The complete encyclopedia for beer

“The Beer Bible” by Jeff Alworth

It’s October, the unofficial month for beer, and I thought you know what will be cool to learn? How to make my own beer! And there’s arguably no better book to learn about this (and anything else about beer, for that matter) than one that is bold enough to claim to be its bible, with a whopping 657 pages of everything you need to know about beers, ales, wheat beers, lagers, tart and wild ales.

And when I said everything, I mean everything. The bible tells us all, from different brewing methods, different styles, and regions that create different taste. It list all the ingredients for making different types of taste, and for how long and at what temperature we should brew them, and which glassware or aluminum can to use to store them, and so on. It covers key activities such as lautering, boiling, chilling, fermentation, filtering and packaging. And it teaches us ways to taste beer like an expert brewer, which includes the intriguing explanation of retronasal smell and the difference between flavour and taste.

The book even trace back the history of beer to as far as 10,000 years ago. It’s really fascinating how many civilizations that presumably had no contact with each others can each separately develop techniques to create what later becomes beer. From Mesopotamia to Mayan to Egypt to China to Scotland and Scandinavia, where at one point after the birth of Jesus Christ and the rise of Christianity, monasteries once became centers of brewing activities.

Charmingly, the book also provides the explanation to many drinking games and how to say cheers in many different languages. It lists all the beer festivals happening around the world. And if we want to go for a “beer tourism”, aka visiting breweries, the book provides the proper route, explanations, and links to the recommended places.

Of course the book would not be complete if it doesn’t provide the names and labels that the author, Jeff Alworth, think as the best of the best beers. And the long list is mighty specific, spread across many different location in the world, covering many local breweries (none of those mass-produced brand names), which includes their ingredients, methods of brewing (what the hell is a stream beer?), and their backstories (such as why Indian beers ended up using more hops). And to be fair Alworth also tells the fascinating stories of the biggest brand names in the world and how they got so big and why they each taste the way they uniquely taste.

And just in case you somehow skip the early pages and only start reading from the middle, note that “Michael Jackson” is a respectful and legendary writer in the industry, and no you’re not drunk for thinking that THAT Michael Jackson is secretly a beer expert (it’s not he-he-em).

Yoga in a nutshell

“Yoga: Your Home Practice Companion” by Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre

As a complete novice on yoga, this is a perfect book for me to learn about the ancient practice. It provides the history of yoga, the philosophy behind the poses, and the scientific benefits of practicing them.

The book also teaches us about breathing, meditation, stress management, and proper diet according to yogic tradition (and how to cook or prepare for them). And every now and then the book inserts beautiful gems of wisdom, as a cherry on top of a wholesome philosophy of living.

All of this are wrapped up in digestible, bite size, chapters and sub-chapters that makes it easy to read and pause (so that I can mercifully – and comically – try to emulate the poses). I couldn’t ask for a more concise and straight forward introduction to yoga than this one.

A proper history of the Mongolian Empire

“Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

This book was 13 years in the making. The extensive research began when Jack Weatherford, a cultural anthropologist, went in a journey to study the role of tribal people in the history of world commerce, specifically in the Silk Route connecting Europe, the Middle East, and China.

The research journey covers archaeological sites, libraries, as well as meeting with scholars from Forbidden City in Beijing to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. From Siberia he pursuit the Mongol trails from Russia, China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, to as further places as Bosnia, then encircled the old empire via Marco Polo’s sea route, from South China to Vietnam, from the Straits of Malacca to India, the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, and on to Venice. And then back to Mongolia.

This is where he encountered his fork in the road. In Mongolia Weatherford was given access to enter the Forbidden Zone, the sites of Genghis Khan’s childhood and burial, and more importantly the coded text of the “secret history of the Mongols”, the official historical accounts by those who were close to or have worked under Genghis Khan, which once thought had disappeared and faded into the depths of history or concealed for secrecy at best. This encounter changed the course of his research, and he proceeded to spend 5 years focusing on extensive research within Mongolia.

In those 5 years, Weatherford worked together with a team of scholars from different background to deciphered the texts and to find answers from previously mysterious records of Genghis Khan. The team includes archaeologist Dr. Kh. Lkhagvasuren, who had access to the treasure trove of information collected by his professor and mentor Dr. Kh. Perlee, the most prominent archaeologist of the 20th century Mongolia.

He also worked with professor O. Purey, a Communist Party member that had used his position as an official researcher of party history to study the mystical practices of the Mongols. Also in the team was Colonel Kh. Shagdar of the Mongolian army whom took advantage of his station in Moscow to compare the strategies of Genghis Khan against Russian military. D. Bold-Erdene, a Mongolian political scientist whom analyzed Genghis Khan’s political tactics. And O. Sukhbaatar, a geographer who had covered over a million kilometers across Mongolia in the quest to better understand the history of Genghis Khan.

Together, the team then traced back Genghis Khan’s life from his birthplace to every notable places recorded in the “secret history”. Hike where he hiked, farming and herding where he grew up, recreated the many historical scenes under many different sets of weather condition, and along the way learned why the nomadic Mongols did what they did.

The result is this well-researched book, which addresses all the many myths and wrong perceptions about Genghis Khan, the culture and customs of the ancient Mongols, their lifestyle and diet, and most interestingly their winning war strategies. And for once and for all this book tells the story, as accurately as it can gets, of a young boy named Temujin who lived in the harsh nomadic environment, whom would eventually rise to power and build one of the largest empires we’ve ever seen.

The book also tells the story of Genghis’ successors, most prominently his grandson Khubilai Khan, and the effects that the Mongol rule under them had to help shaped the modern world. From further expanding the Silk Road, to building massive infrastructures for its day, forging diplomacy with other kingdoms, devising a legal code and rights, creating a uniform letters across the empire, introducing arts, increasing literacy level, using paper currency, to building what becomes known in the modern era as Beijing, to what arguably the most important thing they did for modernizing the world: extracting wealth of knowledge from its many subject countries, figured out what works and what not, and those that work they spread it to other countries within the realm.

The book concludes with the almost mysterious demise of what once a massive empire into a nearly forgotten country mashed between two giants Russia and China. It is astonishing to read all the great things the Mongols have done to the world throughout many centuries, only to be left forgotten in modern era almost without a trace of its glorious past. This is why this book is so referred by the Mongols themselves, in which the Mongolian government in 2007 even went as far as giving Weatherford the Order of the Polar Star, the country’s highest national award, in recognition of his contribution to Mongolian culture through this book.

Jack Weatherford is now retired, and spend 5 months a year in his home in Mongolia, where he and his wife are legal residents. And since writing this book, he has written another 2 books on Mongolian history.

Emotional intelligence in practice

“Working With Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman

In today’s world, where cancel culture is the norm, with so many people can get easily offended, where social media become a bonfire of the vanities as well as medium for nasty insults, and where Covid-19 exposes the worst in people’s behaviour, more often than not the underlying problem for it all is simply a severe lack of empathy.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s an equally problematic trend called empathy distress. It is those people who have abundant empathy and those who care for others a little too much that other people’s suffering will cause them harm as well. If getting out of hand it could lead to emotional burnout or change people into a cynic who once cared too much and got disappointed.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the psychological faculty of emotional intelligence. It is the ability to recognize, understand, and handle our emotions, and the capacity to use them to guide our perception, behaviour, and effort towards the environment.

The term first appeared in a psychological research paper in 1964, but was only popularized in 1995 by Daniel Goleman after the publication of his first book, aptly named “Emotional Intelligence.” While Goleman’s first book laid out the fundamental theories on emotional intelligence, this second book dives straight into the practical aspects of them.

And he chooses the business world as the real-life working example, covering everything from entrepreneurship, to flow state, leadership, team work, group IQ, delegating tasks, coaching and mentoring, performance review, logistics, office politics, problem solving, and many more management issues. And at the core of every function lies the important role of empathy.

There is a particular line in the book that caught my eyes, where Goleman said that when IQ test scores are correlated with how well people do at work, the highest estimate of how impactful IQ can be is around 25%, while the lowest estimate may be no higher than 10% or even 4%. This means that at best 75% of job success is up to other factors than IQ, and at worst 90-96%.

And this is what the book ultimately provides us and explains to us, the 75-96% edge in the working environment that can be applicable in many other areas in life.

The craziest life story that produces the abundant wisdom

“A Warrior’s Life: A Biography of Paulo Coelho” by Fernando Morais

I know that they say in order to write an interesting story, you have to live an interesting life. But holy crap. Paulo Coelho has a bizarre and turbulent life, it is as if Forrest Gump’s serendipitous tendency was combined with Jenny’s mischief and crazy experiments in life.

Was always ranked at the bottom of the class, he proceeded to have many different vocations after narrowly graduating from school. From creating and acting in theater plays, creating a famous cartoon strip, becoming an editor of a hippie and cult-related magazine, writing multiple best-selling songs, teaching theater, becoming a reporter at O Globo (the most respected newspaper in the country), to becoming a recording executive at 2 giants, and even becoming an expert Vampirologist, before he fulfilled a long awaited dream of becoming a writer.

But nothing was ever smooth sailing for young Paulo. He nearly died the very moment after he was born. And while suffering from many bouts of depression throughout his life, he almost committed suicide and was even admitted to insane asylum, 3 times, 2 of which he escaped (the 2nd of which made a spectacular story that ended him being written in a newspaper column in a town 2000 KM away).

Living at the heart of 1960s – 1970s, Paulo naturally became a hippie, organizing his life through living arrangement with many different “tribes”, experimenting with a lot of drugs, and despite of his mediocre looks he managed to have many women in his life. This includes many moments where he juggled two or three women at once, had various affairs, including one with a married woman, and had several genuine attempts of marriages that it makes the book a somewhat like the series How I Met Your Mother, where I got increasingly curious how he can ended up with that person mentioned at the first chapter when he was already older.

In between the shenanigans, Paulo often got himself into MORE shenanigans. Such as joining a satanic cult, briefly experimenting with homosexuality, nearly killed a person the first time he self-taught how to drive a car, soliciting prostitutes, worked as an actor in a soft porn movie, plagiarizing a newspaper article and claim it as his own, exploring bizarre occult and witchcraft, that weird event which can only be described as meeting with the devil, and went as far as claiming someone else’s work as his own in his book on vampire.

Yes, Paulo is not a saint, nor did he claim to be one. And that what makes his life story so damn interesting. Story that also includes all the injustices occurring to him, like the most prominent one where he experienced the military dictatorship’s brutality and getting jailed for 5 days, enduring torture, as well as being kidnapped by the government, twice.

Another common feature of his life is his many travel stories, which were all gripping and so much fun to read. From his hippie adventure to Bolivia-Peru-Chile-Argentina-Uruguay, to the misadventure to Paraguay, the few months road trip in the US with so little money (in which he nearly died), the 8 months road trip across Western and Eastern Europe, until the many luxurious globe trekking he did after he became an international best seller writer.

Moreover, Paulo is also a person who believes in moments, signs, chances, or mythical meaning of events. For example, he very nearly got into a plane that would later crashed and killing everyone on board, and saw that as a sign. He had an epiphany during his travel in the US on the exact day Nixon resigned as the US President. He also encountered a meaningful moment when he visited Nazi concentration camp in Dacau, which forever changed his life. Hence it was no surprise when he encountered a strange individual in Paris, he was intrigued and ended up joining the Regnus Agnus Mundi (RAM) order, an alleged Catholic order that studies symbolic language through an oral teaching system. RAM would eventually provide him with the experiences that inspired most of his books.

Indeed, after a long last, after about 2/3rd of the book, Paulo eventually did what he’s always dreamed of: to be a proper writer. The remaining of the biography writes like visiting Liverpool to get the feel of the Beatles’ songs, where the writer years provide clues on how he got inspirations for his books.

Inspirations such as his activity in Spain that became the story in “The Pilgrimage”, his travel to Egypt that inspired “The Alchemist”, a woman called Brida for a novel with the same name “Brida”, “the Valkyries” that was inspired by women motorbike gang in Mexico that he met, “By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept” on his experience in France, “Veronika Decides to Die” on his own experience in the 1960s (“Veronika is Paulo Coelho”), “Eleven Minutes” from a prostitute named Maria that he met in Geneva, and “The Zahir” which was inspired by a real life war correspondent.

At the very first chapter, the book began with a nice touch by showing what Paulo is doing today, as an international best seller author, jet setting around the world, living quietly in a small village in France. It served as an anchor for his proceeding crazy story, which made me repeatedly think throughout the book how can THIS guy become THAT Paulo Coelho. But after reading it word by word, from cover to cover, it all make perfect sense. It is simply impossible to get that much wisdom poured into the books if he hadn’t had a crazy turbulent life.

There’s never a dull moment in the book, just as there’s never a dull moment in the life of Paulo Coelho. And the author, Fernando Morais, portrays it excellently. One of the best biographies ever written.

It’s emotional intelligence on steroids

“Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” by Chris Voss

This is a phenomenal book, written by an author who spent the majority of his 24 years career as the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and its hostage negotiation representative for the National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group. Apart from trained by the bureau, he was also trained in Scotland Yard and Harvard Law School.

But first and foremost, his negotiation techniques come directly from the tried and tested field, from his experience in the deep jungle of Ecuador, to the separatist area of the Philippines, the slumps of Tahiti, to the many occurrences from within the US including bank robberies, a prison coup, and that bomb threat incident that got Washington DC into a lockdown for 48 hours. Indeed, reading this book feels like watching a very intense action movie, with all the detailed, chaotic, and super-tense scenes.

The many real-life lessons in the book also come from business world, board meeting battles, investment negotiations, and the various cases that his students faced, from high stake deals to as menial as asking a salary raise.

Constructed the book using these real-life events, the author, Chris Voss, guides us through the negotiation tactics that worked and also the ones that didn’t, which ones became the FBI’s standard practice and which ones were so disastrous they literally cost lives and became the standard of what NOT to do. It is as if we jump directly into these many negotiation situations ourselves and Voss gives us on-the-job training and provides us with the pointers to the live action, which is exhilarating.

And those techniques that became time-tested and have since molded into something near perfection? Voss teaches them all in this book.

So what are the negotiation techniques? At its core lies active listening. Using a relaxed and friendly tone (or as Voss refer as “midnight FM DJ’s tone”), we first try to establish a rapport early on and listen to what our counterpart actually want, labelling their emotions, and validating their words (with the “I see”, “ok”, “uh-huh”, “yes” words).

We then use mirroring, effective pauses, and calibrated questions to prompt for more reactions and dig for more information, all of which we eventually paraphrase and summarise to show them that we really understand their point of view, in order to create enough trust and feeling of safety for the real conversation to begin.

In between the sequences, Voss teaches us several hacks, such as explaining why getting a “no” early on is important instead of getting two of the three “yes” (counterfeit, confirmation, and commitment). While a non-commitment “yes” can be used to just get away from the situation, a “no” can actually be an initial word to establish a sense of safety, security, and control for our counterpart, an important inner environment to get them relaxed and ready for a fruitful talk.

The sequence then proceeds with the objection of getting a “that’s right” from them after we provide the summary, which would confirm where they stand in this negotiation and thus we can get a better measure of our leverages. Voss highlighted that there are 3 different types of leverage that we could identify in the conversation: positive (the ability to give people what they want), negative (the ability to hurt people), and normative (covers the principles and values that our counterpart have).

Apart from leverages, different types of characters can also play a big role in the negotiation process, which Voss categorised into 3: the analyst, the accommodator, and the assertive. And he provides all the necessary tools on how to deal with each different one of them.

Of course, the sequence is not rigid and should be fluid depending on the conversation, as we size them up, influence their sizing up on us, while keeping an eye on any potential Black Swans – which are clearly shown in the real-life examples. But none of these tools matter if we cannot control our own emotions, which is a critical part of the interaction. As Voss remark, “[i]f you can’t control your own emotions, how can you expect to influence the emotions of another party?”

Negotiation is something we do every single day, whether we realised it or not, no matter how big or small, whether against a high profile counterpart or just bargaining with your own self. It serves two distinct but vital life functions – information gathering and behaviour influencing – where each party wants something from the other side. Hence, this book is a vital one to read, perhaps even one of the most important books you’ll ever going to read, due to its direct practicality for every kind of human interaction in any given situation.

The importance of the lessons in this book can be seen from the 339 notes that I highlighted, almost twice as many as my normal average of 150+ in any book. It is easily the best book that I’ve read this year, and it’s right up there in the list of my favourite of all time.

Bonus interview: Go to School of Greatness podcast, episode 902, where Lewis Howes interviewed Voss to dissect more about the tools in this book.

Bad introduction to Hemingway

“The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway” by Ernest Hemingway

Some say that the notorious reputation of Ernest Hemingway is eclipsed by the brilliant content of his books. Well, if that’s the case then I don’t see it here.

Before reading this book I was expecting it to be different from the author’s mischievous traits. But these short stories only confirm that the writing matches the character of the writer, the self-loathing, misogynistic, egocentric, alcoholic bully, with a hint of racism, that sees life from a cynical point of view.

But I kinda like that edginess about him, he’s like the dark chaotic mess that some people grew to love from a character, like Raymond Reddington or the Joker. It also serves a purpose for the bigger picture, as we can’t appreciate the hopeful optimistic ones if we can’t see the contrasting bleak views.

However, there’s only so much N words that I can handle before I felt enough was enough (at about the 54% mark). But I kept skim reading it though, in a writing flow that continues to be dry and unengaging, with stories short enough that I never get a chance to be emotionally invested in any of them. It’s safe to say that my reading experience really doesn’t match up with all the hype about Hemingway.

So naturally it got me thinking, is this it? Is this really a book written by that legendary writer? Like an abused child still seeking for love and approval, I began to think that maybe these 70 short stories are not the best introduction that reflects the real Hemingway, that the problem is not the book but my inexperience when it comes to reading fiction books.

So perhaps I need to read at least one of his masterpieces before I can judge any further. Because afterall, for every hater there’s a genuine lover of his literary prowess, so there must be something that I’m still missing.

Never in my life that my response to a mediocre book is to put another book by the same author in my reading list. But I guess that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

The big picture of the Renaissance Man

“Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most brilliant people that have ever lived. He was a complex person, with a complex mind, who produced complex inventions, and lived in a complex time. So, fittingly this book needs 600 pages to dissect what this person is all about.

The author, Walter Isaacson, hugely base this biography from Leonardo’s legendary notebooks. Isaacson then travelled around the places that Leonardo visited, look up where he looked, eat what he ate, and breathe what he breathed, in order to step into his metaphorical shoes. Isaacson also read every available books, research materials, and, most unusually, the many dissertations on Leonardo. As a result, this massive book can paint the whole essence of this magnificent man’s life, up to a point that his complete life story will make Leonardo, the polymath, to make perfect sense.

The book gives the impression that Leonardo da Vinci is first and foremost a painter, which is what the majority (in which it feels like 60-70%) of the book is about, complete with all the pictures of the paintings and their enigmatic backstories. Everything else that he created or learned or experimented with, were seemingly done to fully understand the mechanism and nature of everything, so that he can paint them better. Everything such as studying the science of optics, light, sky, and soil, even studying the anatomy of human smile, which then perfected Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile in the painting.

Indeed, for the untrained eyes for art (such as myself), Leonardo’s paintings would look normal. Beautiful, but normal. But as the book shows the range of techniques that Leonardo use (and often invented) are nothing short of a genius. This is why Leonardo’s masterpieces are so highly regarded in the art community.

But of course, this is not only what Leonardo is all about, that would be oversimplifying it. In his quest of learning about the human anatomy, for example, he was among the first to fully discovered that the heart, and not the liver, to be the center of the blood system. His engineering experiments were also immensely fascinating, with him often credited for inventing as diverse as the parachute, portable bridges, the first prototype of helicopter, the diving suit, and the first machine gun, to name a few out of so many. And this is not to mention the many more unfinished projects and ideas that he simultaneously did on the side, as a testament to his incredible curiosity.

Moreover, perhaps most interestingly the book also addresses Leonardo’s personal life, to see the man behind the fame and glory. From being a child out of wedlock in the “golden age of bastards” in Florence, to the education that he received and the freedom away from formal schooling for legitimate children. It shows Leonardo’s difficult relationship with his father, his big family’s dynamics, the environmental context of where and when he lived – from the flourishing Florence under the rule of the Medici family, to Milan, Amboise, France, and of course Vinci at the very beginning – as well as the politics that he got involved with.

The book also shows the many great people who influenced him, and his many rivalries, including his bitter one with Michelangelo. And it shows the many human sides of him, such as how he earn money through patronage to live day by day, his homosexuality, the dark twisted sides of him, and also the inner demons that haunt him all his life.

All in all, while his genius is unparalleled, we can see throughout the book that his natural traits and the techniques that he has developed to create order out his chaos were, well, human. And most importantly they are all trainable, even for you and I. And that’s what Isaacson did, where at the very last chapter of the book he neatly analysed and elaborate on 20 of these traits, making it the concluding cherry on top of an already excellent cake.

How to live like the Swedes

“Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life” by Niki Brantmark

Sometimes, we can just tell how advanced a society is just by looking from their philosophy. And the clearer the philosophy is, the easier it is for the people to live it. This is what Lagom is for Sweden.

Lagom is a Swedish philosophy of moderation – not too much, not too little, just right – where it is embodied in pretty much every aspect of their lives. And Niki Brantmark has done an excellent work to fully describe it.

The book itself is a reflection of Lagom, where the contents are not too little, not too much, just right, and they are broken down into many little stand out headings, which makes it easier to read and comprehend. And while Lagom is the traditional philosophy for Sweden, we, the rest of the world, can too live with the minimalist and no-nonsense approach like the Swedes. This is why this book is very important and valuable.

The book covers everything imaginable about the Swedish culture. Things like minimalist interior design, on healing stress with nature, on the importance of sleep and pre-bed time rituals, cold shower, sauna, physical happiness, working environment and culture in Sweden, work-life balance, the clothes that we wear, and reasons to wake up early (Sweden is a nation of early risers).

It is also about developing a friendship with a Swede, being punctual, Swedish desserts and coffee, weddings (including preparations and the charming wedding games), parenting, how they educate their children, even how to battle climate change, reduce waste, and save the world’s resources by recycling everything from garbage to buy secondhand, from riding a bike to carpooling, and so much more.

I especially like their Lagom ideas on what we eat, which is in contrast with the current all-or-nothing diet fads. Yes the Swedes keep a balanced diet, they also try to stay healthy, but they still eat their cinnamon bun alongside their salad. You know, not too much, not too little. They also not restricting children from eating sweets, but of course only in moderation (and only on Saturdays).

And if you want to have equality between men and women, then provide the same facilities, support, and even equal maternity leave so that dads can share the parenting duties 50-50, while treating newborn babies equally from day 1 regardless of the gender. This is why Sweden is one of the most progressive countries in the world.

Moreover, it feels like living life with Lagom can put off so much pressure from us. Kids only learn things when they’re ready, there’s no need to keep up with the latest trends if it’s not convenient, and by all means work hard but when the clock strikes at 5 PM, go home and relax. It’s also about sharing the burden: A house party is a collective thing, where guests bring their own things, they each takes turn for the music and the entertainment. Even in a sleepover guests bring their own linen so it eases the burden on the host.

Therefore, by implementing Lagom we can be kinder and gentler to ourselves and our surroundings. And a society filled with Lagom is also a society that care about our well being and happiness, like a warm and caring grandmother looking out for the whole family. No wonder that Sweden is among the happiest nations on earth.

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 story 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.