Monday, June 11, 2012

Running with the Kenyans

To me, a great running book is not one that focuses on technique, training plans, diet, and form.  A great running book is one that entertains me and makes we want to get out and run!  Adharanand Finn has done just that with his new book, Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.  Finn, a British journalist and a pretty good runner, moved to Kenya for several months (with his patient wife and flexible children).  They lived in the Rift Valley town of Iten, one of the central training grounds for Kenyan runners.

Finn jumped right into the running culture of Iten.  To hear him tell it, there are runners everywhere.  The roads get clogged with groups of runners, and there are numerous training camps.  Virtually everyone Finn is introduced to has some kind of running credential: placed in a major marathon, world record holder for this distance, medalist in that Olympic Games, etc.  That high concentration of success and speed is pretty intimidating, but Finn does his best to keep up.  He even puts together a team to train for an upcoming marathon.
Any one of these guys would probably be a top-10 finisher in a U.S. marathon.
Over the course of the book, Finn entertains us with the idiosyncrasies of life in rural Kenya (I loved his observation, which drew little comment, of the shepherd who delivered his charges one at a time in the basket of his bicycle.  I wish Finn would have taken pictures. . . .) as well as with his reports of running with these world-class athletes (he often runs with the women. . . .).  All the while, he asks the question that prompted his visit to Iten: why are the Kenyans so fast, dominating road racing the world over in recent years?

My favorite explanation is tied to the tradition of cattle rustling.  Slow Kalenjins (the ethnic group from which most of the fast Kenyans come) would get caught or killed rustling cattle.  The fast ones end up with more cattle, and in a polygamous society, that means more wives.  So slow Kalenjins are removed from the gene pool, while the fast ones spread their genes more prodigiously.  Even thought it's a good story, that's probably not the reason

Finn says, "It's just how they live.  Simply through growing up on the slopes of the Rift Valley, far form cities and the technologies that the West has invented to make life more comfortable, they have found themselves excelling at the world's most natural sport."  So it's a wide variety of factors.
The puzzle of why Kenyans are such good runners. . . . was too complex, yet too simple [to be reduced to an] elixir, a running gene, [a] training secret that you could neatly package up. . . . It was everything, and nothing. . . .: the tough, active childhood, the barefoot running, the altitude, the diet, the role models, the simple approach to training, the running camps, the focus and dedication, the desire to succeed, to change their lives, the expectation that they can win, the mental toughness, the lack of alternatives, the abundance of trails to train on, the time spent resting, the running to school, the all-pervasive running culture, the reverence for running.
 I know that if I, like Finn, spent several months in Iten, I might make some progress.  I would certainly lose some weight, and probably would get faster.  But I'm sure I'll never run like a Kenyan.  Nevertheless, Running with the Kenyans does make me want to get out and run!

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