A Daily news digest by Jasper van Santen

Kenya’s marathon men – The Guardian

In Nonsense on April 9, 2012 at 23:42

Kenyan national cross country championships

Kenya’s marathon men

Turns out that hunger and hard work are the keys to success- not really a surprise there. 

The life of a western athlete, we are constantly told, is one of hard work and sacrifice. But these things are relative, as Farah found out. For the Kenyan runners, hard work is just part of daily life, ingrained in them since birth. Dedicating themselves to running doesn’t require any special sacrifice. In fact, in Kenya the life of an athlete is one of relative comfort. Eat, sleep and run. It beats digging the earth all day with a hand plough.

For Kenyans, their focus is sharpened by the success they see around them. Up in the Rift Valley, every village has its star runner, someone who has gone off to win a world title or some big-city marathon, and returned with enough money to buy a plot of land, a cow and a big car. There are role models everywhere. The children look around them and say, when I grow up, I want to be a runner.

So here you have a population who from a young age have been running everywhere, mostly in bare feet – which gives them perfect running form, and stronger feet and legs – and who all aspire to become athletes. Throw in the fact that they all grow up at altitude, which increases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen (a good attribute for long-distance running), and eat a diet full of carbohydrates and very little fat, and you have the perfect recipe for producing great runners.

Underpinning all their efforts is the constant spectre of poverty. For every successful Kenyan athlete, there are 10 others training in the hope of success. For them, making it as a runner, even modestly, is their only chance of escape.

Dr Yannis Pitsiladis from the University of Glasgow has spent 10 years studying Kenyans, conducting research into why they are so good at long-distance running. He agrees that it is due to this perfect concoction of factors. I ask him, however, if he can put one reason above the others as the most important.

“Oh, that’s tough,” he says, thinking hard for a moment. Then he says pointedly: “The hunger to succeed.”

“Look,” he adds. “My daughter is a great gymnast, but she probably won’t become a gymnast. She’ll probably go to university and become a doctor. But for a Kenyan child, walking down to the river to collect water, running to school, if he doesn’t become an athlete then there are not many other options. Of course, you need the other factors, too, but this hunger is the driving force.”


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