What’s life like in the world’s epicentrum for running

“Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth” by Adharanand Finn

If you want to learn how to play beautiful football, go to Brazil. If you want to see top level basketball games, go to the US. If you want to master table tennis, go to China. And if you want to learn about running from the best of the best? Go to Kenya.

This book reads like a running journal for the author Adharanand Finn – an editor at the Guardian and a freelance journalist writing for the Guardian, the Independent, and Runner’s World magazine – who is clearly obsessed with running. Like really obsessed, obsessed. Which makes it a thrilling read in the way he describes the races and the preparations that surround them.

And in this book Finn tells the story about when he went to live and train for 6 months in what considered as the Mecca for the sport of running: Iten, Kenya.

Now, I still can’t get pass the fact that Finn never clarify his full intention of going to Iten. That as far as the book tells us he is there, bringing along his wife and small kids, in a personal capacity and not to write a coverage for any media outlet. But in the end of the day this minor detail doesn’t really matter, because the stories of his time at Iten are invaluable and refreshing, and we get to see what’s life looks like over there.

Charmingly, everyone he bump into in Iten seems to be a runner. And not just an ordinary one but the winner of this marathon, gold medalist in that olympics, the record breakers of this and that categories. Even that one instance when Finn mistakenly called the wrong number to reach out to a 2:04:00 marathoner, only to discover that the wrong person he called ran a 2:05:00 marathon.

In Iten, there are around 1000 full-time athletes in a town with a population of just 4000 people. The gathering places are full with athletes, not just Kenyan runners but also British, European, and other world class athletes. Moreover, seeing a pack of runners in the streets is a normal scene in Iten. And while there are many competing running clubs there, including one that Finn eventually created, every Thursday morning they all gather together and have a fartlek session. It’s such a nice environment to be in.

Ultimately, this book answers THE big question in the running world: What makes Kenyans different from the rest of the world? The most stand out thing I noticed about the depiction of Iten is the poverty. It is a humble place with humble means, where children have no other choice than to go to school by running miles away from their village, barefooted, in a high altitude (2400 meters / 7900 ft. above sea level), on a hilly landscape, as a normal daily activity.

While running barefooted force us to adjust our body to a proper form of running, which is analyzed extensively in the book, running long distance to school every day in a difficult altitude means these children built their aerobic capacity from such an early age, which, according to a coach in Iten, Renato Canova, “[t]o build your aerobic house, to have enough of an endurance base to run long distances, takes about ten years.” Hence, he then elaborates, “by the time a Kenyan is sixteen, he has built his house.”

Being a relatively under-developed place also plays an advantage to their success in this simplest and most common sport, where Kenyans live an incredibly active childhood by playing outdoors, eat a simple diet of ugali that is low fat but carbohydrate-rich (good fuel for running), have plenty of time to rest and recover (not much distractions), and have limited options of role models outside the successes of the athletics, which explains why running becomes the sole focus and dedication for plenty of aspiring youngsters. And while there are plenty of success stories coming out from Iten, these successful athletes mostly still live the same simple life afterwards to keep their edge, while those who succumbed to the lifestyle of the riches they quickly lost their edge.

Curiously, however, most Kenyan top runners come from 1 ethic group, the Kalenjin. They are a group of nine closely related tribes that inhabit the high-altitude Rift Valley region (where Iten is). The book took a great length at analyzing the many possibilities of why this is. But long story short, it has nothing to do with genes but instead their harsh environment and upbringing, specifically for the boys through the brutal adolescents ceremony, would make all other challenges look easy in comparison.

And thus, as it turns out there is no special superhuman genes or talent that are “blessed” upon the Kenyan runners. But instead, the incredible capabilities that they have are a result of years of training and development in a challenging environment, whether they were intentional or not. Everything is trainable, as they say, and I guess that is why there are so many foreign runners now resided in Iten, to emulate the training environment of the greats.

Furthermore, Finn has a certain eloquence in his style of writing, where all the names he write about in the book can come to life and warm our hearts. In fact, the more I read on the more that characters such as Brother Colm, Godfrey Kiprotich, Charlie Baker, Beatrice, Chris Cheboiboch, Mama Kibet, Anders, Shadrack, Philip, Tom Payn, David Barmasai, Japhet, and many more, have somehow become like a familiar old friend.

And a little google search shows that thanks to this book, a bunch of readers were moved to set up a GoFundMe campaign to pay for Japhet’s airfares for a number of races around Europe. And I felt a sense of friendly pride when discovering that 2 years after the events in the book he, Japhet Koech, eventually won the 2nd place at the Edinburgh Marathon in 2014.

All in all, this is not a book about running techniques, or tricks and tips, per se. But this is more of a story about life as a pro runner, about why and how the best people in the game are training and live their lives. And while this book have a relaxed but serious tone, every once in a while Finn jotted down stories that are simply out of this world. Like that one marathon race in Lewa Safari where runners run alongside zebras, and the organizer needs to use a helicopter to scare away lions and place a shooter, just in case, so that runners in the path of the race won’t get eaten.