On 28 September 2014 Dennis Kimetto won the Berlin Marathon in a jaw-dropping world record time of 2:02:57. For many sports fans, the least surprising aspect of Kimetto’s incredible performance was his nationality: Kimetto is a Kenyan, and Kenyans have come to dominate middle and long distance running in a way that few nationalities have ever ruled over a sport. Of the ten fastest male marathoners since 2004, eight are from Kenya (the other two are from neighbouring Ethiopia). Of the ten fastest female marathoners since 2004, three are from Kenya (including two of the top four). In the year 2011, the twenty fastest marathon times around the globe were run by Kenyan men and there were seventy Kenyans who ran faster marathons than the fastest European runner. Nineteen of the last twenty-four male winners of the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan, as were eleven of the last fifteen female winners of that race. At Olympic Games and World Championships during the last 25 years, Kenyans have been heavily represented on the podium in races from 800m all the way up to the marathon. How a relatively poor country that has fewer than 46 million of the world’s 7 billion people could be so remarkably over-represented among the world’s greatest runners provides something of a mystery.
It is a mystery that English writer Adharanand Finn seeks to shed light on in his Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth. Out of a desire to realize his full potential as a runner as well as to unlock the secrets to Kenyan distance running greatness, Finn convinces his rather tolerant wife and three small children to uproot themselves and move to Iten, Kenya, for six months. During this time he wrote a blog and contributed articles about the experience to the Guardian. Iten is a small town of around 4,000 people, about 1,000 of whom are dedicated full-time athletes. Many of these athletes live in camps where they dedicate themselves completely to running. Here Finn forms a team of runners who train together for the challenging Lewa Marathon, a race that takes place in the high elevation and heat of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. During his training Finn interviews athletes, coaches, and locals to find out more about the lives of Kenyan runners. The reasons that Kenya is able to produce such a large number of great athletes are numerous and complex. Social, economic and environmental factors predispose many Kenyans to have running talent, while a pervasive running culture, the presence of many role models, and a well-developed training and coaching infrastructure helps and encourages focused and dedicated runners to make the most of their abilities.
In his discussion with athletes and coaches, Finn finds that a high proportion of the top Kenyan runners come from poor, rural backgrounds. From a very early age they are engaged in hard work for their families, running and walking everywhere, usually at high altitudes. Describing 5000m great Mercy Cherono, Finn argues that “simply from the inherent physical toughness of her daily life had come a talent to outrun the world.” Another runner told Finn of his childhood “We were training already without knowing it.” Kenyan children grow up eating diets of ugali (a doughy substance made with maize flour and dipped into sauces or stew), beans, rice and vegetables, and very little of the fatty foods that make up so much of the western diet. Finn also makes much of the fact that many Kenyan children run barefoot, teaching them to strike the ground lightly and develop beautiful forefoot-first running form. Kenyan runners get far fewer of the stress injuries that plague western runners. Although as they get older many Kenyan runners opt to train in bulky running shoes, by this point they have already developed the good habits of barefoot running.
The presence of so many great runners and the existence of a culture of admiration for running provides ample incentives for children to build upon these talents. During his stay in Iten or while running on its running trails, Finn continually runs into world champions and famous marathoners. The presence of so many running role models, individuals whose prize money provided a better life for themselves and their communities, gives young runners something to strive for and the confidence that they can win. Finn interviews Brother Colm, who through his St. Patrick’s Boarding School has coached and mentored a great many future champions. Runners who can run fast enough might get signed by a manager, which will enable them to live at one of the many training camps. At these training camps, room and board are provided and the athletes dedicate themselves completely and absolutely to training, pushing each other to work harder. In Kenya, for the most part running is not a simple hobby, but something that athletes devote their lives to with an intense focus.
Finn describes the joys and struggles of training and racing in a way that will be very familiar to many runners. I especially enjoyed his account of the physical and emotional roller coaster that is running a marathon. Finn is a very good runner, but he describes experiences to which runners at every level can relate. In one passage Finn captures perfectly how runners talk ourselves into running, and how at the end we are always glad we did:
Right before you head out running, it can be hard to remember exactly why
you’re doing it. You often have to overcome a nagging sense of futility,
lacing up your shoes, telling yourself that no matter how unlikely it seems,
after you finish you will be glad you went. It’s only afterwards that
it makes sense, although even then its hard to rationalise why. You just
feel right. After a run, you feel at one with the world, as though some
unspecified, innate need has been fulfilled.
My main critique of the book is that at times it was a bit uncomfortable to read about a privileged and wealthy white man who takes a vacation to run alongside people who are in the most literal way desperately running away from poverty. Throughout the book there are moments when Finn acknowledges feeling awkward about his privileged position and the extraordinary amount of deference and respect that he and his family receive because of the whiteness of their skin. A freelance journalist, Finn is continually treated like a visiting dignitary in Kenya. This could have been addressed more directly, and perhaps greater acknowledgement made of the terrible legacies of colonialism that created many of the underlying conditions in Kenya. He points out that many Kenyan runners train with such focus and determination in part because they see racing as a potential way out of poor economic circumstances. This might be a recipe for creating elite athletes, but it is hardly a model other nations would wish to emulate. That said, this is a book that nearly all runners will enjoy reading.
Christopher Frank will be participating in his first Boston Marathon this April, but he certainly won’t be running with the Kenyans.