Running with Kenyans

The Kenyan runner Kipchoge won his third London Marathon yesterday. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Running with Kenyans. I found the book inspiring and the Kenyan love of running infectious.

The author of the book went looking for the secret of why Kenyan runners are so good: “For six months I’ve been piecing together the puzzle of why Kenyans are such good runners. In the end there was no elixir, no running gene, no training secret that you could neatly package up and present with flashing lights and fireworks. Nothing that Nike could replicate and market as the latest running fad. No, it was too complex, yet too simple, for that. It was everything, and nothing. I list them, the secrets, in my head. The tough, active childhood, the barefoot running, the altitude, the diet [high carb, low fat], 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-pervading running culture, the reverence for running.” When he spoke to Yannis Pitsiladis, “the man who has delved deeper into this than anyone else”, he said, when pushed to name one thing, it was “the hunger to succeed”.

For every reason for Kenyan success, the opposite trend is occurring in the West. While Kenyans lead incredibly active childhoods (eg sometimes running 5km twice a day to school and back), in the West we’re becoming more sedentary. A study found that “the average English ten-year-old has become weaker, less muscular and less able to do simple physical tasks”. This may explain why, for example, in 1975, “23 marathons were run under 2 hours 20 minutes by British runners, 34 by US runners, and none by Kenyans. By 2005, however, there were 12 sub 2.20 marathon performances by Britons, 22 by Americans, and a staggering 490 by Kenyans.”

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