Friday, June 1, 2012
Book Review: Running With the Kenyans
Being a librarian has its privileges. One of them is my fairly frequent trips to the 796.424 section of our New Non-Fiction shelves (for those who find the Dewey Decimal System worrying, 796.424 is where the running books live).
Last Sunday, my library was closed due to a big festival that takes over our parking lot every Memorial Day weekend. I went in and did some work anyway, because they make those who don't show up take precious vacation time. Without any library members to serve, alone in the giant building, I had some spare time for things like re-shelving...and just wandering while dipping into one book and another. It was on one of my wanders that I saw a copy of Adharanand Finn's Running With the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.
It's the most tantalizing title since Born to Run, and along the same lines: a Westerner, intent on learning the secrets of a culture truly "born to run," goes and lives among this foreign people temporarily, partly to see if some of their secret sauce can help his own running, but partly just to see, well, what it's like, and what that secret is. Along the way, he meets some true characters, subjects himself (and his family--in Finn's case, family includes three small children) to culture shock...and brings the whole thing to a satisfying climax in the form of a big race (this one with lions).
Since this is a review, I'll cut to the chase: those of you who think there's one key element to explain the Kenyans' dominance of distance running will be disappointed. But Finn does a fantastic job identifying the combination of factors that have made them so unbeatable for so many years. He touches on all of these factors in detail throughout the narrative, and near the end of the book, he summarizes:
"For six months, I've been piecing together the puzzle of why Kenyans are such good runners. In the end there was no elixir, no running gene, no training secret that you could neatly package up and present with flashing lights and fireworks. Nothing that Nike could replicate and market as the latest running fad. No, it was too complex, yet too simple, for that. It was everything, and nothing. 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."
A few paragraphs later he writes:
"I've immersed myself in the world of Kenyan runners, living and training with them, sharing their commitment, and following their almost monastic lifestyles, in the hope that some of their magic would rub off on me. Hopefully it has, but in truth, at thirty-seven, after years of living an easy, Western lifestyle, and without anything driving me other than the joy of running and the desire to use my talent, I never stood a chance."
It's a humbling message.
As always, though, actions speak louder than words. There's a lot of hope here, too, for those willing to adopt some Kenyan style in their training. In the wake of his experience, Finn finishes as the first Westerner in the hot and dusty Lewa Marathon, his first, in three hours and 20 minutes. After his return to the West, he takes three minutes off his pre-Kenya half-marathon personal best. And four months after that Kenyan marathon debut, he runs the New York Marathon in two hours 55 minutes exactly.
The book wasn't as funny or smoothly written as Born to Run (a book I loved and recommend to everyone). But it felt more true to me in its "shades of grey" characterization of these extraordinary runners and the reasons for their success. I liked his unpretentious descriptions of what it was really like to run behind a group of Kenyans, and I was particularly impressed with his blunt critique of his own commitment to his beloved sport after a disappointing half-marathon part-way through his African sojourn.
Since finishing this book tonight, I've found myself Googling "ugali"...and I think I might take a walk up my street. Barefoot.