Book Review: Running With the Kenyans

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What is the secret to Kenya’s running success? Isaac Leigh delves into Adharanand Finn’s book to find out.

Why do we run? In the West, we all have our reasons, from improving our mental health to experiencing the joy of achieving a particular race goal through hard work and toil. Some are good enough to compete at a national level; others love running for the sense of community and companionship afforded by meeting people who share their hobby. In Adharanand Finn’s Running With the Kenyans, the author travels to Kenya seeking to discover the secret behind the country’s remarkable success in generating exceptional marathon runners, training alongside some of the country’s best athletes in the process. So why do the Kenyans run?

The answer is rooted in the reality of rural poverty in Kenya. From a young age, running is not a deliberate or conscious hobby, but a means of travelling to and from school every day; physical labour, through long hours of helping out on farms, is ingrained in young bodies from a similar age. By accident rather than design, Kenyan children develop the endurance of long-distance runners from school age. Elite running is also seen as a route out of the same poverty. The more Kenyan athletes that win races on a global scale, returning to their homeland with the capacity to develop a better life for themselves and their families, the greater the respect afforded to the pursuit of elite running. Running is a job, not a hobby, and treated with the requisite seriousness.

Finn encounters an intoxicating simplicity to Kenyan runners’ schedules. Each morning, Finn rises before dawn to meet his training partners; there is no prevarication, just an intrinsic mechanism to set off at 6am. Once the morning run is completed, the focus is on rest and recuperation, rather than filling the day with leisure pursuits or deliberate socialising, before a second recovery run later in the day. In a world of Strava and GPS signals, of precise mile-splits and heart rates, the Kenyans adopt an equally refreshing approach to measuring their training: often by feel rather than by precise design. They instinctively know when to push through the final 5km of a hard training run, and when to amble rather than strain on a recovery run. None of these are secrets in an increasingly globalised running world, but Kenyan runners are dutiful in treating such guidance as regulation, rather than advice.

Finn is honest in confronting what he perceives as his own mental weaknesses: dropping out of a cross-country race that he trailed badly in, and subjecting himself to self-castigation when struggling to push harder near the end of an undulating half marathon race. Finn’s observation is that, as somebody who doesn’t make a living out of their running nor has suffered through the pain of poverty, that his pain threshold will never be as high as the Kenyan runners; for them, sustained physical discomfort is nothing given the carrot of a top-ten finish, being spotted by a scout, and given the chance to pursue their dream professionally. In other words, running means so much more. Finn wisely avoids dwelling on this markedly first-world problem, admiring the resolve and discipline of the runners he is now surrounded by every day without seeking to equate this to the masses in the West who, while dedicating themselves to the sport with often remarkable devotion, simply do not have the same opportunity cost for a poor race performance.

This book is a wonderfully immersive experience into the life of the Kenyan runner, replete with interviews with elite coaches and athletes, as well as a depiction of day-to-day life in the country. Finn strikes a fine balance between charting his own personal progression as a runner – a few months after returning from Kenya, fortified by months of altitude training, he runs the New York Marathon in under three hours – and taking a broader view of what makes the Kenyan running scene so special. The book also reflects the remarkable generosity of elite Kenyan athletes and coaches who are willing to let Finn in on some secrets. But the biggest secret? There is no secret. Delineating hard and recovery runs, taking rest as seriously as the running itself and building aerobic capacity through years of (sometimes unintentional) endurance training from school age onwards all create the perfect conditions for elite long-distance running.

So… who fancies going to Kenya for a year on behalf of Serpentine RC?

Isaac Leigh joined Serpentine in autumn 2017. When he isn’t running, he’s most likely to be found agonising over Newcastle United’s latest drama, reading or trying to improve his French and German.

Grace Mackintosh Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).