RUNNING WITH THE KENYANS
By Adharanand Finn
304 pp. Ballantine Books. $17.00.
Simply repeating a line from “Running with the Kenyans” seems like a less than ideal way to delve into my synopsis. Unfortunately, towards the book’s conclusion, author Adharanand Finn provides a summary that’s just a little too appropriate. “For six months I’ve been piecing together the puzzle of why the Kenyans are such good runners. … I list the secrets in my head: the tough, active childhood, the barefoot running, the altitude, the diet, the role models, the simple approach to training, the running camps, the focus and dedication, the desire to succeed, to change their lives, the expectation that they can win, the mental toughness, the lack of alternatives, the abundance of trails to train on, the time spent resting, the running to school, the all-pervasive running culture, the reverence for running.”
The point is, there isn’t any one thing. You see, getting to the bottom of the Kenyan’s running mastery is Finn’s Kenyan-bound mission. The fact that there’s the added opportunity to expose the experiences of travel to Africa and the culture therein to his young England-based family, whom he easily convinces to come along for the ride, resolves any hesitancy for green-lighting the trip. (Oh, to be a member of the Finn clan. This isn’t the first time the group was transported to a distant land: “The Way Of The Runner“.)
The core of Finn’s Kenyan running deep dive comes with his Lewa Marathon (Nairobi, Kenya region) experience. Early into his Kenyan journey, Finn assembles a race team (all Kenyans plus one Finn), titled the “Iten Town Harriers”. The team’s talent level has great range, with Finn hoping to keep up with it’s slower members. To his credit, he does and then some, finishing the famously hot race (can reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit all year round), whereas some of his teammates DNF. His race buildup discoveries include a new found appreciation for the Kenyan meal frequently powering it’s runners: ugali, as well as the healthy exclusion of unavailable fatty western foods (ie, cheese, burgers, pizza, etc.). Also, a somewhat successful run relearning (moving from landing heel strike to forefoot first), and experiencing training at (high) altitude. To say Finn returns a better runner is an understatement, going on that Fall to finish the New York City Marathon in 2 hours 55 minutes. Conversely, not terribly long before his Kenya experience, Finn was a 47 minute 10K runner.
This post’s opening paragraph alludes to the hardships experienced by young Kenyans in their formative years. Suggestions abound in “Running with the Kenyans” pointing to the Kenyan’s high resistance to adversity. A couple related passages struck me, giving evidence as to why these runners may be less physiologically impacted by brutal running conditions. First, school-related stories of children being beaten for either low marks, or barely missing a class’s starting bell (of course, their only means of getting to school on time is running there swiftly). Also, boys of the Kenyan “Kalenjin” ethnic group are subject to a circumcision ceremony, in front of an audience. Any sign of upsettedness by the boys during the procedure and from that day forward they’re deemed a coward without respite.
Constructive criticism? Hmm. As it relates to this matter, nothing obvious comes to my mind. Perhaps a bit too much re-hashing of the barefoot running thesis already presented thoroughly (and then some) in Christopher McDougall’s “Born To Run“. Although to his credit, Finn does give McDougall proper credit.
#DidYouKnow courtesy “Running with the Kenyans”: Do you qualify the author’s first name as unique? Per Finn (born in the early 1970s), his parents were hippies, accordingly declaring their allegiance to a 13 year old Indian guru named “Maharaju”. Crediting Maharaju with the strong feelings of peace and love enveloping them during this time, they resultingly named their son “Adharanand” (the name translates to: Eternal Bliss in Sanskrit).
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