Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn
“In 1975 … thirty-four marathons were run in under 2 hours 20 minutes by American runners, twenty-three by British runners, and none by Kenyan runners. By 2005, however, there were 22 sub-2:20 marathon performances by Americans, 12 by Britons, and a staggering 490 by Kenyans,” reveals runner and journalist Adharanand Finn. In search of reasons behind such impressive numbers, Finn uproots his wife and three young children from their English home and arrives in Kenya in late December 2010 to train with “the fastest people on earth.”
Finn’s initial interest in Kenyan runners dates back to the mid-1980s. Finn himself was a promising runner in his youth, but then life happened: marriage, kids, work. “I [kept] telling myself that one day I will train hard and run really fast … an under-three-hour marathon, perhaps?” He’s buoyed by other athletes his age: “Every time an athlete over thirty-five [won] a big race on television, I [told] myself that there [was] still hope. … I just [didn’t] want to look back one day and regret that I never gave myself a decent chance to see what I could do.”
In spite of having broken school records, after a couple decades, Finn learns he’s actually slower “than the slowest junior girl in Kenya.” Ouch. Mind you, Finn is still really, really fast: sub-6:00 miles over long distances. [While I might have come in third for old women in my latest 50-miler, I could never even dream of ever seeing Finn’s slowest numbers on my running watch!]
Determined to keep up with the locals, Finn restarts his training months before departure. He reads – like so many people (including me!) – Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, and slowly, reluctantly changes his running style to match that of the Kenyans. While barefoot/forefoot-strike running may be a “key reason the Kenyans are so good at running,” Finn still has many secrets to discover yet …
For six months Finn trains in high-altitude Iten, considered by many to be the running capital of the world. Running with and into the world’s elite – Olympic medalists and international record holders are commonplace – becomes Finn’s daily routine. His goal? The Lewa Marathon in June 2011. Interwoven with occasionally tedious details of Finn’s grueling training are the more intriguing, resonating stories of the people he meets: “former athlete” Godfrey who becomes Finn’s coach and mentor, fellow runner Chris who has “‘the fifth fastest time ever in the New York marathon,'” Irish priest Brother Colm O’Connell who single-handedly turned Iten’s Catholic boarding school into one of the top athletic schools in the world, quiet Beatrice who will surprise everyone when she finishes her first marathon, Finn’s young neighbor Japhet whose running continues here, and many more.
Somewhere between treading endless miles as children just to get to school, eating ugali regularly, sleeping often, and wholly committing to running camps, Finn finds the Kenyans’ so-called secrets are multi-layered and many. In an environment where winning even a single race can have life-long benefits, the will to succeed can’t waver. And yet, as Irish ex-pat Brother Colm fumes: “‘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.'” Or …?!! Of course, there is more to these Kenyan stories … and while you might find yourself fast-forwarding through Finn’s, getting to know the locals is why you’ll keep reading to the finish line.
Tidbit: You can continue to run with Finn (and even some of his Kenyan friends), through his many articles for The Guardian where he’s an assistant production manager. Next title? He’s running with the Japanese, researching what might be “the greatest race on Earth.”