The Book of the Week is “Running with the Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn, published in 2012. This ebook is a personal account detailing the author’s quest to find out why Kenya’s runners have developed a reputation in the past decade for winning so many races around the world.
Finn, an English journalist, moved his family to Kenya for several months to observe firsthand how the Kenyans do what they do. He himself jogs as a hobby, and while there, trained with many world record holders for his first marathon, in Lewa.
Iten is the small town where many Kenyans reside– in one of two major upmarket athletics training camps, where athletes, who get free food and lodging, do nothing but run, eat and sleep. The groups train daily in all kinds of weather, starting at 6 or 7am, braving “…potholes, cows and bicycles.” The camp manager decides who will run in races outside Kenya, and gets a percentage of the monies won.
The author notes that a Kenyan reports his or her age as significantly lower than it really is when signing up for a race. He couldn’t learn the real reason why. Also unexplained, is why, at the time the author was running with the Kenyans, they did not have big-money sponsors, like Adidas or Nike.
Another Kenyan cultural trait– that prompts competence at running from a young age– is that school is usually one to five miles from home, between which the kids run, so as to minimize transportation time. There are neither buses nor chauffeuring parents. At the time of his writing, the author had heard from various sources that Kenyans, counterintuitively, actually had high reverence for the British, who “… had brought civilization to Kenya.” So when Westerners were wearing shoes specially designed for running, the Kenyans thought they should wear them, too. This is in spite of the fact Kenyans run faster barefoot because most of them spend their lives barefoot, growing up on rural subsistence farms, and have won more races barefoot than not.
When Kenyan runners achieve fame and fortune, they return home to a village asking for a piece of them. This becomes a distraction and kills their careers if they, as many of them do, divert time and resources from their hours-long training every day; like, if they want to build a school for their village. This is not necessarily a bad thing– if they make a conscious choice to give back to their community, and they want to retire.
Read the book to learn more about other aspects of Kenyan culture plus other factors conducive to fast running, and how the author fared in his first marathon, before which, helicopters had to scare lions away from the course.