Saturday, August 25, 2012

Running with the Kenyans

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn is an exceptional book worth reading if you are a fan of running and wanting to know what it would be like to train with the Kenyans in Rift Valley of Kenya with the greatest distance runners in the world. It is a story of an ordinary Englishman who travel to Kenya in hopes of discovering what is the secret to the international success of the Kenyan distance runners. Finn also wants to see if he can improve on his own running by running with the Kenyans. The search involves looking into the usual suspects of what creates the great Kenyan distance success. Is it...
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. (page 238)
Or is there some super running gene that make great Kenyan runners so abundant. Or can it be that they simply want it more than athletes from other countries? Finn takes his family to the great running town of Iten, Kenya to discover these truths. He also travels to nearby Eldorat. These are the two most well-known places that Kenyan athletes congregate to in order to pursue their dreams. There is certainly a hunger for success that is different than the approach of most runners in the western cultures. We run because it makes us feel good. We search for the runner's high. One of the characters that Finn meets is a runner named Godfrey who tells about when he ran four miles to school each day.
"I noticed I felt better in my body during the day," he says. "I was able to concentrate much better. When I didn't run, I felt tired and lethargic all day." (page 48)

Godfrey admits that Finn is the first person he has told of this discovery and that he only thought of it at the moment. As a teacher, I find it strange that the Kenyans do what is good for them naturally without thought of the benefits, and here in America where we know the importance of daily exercise, we limit how much our children do. When I was in Kenya last summer, I did not see Kenyan children running to school, but I saw them walking all the time and I saw massive amounts of Kenyan adults making long walks to get where they needed to be. Finn settles into life in Iten and starts his own running group with a ragtag group of aspiring runners including a former 2nd place finisher of the Boston and New York City Marathons, Chrisopher Cheboiboch, who is now more busy handling the daily affairs of a school he set up then doing the necessary training to become a champion runner again. This is part of the ethos of being a Kenyan runner. One of the more informative sections of the book describes the Kenyan idea of teamwork. Finn writes: Unlike athletes from other parts of the world, such as the Jamaican Usain Bolt, Kenyan runners rarely seek out the limelight. Even when the win gold medals they always bring their teammates with them on their lap of honor. He talks with author and runner Toby Tanser while in Kenya who tells him about a Kenyan concept called harambee.
"Very few of the Kenyan champions come from a sheltered family unit. Instead they are brought up as part of the wider community of a village, almost like pieces of a bicycle chain. They soon learn about harambee. Harambee is a Kenyan tradition, in which a whole community will come together to help itself. It literally means "all pull together" and is the official motto of Kenya. When a Kenyan wins a medal, or a large sum of money, he reflects on the journey that took him to that moment, and he realizes perhaps better than we do, that no person achieves without the help and support of those around him." (page 140)

 It sounds like a worthwhile tradition, this harambee, but I am not sure it will fly in the political self-interested world that seems to be happening in 2012 America!

Finn on the run with the Kenyans.
Other photos here.

 Part of the fun of this book is that while in Iten, Finn meets and spends time with some of the greatest runners in the world today. I was reading this book during the London Olympics and many of the familiar names popped up in the Olympic races. Mary Keitany, Emmanual Mutai, David Rudisha, Nixon Chepseba, and others. If you pay attention to one of Finn's group training runs he describes going for a 20+ mile training run in which he is given a 10 minute head start on the men runners and runs with the ladies.
At about the tenth mile the men come past us. First the sound of rushing feet, then they go by, their strides strong, their shoulders leaning forward, little puffs of dust kicked up by their feet. One by one they go. At the front is Emmanual Mutai and an Ugandan athlete named Stephen Kiprotich, who came in sixth at the recent World Cross-Country championships. The others are not far behind. (page 173)
Yeah, that Stephan Kiprotich, the guy who was the unexpected winner of the 2012 London Olympic Marathon. Unfortunately, while reading this book during the Olympics, it was interesting to note that the Kenyan runners where not as successful as anticipated in the games and that caused great consternation in Kenya. The head Kenyan Coach Julius Kirwa has asked the government to ban foreigners from training in Kenya and learning "Kenya's Training Tactics" He cited those such as Mo Farah, Stephen Kiprotich and Taoufik Makhloufi, who've used training in Kenya to win medals. Other notable people who should be familiar to runners turn up in the book, Italian running coach Renato Canova, Brother Colm of the St. Patrick's School in Iten, and a young American runner named Anders who is spending time in Iten. Anders' mother also shows up, Joan Benoit-Samuelson. The three, while traveling by car, are stopped by a policeman. Finn calls the great Olympic champion "elderly" for some reason, but Joan's renown as an Olympic runners lets the three off the hook. The fun in the book is meeting the various characters and getting a taste of training in this place that is a runner's haven. Finn paints compelling portraits of the Kenyans he meets and the landscape of the region. As someone who has spent some time in Kenya, the portrayals seem accurate. I have a love of the Kenyan land and people and if I ever have a chance to return, I would love to spend some time in the Iten to get a taste of this runner's paradise.
Amid the chaos and poverty, where people struggle to make enough moeny to buy even the simplest things such as bread and water, here are some of the world's best athletes doing drills, back and forth, along the side of the road. (page 45)
Is there an absolute secret to the Kenyan's success? Who knows? Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth will, though give you a fabulous window into the culture of Kenyan athletics. It is a fantastic read and a book I would put on my list of favorite running books. You want to know what happens to the athletes in the story as well as to Finn and his team when they complete their goal marathon at the end of the story.

Here is Adharanard Finn's blog for Running with the Kenyans.

British club runner Adharanand Finn moved to Kenya with his family to discover the secret behind the phenomenal success of Kenyan runners. He took a camera with him, and here he talks about his experiences and we see what life was like, as he discusses his book Running with the Kenyans.

1 comment:

walt chadwick said...

I enjoyed this book very much. It was an adventure I felt I was involved in. It made me wish I could go and enjoy the environment and the wonderful people.