Monday, November 23, 2015

What makes Kenyans world champion runners?

This is a review of Running  with the Kenyans - Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth, by Adharanand Finn, Ballantine Books, London, 2013.
I was not sure what to expect in this book, but was pleasantly surprised. Finn, an English runner, journeys to Kenya to live and train with Kenyans for about six months.  His objective was first to gather material for a story along the lines of the subtitle - he worked for a sports magazine. But secondly he wanted to test himself as a runner to find out what he had left in his tank.  

Finn moved his family to Iten, a small town of five thousand people perched at 8,000 feet on the rim of the Great Rift Valley.  Iten has become the center of Kenya’s running culture.  A thousand or so folks congregate there in various training camps in order to focus exclusively on running.  It is a hard regime as the competition is fierce, yet global results prove that Kenyans, especially the Kalenjin people of the Iten region are in fact the fastest people on earth.  For the last forty years they have excelled in all distance running events, holding world and Olympic records. Kenyans regularly (and usually) win all the major big-city marathons.

During his sojourn Finn met dozens of champions.  He quizzed them and their coaches about what makes Kenyans fast. He befriended many and cobbled together a training group with the objective of competing in the Lewa (Kenya) marathon.   The book ties together these two themes - information about why Kenyans can run and a personal story of interactions with runners. 

 Acknowledging various scientific studies of the issues, the author gradually concludes that Kenyans runners are fast for a number of combined reasons.  They are rural people who live at altitude.  Genetically they are skinny and long legged. They work hard at farming, herding or as children running to school. They eat a high carbohydrate, low fat diet.  Thus, their bodies are prepared for running.  Then they train well, devoting all of their time to running, resting and eating. Psychologically they have strong internal discipline, can face hardship and persevere.  They harbor a fierce competitive streak.  Finally there is a pervasive culture of running.
Success has built upon success. Running is a way out of a subsistence quagmire to a modicum of success.  Monetary prizes permit buying more land, building a better house, starting a business and generally moving up the economic scale.
Finn investigates all these issues and in doing so really gets plugged into the running culture.  Conversations and interactions illuminate motivations and hopes as well as disappointments.  He finds, of course, gaps in understanding - him of them and them of him.  However, he paints genuinely humanizing portraits of his friends and colleagues as their friendships grow. 
In sum Running with the Kenyans is an insightful book about running and about Kenyans.  Readers with an interest in those topics will enjoy it. 

No comments: