The Olympics will be held in June in London, and the world-record holder in the marathon will not compete. Patrick Makau dropped out of the London marathon last month with a hamstring injury. That should heal in six weeks, but for Kenya’s Olympics selectors, the man who ran 2:03:38 would not be good enough for the Olympics.
The truth is that Kenya can afford to leave Makau out. The country has more than 300 men who could probably win the Olympics marathon. Besides Ethiopia, no other country can claim to have dominated middle- and long-distance running over the last two decades in the way Kenya has.
So what makes them tick? How does one country manage to churn out so many successful runners?
That is the central and oft-repeated question in Adharanand Finn’s “Running With the Kenyans.” The book’s timing, released a month before the Olympics, makes it an appropriate read.
Finn is an editor at The Guardian and writes articles for Runner’s World. He also won a few races at school and was part of a running club before he got swept up in his career and marriage. Working and raising kids does not give him the time to run on a regular basis. But his interest in running remains, and his curiosity in Kenyan runners comes to a boil.
Many have wondered why and how Kenyan athletes are so good that they win most of the marathons around the world every year. Researchers have studied their genes, the food they eat and how they run and have traveled to Kenya to see how they train.
Finn leaves Britain with his family and goes to live in Iten, a town in the Rift Valley with a population of 4,000. The town has 1,000 runners and is a mecca of sorts for athletes.
The British and Serbian national teams are training in a camp there when he arrives. Every third person has been in the top five in a major race.
Yet Finn’s journey sounds fruitless. He has been told and shown how and why running barefoot makes athletes perform better. But he finds athletes who win running without shoes and some who wear shoes and win.
He trains with Kenyan athletes as he prepares for the Lewa marathon, which is run in a wildlife conservancy where helicopters are used to keep the animals off the course.
Finn finds that it’s easy to think there could be a secret to winning lots of races, but it’s hard to find it.
The coaches do not appear to have answers for anyone seeking a scientific explanation or a magical secret formula.
After he tracks down Colm O’Connell, the Irish priest who has been training the 800 meter record-holder, David Rudisha, Finn emerges more confused than informed.
The priest memorably says, “You people come to find the secret, but you know what the secret is? That you think there’s a secret. There is no secret.”
Kenyan runners also complicate his search for answers. It’s hard to get them to say how they prepared to run a race, and they are infamous for their monosyllabic responses at the finish line. Kenyan runners will typically say that they just ran fast or that they felt good and continued running. Yet who feels good after running for two hours or more? One certainly feels good after running for 30 minutes after work and collapsing on the sofa afterward.
Training with the Kenyans adds interest to Finn’s quest. It also makes the book an account of his feelings, observations and reactions as he talks to the taciturn athletes, their coaches and their friends.
Perhaps because he is used to the limited space and tight writing enjoyed by journalists, Finn tells his story simply and builds it up toward the penultimate event: running in the Lewa marathon.
Readers are also likely to find themselves willing him on at the end as his legs feel like lead, and the ground is slipping away in Lewa.
“Running With the Kenyans” is an easy read, and anybody with an interest in sports will find it exciting. With the Olympics around the corner, it would also be useful to know why the Kenyans or Kenyan-born runners are always in the lead at the final corner.
John Ngirachu is an Alfred Friendly Fellow from the Daily Nation in Nairobi, Kenya. To reach him, call 816-234-4366 or email firstname.lastname@example.org