Book Review – Running with the Kenyans

“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.

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Book Review – Running Like a Girl

 

Alexandra Heminsley had high hopes: the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel, the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms and bored of yoga, she decided to run.
Her first attempt did not end well. But years later and with several marathons under her belt, she agrees with her dad: you run with your head as much as your legs.

I knew straight away that I would enjoy this book. Just from reading the blurb I picked up that while it would recount Alexandra Heminsley’s running story and offer some advice based on her experiences, it would be done in an alarmingly honest way that would be both engaging and hilariously funny. And that’s exactly how it was:

“This book is the one I didn’t have but would have liked to have read before I went on my first (disastrous) run. Something for those people who think they can’t run for whatever reason. For the women who think they aren’t slim enough to wear running kit or that it’s not worth it if they don’t want to complete an entire marathon, for the women who think that running around in circles is an idiotic way to spend the best part of an hour. For those women who don’t yet trust that it really is a source of immeasurable pleasure, self-belief and unexpected companionship, rather than a necessary purgatory – that they might, just might, enjoy the confidence, the physical ease or the mental clarity that running brings”.

Heminsley was never a runner, never sporty. She did what many of us do as we get older – go to a gym, try out yoga and/or join some kind of club in a vain (and usually clueless) attempt to get fit. Of course, none of this was ever successful so she decided to try running.

As I read about Heminsley’s first, ill-fated run I couldn’t help thinking back to my own rather poor first effort. For me, a PE teacher friend helped me get started, but I quickly discovered that I had no stamina and could barely run for a minute without having to stop and walk. How was I ever going to manage 5k? (And forget about anything any longer, that was for the superhuman types!). So I found myself relating to Heminsley’s description of her own first run: the bright red face, the struggle to breathe and the racing heart that lead so many to give up before they really get started. We’ve all been there and I’m sure your first run was not the graceful, gazelle-like bounding you envisaged either! Hopefully, like me, you persevered. Heminsley took 3 months before she gave it another go!

As the book progresses, we learn more about Heminsley’s journey to becoming a multiple marathon runner. Like many of us, she believed for a long time that she “couldn’t run”. As runners, how many times have we heard that from others? “I can’t run” or “I’m not built for running”. Nonsense. Anyone can run, so many just don’t even though they are more than able to. We just have to get past that belief (and not expect to be able to run a marathon at world-class pace on our first outing!). Heminsley’s story helps demonstrate that getting past that mistaken but oh-so-common belief IS possible. She documents the procrastination of “faffing around on iTunes trying to compose a playlist of such magnitude that it would propel me round the park”, the early failures and the soul-searching questions about exactly why she wanted to do this in the first place. And then she applied for a place in the London Marathon…

Much of the first half of the book is therefore all about how Heminsley went from non-runner to finishing that first marathon…and beyond. She documents the ups and downs of training and the disaster scenarios we all construct when we first start out – getting lost, getting injured or getting “caught short” – and provides some reassurance that these things are by no means a certainty. We learn about the importance of the right kit and accompany Heminsley on a rather off-putting trip to buy running shoes. We learn of the importance of Vaseline to runners (and the consequences of over-looking it!) and she’s not afraid to cover some of the issues that beginners might be too embarrassed to ask about. We nod in sympathy as she is struck by her first injury and ride the emotional rollercoaster of that first marathon. She also covers that no man’s land we arrive in after the marathon when the goal has been achieved and many lose their running mojo. For Heminsley, helping a friend to achieve the same goal kick-started her running once more and led her to make running a big part of her life. Yes, it wasn’t always easy, but in her tales of the difficulties she has encountered and pitfalls she has overcome, we see the determination and tenacity that is so often the hallmark of a runner.

If the first part of the book is all about Heminsley’s journey, then the second part is designed to help others overcome some of the problems she encountered along the way:

That was my story, and this part shall be about making it yours. Here are the answers to the queries I tormented myself with when I learned to run, as well as some extra ones I have been asked over the years since.

Heminsley begins with a potted history of women’s running via the stories of some of the greats such as Kathrine Switzer and Joan Benoit Samuelson before attacking such issues as injury (including debunking some common running myths), going to get fitted for your first pair of running shoes, running clubs/groups, running style and, of course, all the myriad issues and worries related to running a marathon.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. While it may seem like it would be aimed more at those just beginning their running journey, in actual fact there is something in there for everyone: for the new runner it is an honest, helpful and inspiring breakdown of what to expect; for the more experienced runner it is full of tales we can relate to and advice we nod sagely about, knowing that we, too, made those same mistakes. If you’re looking for a running book to stick in your suitcase this summer, I highly recommend this one.

You can read more about Running Like A Girl on the official website.

Book Review – Keep on Running

“Marathons make you miserable, but they also give you the most unlikely and the most indescribable pleasures. It’s a world that I love – a world unlocked when you dress up in Lycra and run 26.2 miles in the company of upwards of 30,000 complete strangers. Even when I hate it, I love it still.”

The back cover of Phil Hewitt‘s book Keep on Running: The Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict gives you a fair idea that this is going to be an entertaining read. A light-hearted, but above all honest, account of the writer’s journey from an occasional runner to a full-blown marathon addict, this book resonated with me from page one. I shared his joy, I shared his pain, and I shared his understanding that the next one is never really the last one, no matter what you might have previously announced!

 

Like many of us, Hewitt discovered marathon running not as a whippet-thin racing snake in his early twenties, but in his mid-thirties, when the myriad demands of life – work, family and a niggling feeling that he was becoming an observer of life rather than a participant – made him want to try something new. A chance opportunity, a spur of the moment decision and he was committed to not only run, but to run a marathon, write about it for the newspaper he worked for and raise funds for charity at the same time. Quite an undertaking for someone who hadn’t run a step since the occasional short foray at university!

And so the stage was set for an addiction now dating back well over a decade to the late nineties. As readers, we become almost participants in that addiction as we follow Hewitt’s journey through all sorts of marathons – from big city races to much lower key local or trail races – taking in an assortment of countries, weather and even terrain on his never-ending quest to become a better marathon runner. We learn not just of his race experiences, but of the training, preparation and, in some cases, lack of preparation that shaped those experiences. Each chapter covers a different race and is recounted in an impressive amount of detail.

For me, the chapters detailing races I am familiar with were my favourites. Hewitt’s first marathon was THE marathon – London. London was my second marathon running experience, however I had been a spectator there before I had been a participant and Hewitt’s description of the thought processes before a first marathon certainly rang true:

I was convinced…that I was never, ever, no never, going to do it again. One marathon was going to be enough. The marathon itch had lurked in my mind for a few years before the chance had arisen, and now I was going to purge myself completely of all mad urges in one insanely long run, after which I would return to normal life. No more getting up stupidly early on a Sunday and running 15 miles…No more aches and pains. No, I was going back to a life of leisure.”

Return to a life of leisure? Yeah, right! Every marathon runner had a first marathon. Every marathon runner I know (including myself) believed it would be a one-off event. We were wrong. We went back for more, and then more. We became addicts!

And so it was that as I read this book, I felt like I was running with Hewitt. I relived the London marathon experience, I relived the Paris marathon experience (my first marathon and one I will return to next month) and I relived the mental peaks and troughs that go hand in hand with running a marathon. As time passes, we forget the pain and the dark moments (usually somewhere after the 18 mile mark) which are overshadowed by the sheer elation of crossing the finish line and being handed a medal. As the aches and pains fade, we find ourselves considering what’s next. Hewitt, clearly, always has to have another race lined up in order to feel complete.

Of course running a marathon does not always go to plan and Hewitt is happy to share with us some of his less than successful experiences. Yet even after a bad race he picks himself up, enters another and gets on with it – a valuable thing for us all to remember when we have a run (or race) that just doesn’t go well. But regardless of whether a race went well or badly, Hewitt retains the humorous and entertaining style that had me willing him on to meet his goals in each race.

You see that’s the thing about marathon running, which Hewitt clearly understands – it offers something special. It’s a sport where we can compete in the same event as the elites. It’s a sport where your greatest competition is yourself. And it’s a sport where everyone can join in. As Hewitt puts it:

“All of us have got our lives, our jobs, our families, our routines, our habits, our foibles. All of us work to get from one day to the next. Very few of us hit the headlines. Very few of us aspire to. But train for a marathon, and for one day you can join the ranks of the immortals”

He concludes his point by writing:

“This is the way we become heroes – if only to ourselves. Sporting glory is there for the taking every time you line up at the start of a marathon – and that’s the seduction.”

And that, I suspect, is what Hewitt and so many others are addicted to. Something which can only be truly understood once you’ve taken on the 26.2 mile monster.

So if you’ve ever wondered why marathon runners keep going back for more, this book is Hewitt’s attempt to articulate the reasons. If you’ve ever run a marathon, then this book is for you. If you’re training for your first marathon, this book is for you. Heck, if your only experience of marathon running is lying in bed watching the London marathon whilst eating a bacon roll, this book is for you. True to its subtitle, this book really does present the highs and lows of marathon running – the perils, pitfalls and pleasure 26.2 miles can evoke. I throughly enjoyed it.