These Kenyan runners, how do they keep on winning?

Friday April 6 2012

Photo/AFP  Kenya’s Stephen Kibet crosses the finish line first at the City Pier City run in The Hague on March 11.

Photo/AFP Kenya’s Stephen Kibet crosses the finish line first at the City Pier City run in The Hague on March 11.  

It is almost a guarantee that in a group of middle or long-distance athletes, Kenyans will come out on top.

We have been winning for so long that it has ceased to intrigue us; a Kenyan winning the New York, Boston or London marathon has become such a constant feature of the athletic landscape that we don’t question it anymore — it is one of those things that just come with being a Kenyan.

But beyond Kenyan borders, athletes and sports pundits are still baffled at how a tiny corner of the world can come to dominate so completely the world’s most universally accessible sport.

No special equipment needed; no assembly of great teams, just the most basic action of all: Putting one foot in front of the other.

Running with the Kenyans is the story of one man’s quest to find the secret of Kenya’s success on the race track.

Sports journalist and amateur athlete Adharanand Finn uproots his wife and three young children from their cosy middle-class life in Devon, UK, to spend six months in the highlands of Iten, Kenya, living and training with Kenya’s emerging and elite runners.

He hopes that by immersing himself in the Kenyan athletic lifestyle, some of the magic will rub off on him, and he will regain his form to run the Lewa Marathon.

Finn dreams of solving the riddle of Kenya’s dominance, and returning to England to make a fortune selling the secret to whoever cares to pay for it.

Finn quickly discovers that the Kenyan way of conceptualising running is very different from his culture: Hardly any Kenyans outside the affluent areas in big cities run simply for the fun of it or to lose some weight, unlike in Finn’s home town where a middle-aged, overweight person running in the park is a fairly common sight.

Vivian Cheruiyot, the current 5,000-metres world champion, tells Finn, “In Kenya, there are only athletes.”

It would seem that in Kenya if you are an athlete, you run; if you aren’t, you don’t. The reason for this seriousness, Finn discovers, is that running is seen as a way out of poverty.

Finn’s book confirms some of the suspicions that we have about our successful athletes. For example, Kenyans typically have relatively short careers because of family pressures.

“The runners all come from poor backgrounds, with less education... when they win, the whole village celebrates, and everyone asks for support.”

The successful athlete becomes like the chief of the village, so then everyone goes to him with their personal problems. As a result, the athlete is unable to focus on their running career for long.

We also intuitively know that growing up running barefoot gives Kenyans an edge over their Western counterparts — rather than land heel first, as most Western runners do, Kenyan athletes run with the ball of the foot hitting the ground first.

Not only does this reduce the risk of injury, but it is a more efficient way of running, as there is less impact upon landing on the ground.

In effect, by landing heel first, most Western runners are braking with every stride.

But Finn’s book also highlights some of the quirks about Kenyan athletes that we rarely interrogate.

Despite Kenyans practically dominating one of the most popular sports for decades, if you stop a stranger in any Western city and asked them to name even one Kenyan runner, he would probably struggle.

This is likely caused by the shyness of the athletes, who rarely seek the limelight.

According to Finn, “Their awkward looks and monosyllabic answers when placed in front of the camera can drive their agents mad.”

One has to credit Finn’s diligence in writing Running with the Kenyans — the book is very rich in detail and description, yet Finn manages to keep it light and easy reading.

But for all its strengths, and even with the opportunity for Kenyans to discover some peculiarities about themselves that are otherwise taken for granted, Finn’s book is written with a Western audience in mind and in reference to Western culture.

Finn probably did not intend to, but he ends up adopting a starkly judgmental tone when trying to analyse situations that baffle him—for example, when he visited the family of one of his athlete friends and attempted to speak to the wife, Mary, who was also an athletics champion, she only mumbled a few words before falling silent—the husband, Charles, instead, spoke on her behalf.

When he asks Charles if they will use the money from Mary’s world record to build a bigger house, Charles “looks at him confused.”

Finn says that “Their place is nice, but it’s fairly simple. It’s not the kind of house you imagine a world record holder living in.”

When Charles goes round to show Finn his cows, Finn says that he can’t help thinking that “it would be easier and cheaper to just go to the shop and buy milk everyday... But the mindset is to own a cow.”

From a Western perspective, it seems ridiculous to go through the trouble of keeping a cow when you can just buy milk from a shop; but of course, to an African, it’s the most natural thing in the world.