Amazing Race

A review of British journalist Adharanand Finn's memoir "Running with the Kenyans"

By / January 2013

Kenyan athletes have dominated the world of long-distance running for decades. Since 1956, the first year Kenya competed in the Summer Olympics, runners representing the East African nation have grabbed 79 racing medals, 56 of them in long-distance competitions. Seventeen of the top twenty fastest marathons of all time were clocked by Kenyans and, in 2011 alone, Kenyans posted each of the top twenty fastest times. In his book Running with the Kenyans, British journalist Adharanand Finn, himself a distance runner, sets out to uncover the secret of Kenya’s racing dominance.

To accomplish the task, Finn poses himself a challenge: to train in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and have a go at the Lewa Marathon, one of the toughest endurance races in the world. At 5,500 feet above sea level and with two 12-and-a-half mile loops to conquer, the course winds down the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy’s dirt roads under stifling heat. Athletes are often feet away from lions, elephants, and rhinoceroses.

With his wife and three kids, Finn moves from small-town Devon in the UK to Iten, a small Rift Valley town perched at 9,000 feet above sea level that is known as the running capital of the world. The book’s longest section is dedicated to the family’s life there. Finn is intoxicated by the hilly, verdant landscape and describes it beautifully. “From the bottom [of the valley],” he writes, “the road winds up, twisting back and forth, twirling around cone-shaped foothills, the land changing colour, turning greener the higher we rise.”

Finn is not the first foreign author to attempt an appraisal of Kenya’s championship marathoners. Toby Tanser, the American running coach who founded Shoe4Africa, a nonprofit that donates used athletic shoes to Africans in need, has written not one but two books on Kenyan sport. In Train Hard, Win Easy and More Fire, Tanser concludes that the success of Kenyan runners owes mainly to their hard work and rigorous training.

Finn’s conclusions are more variegated. He turns up 19 possibilities to explain Kenya’s prowess on the marathon circuit: from ugali, a dish of cornmeal cooked with water to form a dough-like meal that is a staple of runners’s diets, to high-altitude training regimens and genetics. Finn’s dietary musings are less than convincing. He seems to have ignored the fact that most all Kenyans eat ugali and other corn dishes and yet only a few ascend to the top rank of runners.

The latter two possibilities – about training and genetics – sound more probable. Although distance runners the world over make a point of training in high altitudes, their Kenyan counterparts are born and raised in this environment, a fact that would seem to give them an obvious advantage. Furthermore, Kenya’s runners historically have come from the Kalenjin community, a Nilotic ethnic group (“the running tribe”) from the Rift Valley Province. Ask any Kenyan the question Finn is trying to answer and they will tell you about the Kalenjins and their distance-running genes. But is this actually the case or only a myth? If there is any biological evidence to be had, Finn does not provide it.

Untethered from fact, Running with the Kenyans occasionally lapses into presumption and cliché. At the national cross-country championships, Finn meets Mercy Cherono, a former world junior champion. “She has her head shaven like any other Kenyan schoolgirl, her teeth are stained,” Finn writes. “She could just have arrived after a day planting maize in the fields.” Certainly not all Kenyan schoolgirls have shaved heads!

Also curious is what the book leaves out. The runner Paul Tergat gets a single mention in the book, this despite him being the first person to run the IAAF World Half Marathon Championship in under 2:05 hours (2:04:55), winning five cross country world championship titles in a row, twice finishing second at the Olympics in the 10,000 meter race, winning the New York Marathon in 2005, and setting world records on the track as well as on the road.

Finn is more thoughtful and meticulous at narrating his own exploits. He recounts the event that first caused him to take notice of Kenyan marathoners, the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. The conventional wisdom of the time held that the most efficient strategy for competitors, particularly in the longer distances, was to run at an even pace. The Kenyans were different. Some surged ahead and slowed down abruptly. Others sprinted off at a fast pace right from the start.

Finn’s parallel storytelling ability in this book is brilliant; simultaneously, he can situate the reader in a race and in his mind. He finishes the marathon in three hours and twenty minutes, a measly time and yet best among the white runners. Here he is on the final stretch of his Lewa run:

“I don’t know what happens. I reach for a drink, and then stop. Completely stock-still. My legs, charged with sweet relief, feel as though they’re singing hymns. I pick up a Lucozade and suck it down… This is the greatest party ever. I feel like a gatecrasher, my eyes wide. This is where it’s happening. At the back of the field… I’m in heaven.”

Running with the Kenyans reads like a travelogue-cum-memoir. It has the punchy feel of a magazine feature. Indeed, Finn, who regularly writes for the Guardian and Runner’s World, will not let us forget that he is a journalist. He is fond of attributing his findings to “a recent study,” a literary tick that has the unfortunate effect of giving this otherwise entertaining book an expiration date. None of those studies will be recent in ten years’ time.

If Finn fails at unlocking the secret of Kenya’s running supremacy, he succeeds at delivering a snappy memoir about one writer’s quest for personal growth. Besides, that whole secret-to-unlock thing might have been a red herring all along. Brother Colm O’Connel, an Iten-based Irish missionary and coach who has trained four Kenyan Olympic gold medalists, summarises it best: “You people come to find a secret, but you know what the secret is? That you think there’s a secret. There is no secret.”

 

 Carlos Mureithi is an arts correspondent for Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper.

 

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