“After years of watching Kenyan athletes win the world’s biggest long-distance races, RUNNER’S WORLD contributor Adharanand Finn set out to discover what it was that made them so fast – and to see if he could keep up. Packing up his family, he moved to Iten, Kenya, the running capital of the world, and started investigating. Was it running barefoot to school, the food, the altitude, or something else? At the end of his journey he put his research to the test by running his first marathon, across the Kenyan plains.”
The intriguing subtitle of this book promises the discovery of secrets, but I didn’t read this book in the hope of finding out some great running secret, I read it because I was interested in the journey (both literal and metaphorical) which the author, Adharanand Finn, would take in his quest to find out just what it is that makes Kenyan runners so great. And with Kenyan runners both male and female so dominant in distance running over the last few years (in 2011, as the book tells us, the top twenty fastest marathons of the year were run by Kenyans, and a look at the results of major marathons throughout this year reveals that the Kenyan dominance still continues), I thought it would be interesting to learn more about how they live, eat and train.
Finn describes himself early in the book as a “former runner”. He had discovered a talent for running at school and trained hard, and although this had lapsed during his university days and early adulthood, he was never quite able to hang up his trainers completely. But when working freelance for Runner’s World and reporting on a 10k race, an unusual thing happened: he won! This experience led him to consider once more what could happen if he trained properly. What kind of athlete could he be? With his sister-in-law living in Kenya, his curiosity about the Kenyan athletes’ training regime and a thirst for adventure combining in his mind, a plan soon began to form. And so it was that Finn, his wife and three young children headed to Kenya for six months with the promise of family reunion, adventure and, of course, running with the greatest runners on earth.
The book follows the family as they settle into their new life as a mzungu (white) family in Iten, where athletes from around the world gather to train at altitude. Almost everyone Finn meets is a runner and all are introduced in the book by way of their personal best times. In one particularly memorable moment, Finn turns up for a morning run to find former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang explaining that day’s workout to the assembled group. It sounds incredible yet in Iten, a place where a simple Sunday morning run will likely find you running in the company of champions and world record holders, such encounters are an everyday occurrence,
Finn’s plan was to put together a team to run in the Lewa marathon, a notoriously tough race which requires the use of helicopters to keep the lions at bay! Finding talented runners to join his team was no problem, but would his own performance measure up? Our intrepid author realised early on that he would have a lot of work to do when he travelled to a training session at a nearby track as part of a running camp:
“A Russian man back in Iten told me that if you run on the track with Kenyans, you feel disabled. I now know what he means.”
And so Finn immersed himself in the Kenyan training experience. He interviewed runners, followed their training schedules, tried their food and scrutinised both their running styles and footwear. His hope? To find out what their secret was and whether or not he could use this to improve his own running: was it the fact that Kenyan children ran to school barefoot and hence tend towards a forefoot running style? Was it the ugali (a doughy maize flour dish) that Kenyan athletes ate in abundance? Was it the altitude and it’s impact on how our bodies use oxygen? Finn considers all of these alongside other factors such as the amount of sleep Kenyan athletes have (up to 16 hours a day in some cases), the high status of athletes in Kenya and the desire for success that drives those athletes to greater and greater heights.
What I enjoyed about this book is that it was part travelogue, part running tale and was written in a style both educational and entertaining. I might not have been to Kenya or had the chance to train as Kenyan athletes do, but I can certainly relate to the quest to become a better runner, to refine my form, to train harder and, ultimately, become the best runner I can be. As I read I was intrigued as Finn weighed up the information he had read about barefoot running (and the challenges he faced in altering his own running style) with his observations of how runners in Kenya were shod; I admired his perseverance in training with elite athletes, even when it was a real struggle to keep up with them; and I was struck by what he came to realise about the importance of training hard as a means by which to secure a better life, compared to his own goals:
“In England, running is largely a hobby, practised gamely by enthusiasts who squeeze in training runs where they can amongst all the other things in their lives. A handful of people dotted here and there take it more seriously, training regularly, turning out on freezing winter mornings for races with their local athletics clubs. But here in Kenya, anyone who can run dedicates their life to it. And that dedication seems to be spreading. There are more training camps than ever before. More runners. All pushing each other, training harder, every single day. Here, athletics is like a religion…
…In a land where running is so revered, my goals of running a marathon, or bettering my personal best times, seems feeble and half-hearted. Here people are running to change their lives. To feed their families. To break world records.”
The book culminates with Finn and his team taking on the Lewa marathon where rather than Tower Bridge, the Eiffel Tower or Central Park, runners are more likely to see a herd of zebra as they battle through the brutal heat! Does he achieve what he set out to achieve? I’m not going to give that away here, but if you are interested in finding out more about what contributes to making Kenyan runners so great, taking a peek into the lives of the elite athletes seen regularly on tv at the front of the pack in World Marathon Majors, or simply enjoy a tale of adventure, then this book is for you. I was certainly gripped by it.
You can read more from Adharanand Finn here.