The Return of Kennedy Kithuka|
Red Raider Kennedy Kithuka returns for his senior outdoor season this weekend
March 20, 2014
by Britton Drown
Cold. Blistering cold temperatures coupled with icy winds whipped and slashed across the LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course in Terre Haute. Standing tall within its path, Kennedy Kithuka peered out at the long course before him.
10,000-meters - more than six miles. In this?
Could he do it again?
A relentless late November front just pummeled the Midwest and held Terre Haute in its grasp hours before the start of the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championship. The terrain was wet, sloppy and tough to navigate, let alone race. Kithuka knew precious energy would be wasted by way of the imminent slipping and sliding that was to come.
The weather that day brought elements to the course Kithuka, in his senior cross country season at Tech, had yet to face throughout his unparalleled and record-breaking career.
The soft-spoken and humble Kenya native entered the race unbeaten - 14 victories in 14 cross country races as a Red Raider, and looking to repeat as NCAA Champion. Only four runners in the last 37 seasons of NCAA Division I cross country had pulled off the feat.
Nevertheless, the race began and Kithuka took his usual lead. He controlled the pace for the opening 6,000-meters of the race, but a late push by freshman Oregon runner Edward Cheserek proved too much for the reigning national champion.
For the first time as a Red Raider Kithuka was passed, and eventually crossed the finish line second behind Cheserek.
That cold, wet and windy day was Kithuka's most recent race in a Texas Tech uniform as he exhausted his indoor track eligibility following a 2013 NCAA Indoor 5,000-meter title.
Now, with months to prepare for his final campaign as a Red Raider, he returns to the track this weekend as Texas Tech opens the 2014 outdoor season in San Antonio.
"I have something," Kithuka said. "I should not look back at what happened in cross country. I have to go on and get ready for the outdoor season.
I know I will come back."
It was August 2012 when Kithuka made his debut in a Red Raider uniform at the Texas Tech Ruidoso Open - just more than 250 miles west of the Texas Tech campus. In his first NCAA Division I cross country race, the two-time NAIA Cross Country Champion not only blew away the field, but set a course record cruising across the finish line with a time of 19 minutes 40.8 seconds in the 4-mile race. Two weeks later, Kithuka returned to Lubbock for the Texas Tech Open in what would be his first 8,000-meter race of the season. Yet again, he jumped out ahead of the field before crossing the finish line well over a minute ahead of the second place finisher.
The two early season performances jumpstarted the junior to the most prolific cross country season by a Red Raider in school history. He went unbeaten, set three course records and went on to become Tech's first men's NCAA Cross Country Champion.
At the national meet, Kithuka took on - and defeated - previously unbeaten Arizona Wildcat Lawi Lalang.
The perfect season was complete.
"We knew he was good," Texas Tech head cross country coach Jon Murray said. "We just didn't know how good he was going to be. To do what he did that first cross country season was just a picture perfect story."
As the newly minted NCAA Champion, Kithuka was on the national scene as a rising star at Texas Tech.
The sensational fall of 2012 closed with Kithuka atop the collegiate cross country world. He graced the cover of Track and Field News. He was unbeaten and the new force in Division I.
"I knew if I trained well and believed in the coaching staff," Kithuka said. "That would make me believe I could do anything better."
The national publication captured his emphatic finish, complete with his trademark grin, hands in the air and Guns Up. In just four months, Kithuka had cemented his status as a cross country great at Texas Tech - and still had his senior season of eligibility.
The scene, and all the euphoria surrounding it, closed the fall season with about a month-and-a-half separating his national championship performance and the start of the 2013 indoor track and field season.
"I gained a lot of confidence," Kithuka said. "I knew I had to go for the indoor track [season]. I grew all of my confidence from that time. My body was feeling well every time I went on the track."
It was three weeks into the indoor season when Kithuka and the Red Raiders made their first trip as the squad traveled south to College Station for the Texas A&M Mondo Challenge. At the meet, Tech would go head-to-head with teams from Texas A&M, Arizona State, USC and Tennessee - and Kithuka would make his debut on the track in his first distance race as a Red Raider.
He didn't disappoint. Kithuka made history that day, winning the mile in a school record 3:59.53 - marking the first-ever sub-4 minute performance at Texas Tech. He also anchored the Red Raider distance medley relay team to a school record time of 9:41.55, easily beating teams from both Texas A&M, on its home track, and Tennessee.
Kithuka would go on to turn in yet another stellar performance at the prestigious Tyson Invitational in Arkansas where he brought the crowd to a standing ovation with the nation's leading time in the 5,000-meter run. In a downright dominant performance, Kithuka crossed the finish line in 13:25.38.
"He handled it well," Murray said. "He double-lapped most of the field. He got on pace, handled the race preparation well in what we were wanting to do, and just did it. The crowd, they are great fans at Arkansas and were just appreciative of his effort. It was just a great performance and they showed that appreciation. It was nice."
The dominant regular season set the stage for what would be another opportunity to etch his legacy in the Texas Tech and NCAA record books. On the very stage where he clocked that historic performance in Arkansas, Kithuka would race for a national championship.
On the first day of competition at the Randal-Tyson Tack Complex in Arkansas, Kithuka outran the field and brought home Texas Tech's first national title in the men's 5,000-meter run. Kithuka crossed the finish with a season-best and NCAA All-Time Top-10 time of 13:25.38, and with the performance he scored 10 points for the Red Raiders who went on to capture Tech's first-ever top-5 finish.
"He was just as excited for our team performance as he was his individual performance," Murray said. "That speaks to his attitude and what he goes by in life. He wants other people to be successful just like himself. He is just such an inspiration for more than himself. He inspires other people. They get there and they do better than they did before because he is around them."
It's been one calendar year since Kithuka last stepped on the track in a Texas Tech uniform. Now the soft-spoken, but ultra-competitive senior enters his final season as a Red Raider.
In just two cross country seasons and the 2013 indoor season on the track, Kithuka already has two national titles, four Big 12 titles, three indoor school records and the first-ever sub-4 minute mile in school history.
But he wants more.
Sitting in the lobby of the Wyndham Garden Hotel in San Antonio days before his first outdoor race of the season, it takes little time to list the meets, races and times he wants to achieve in the upcoming months. And they all lead up to one meet.
The Big 12 Outdoor Championships.
Tech hosts the conference meet for the second time in five years May 16-18 at the Terry and Linda Fuller Track and Field Complex in Lubbock.
"My goal is to have the team title," he said. "Because if you have the team title you create good memories. If I see that ring, with Texas Tech, that will be something we achieved as a team. [It would be a great] memory with my teammates and coaches, to see how hard we worked."
Whatever memories Kithuka and the Texas Tech track and field program goes on to make with him on the squad this season, one thing is certainly clear. He has already made an indelable mark on the program - in the record books, on the track and on the NCAA track and field and cross country scene as a whole.
"I'm very happy to be at Texas Tech." Kithuka said. "It's been a very good home for me. Lubbock has been a very nice place to me, because it has helped my name to be great there. So if I finish school and go outside, I will still [be happy] to be from Texas Tech and represent Texas Tech."