected acclimation period, Kitur could have started off slowly. However, the then-freshman got off to a blazing start, as he was VMI’s top finisher in all three cross country events in which he took part. Strangely, Kitur had never competed in a cross country event before arriving at VMI, but the hilly regions and high altitudes of his hometown no doubt paid dividends.
With those finishes in his rearview mirror, it was time for the 2007-08 indoor track season.
“I came into VMI knowing my abilities, and how I could train. I felt like I could eventually in the 1:47 range in the 800 during my first season here, but obviously, I did even better than that,” said Kitur.
The standout finished fourth in his collegiate opener, but he jumped on the competition the next week at the Kent State Gala in Kent, Ohio. Kitur won the event, posting a time of 1:53.16, and his magical run truly began. After taking the Christmas break off, he came back at the Great Dane Classic, held at the legendary Armory track in New York, and was just edged out for the win at the line.
He then returned to action Feb. 23 at the Virginia Tech Invitational, and sped to a 1:50.63 time in the 800-meter finals. That time was good for second place, but was a new VMI record, breaking a 24-year old mark previously set in 1984. The time was just .13 off the NCAA provisional qualifying time, and was a new Big South Conference record by nearly six-tenths of a second.
“It always feels good to hear someone say that you broke a record,” said Kitur with his trademark huge smile. “That first record, the one set at Virginia Tech, was very special.”
The VMI standout, by now beginning to garner more and more attention, came to Clemson, S.C. the next week and despite slower times (1:53.54 in the preliminaries, 1:55.23 in the finals), won the Big South Conference championship, his first of two such titles during the track and field campaign. The Keydets’ next date was the IC4A’s, held in Boston, and as was proving to be a habit, Kitur was up to the task.
Kitur crossed the line with a 1:49.43 time in the preliminaries, which was good enough to break his Big South and VMI record by more than a second. It earned him a place in the event finals, where he finished fifth.
After a few weeks to get his outdoor legs under him, he prevailed in the 800-meters at the Duke Invitational, winning by nearly a half-second. He then went on to win at the University of Virginia the next weekend, cruising to victory by two full seconds, and heading into the Big South Championships on a high note.
The VMI runner qualified third, but went on to win his second Big South title and in the process, earn a bid to the NCAA East Regional, to be held in Tallahassee, Fla., in late May. From there, Kitur went on to compete in relays at the Penn Relays, and to build to the IC4A’s and NCAA Regionals. The IC4A’s were held in Princeton, N.J., and the native Kenyan edged closer to the conference record, posting a 1:49.79 in the event finals, losing out on the title by just .01.
Two weeks later, VMI cross country coach Paul Spangler and Kitur flew to the Sunshine State for the NCAA Regional meet. Upon beginning his workouts, the 800-meter specialist knew something unusual was possible.
“I felt great in workouts,” stated Kitur. “I knew I could do something special, but I still had to go out and execute.”
And execute he did. Not only did the freshman make the finals, powering away from the field in the final 100-meters of his heat to set another Big South record, but he put on a performance to remember in the finals. He finished second, just behind a runner from Florida, but his time of 1:46.75 was not only a VMI record and a Big South record, but it would also prove to be the third-fastest collegiate time during the NCAA regular season. That punched his ticket to nationals, held in Des Moines, Iowa, in early June.
“I really enjoyed the experience at nationals,” stated Kitur. “You get to fly out at the NCAA’s expense, and they treat you very well.”
In his heat, Kitur used a late kick to ensure he would advance to the semi-finals, finishing in third place in his heat. However, in the finals, that kick would desert him. In a highly competitive race, which included 2008 Olympian Andrew Wheating, the VMI freshman was unable to make a late move. That would relegate him to a sixth-place finish, a ninth-place finish overall (missing All-American honors by just over two-tenths of a second), and would end his magical season. Despite that, Kitur spoke of the memory with a smile.
“It was cool to run at that level. Wheating and I ran very close together for some of that race.”
Despite being the first VMI representative at NCAA Nationals since 2005, Kitur does not seem to feel pressure. He speaks with confidence as he relates his thoughts on the upcoming season.
“I would really like to lower my records, especially in the indoor season, where I think I can do much better,” said Kitur when asked about his 2009 goals. “I’ve trained better, have more experience and will not have to take part in the Ratline.”
“Felix has been working with the VMI strength and conditioning coach during the off-season to increase his muscular endurance,” stated Coach Spangler. “I believe that he has the talent to make it the Olympics and possibly win a medal.”
Indeed, Kitur says that running in the Olympics is his goal, as his father David and uncle Samson did (Samson Kitur won a 400-meter bronze medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics).
“One day, I’d like to run in the Olympics like my dad and uncle. Perhaps I could even do that in 2012 at the London Games.”
If Kitur’s journey does one day take him to the Olympics, it will be quite the round-trip for the young man who arrived at VMI that warm summer day. It will have been a journey truly superlative in its size, going from the mountains of Eldoret, Kenya, to the VMI Ratline of Lexington, Virginia, to the shadow of the Olympic Flame.
Written by Brad Salois
Asst. Media Relations Director