We’ve only been running for five minutes, but already I’m bursting my lungs at the back, struggling to keep up with some of the greatest runners on earth as we hurtle along a straight dirt road high in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Then we get to a hill and they speed up, leaving me floundering.
I quickly realise, after only a few weeks in Kenya, that there is a huge gulf between me and the other runners here. It isn’t just natural talent. I’m a fairly capable runner, having won many junior cross-country medals in my day. And the training in Kenya isn’t that different either. Speed work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, long runs at the weekend.
So what exactly is it that makes the inhabitants of this tiny corner of the world so incredibly fast? Long-distance running is the most universal and accessible of sports, yet in 2011 the top 20 marathon runners in the world all came from Kenya’s Rift Valley. What do they have that nobody else does?
Many people in the west have simply thrown up their hands and said it must be in the genes. But the biggest study into the genetics of Kenya’s runners, led by Professor Yannis Pitsiladis of Glasgow University, has found no evidence that Kenyans have a genetic advantage. The real difference, I believe, is in the nurturing and application of their talent. It starts at a very young age. It is often suggested that Kenyans are so fast because they run miles to and from school. I always presumed this was a romantic myth, but there they were, at dawn every morning, racing by, their pencil cases rattling in their schoolbags.
The legendary Daniel Komen, whose world 3,000-metre record has now stood unbroken for 16 years, told me it was always this way: “Every day I used to milk the cows, run to school, run home for lunch, run back to school, home again, tend the cows. This is the Kenyan way.”
By age 16, anyone with any talent for running has already been training for years. This may be true in other parts of the developing world, but in other countries the talent is usually lost. At around 16, people head off in search of work. There is no time for running. But in Kenya, in the Rift Valley at least, those with any ability go out and find themselves a pair of trainers, join a training camp and start running seriously.
In the small, chaotic town of Iten alone, where I lived for six months, there are around 1,000 full-time athletes. The roads in the morning are full of runners, like commuters in any other city, charging by at an incredible pace. Each one has an intense dedication, living an almost monastic life in which all they do is eat, sleep and run, day after day.
This dedication, this application, this will to succeed, is the real gulf between us. It is why they speed up at a hill, while my inclination is to slow down. “They see the hill as an opportunity,” one Kenyan coach said. “An opportunity to train harder, to push harder.” Against runners who see every hill as an opportunity, what chance did I have?
Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn is out now from Faber.