Faber and Faber (2012), 289 pages
Chapters Bookstore, Dublin, €6.99
Adharanand Finn’s book is subtitled, “Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth”, but the book’s strength is not in it’s analysis of the roots of the Kenyan running phenomenon but in his evocation of the personalities of the Kenyan runners he encounters. Before he goes to Kenya Finn is a good runner (he runs a 10km race in under 39 minutes) but not so spectacularly good that the average runner can’t relate to him. He actually comes across as slightly lazy as he’s clearly not at his peak fitness when he arrives in Kenya. I think if I was running in Kenya I’d want to be in peak condition so as not to be a complete flop. Finn bases himself in Iten, the Mecca of Kenyan running, home to Brother Colm O’Connell’s coaching programme. The achievements of Kenyan running are staggering. Runners with times that would make them national heroes in most countries are also-rans in Kenya. Whilst competition is fierce the runners come across as wonderfully open and relaxed, not in their words (they are not attention seekers like many Western athletes) but in Finn’s ability to go on training runs with some of the world’s greatest runners. This openess is perhaps part of the reason that Finn concludes that there is actually no one secret to Kenyan success. They will run with Finn because they have no secrets to hide (and if you’re being a little cynical because Finn is not a threat to them). Finn’s move to Kenya with his family captures the highs and lows of living in a foreign country as he forms the Iten Town Harriers running team so that he and some Kenyan athletes can train to compete in the Lewa Marathon. The whole project could risk seeming exploitative but Finn manages to strike the right balance between realising that he’s being treated differently as a white foreigner whilst not overly taking advantage of his position.
Running with the Kenyans also provides an interesting counterpoint to Born to Run in it’s debate of the issues surrounding barefoot running. Barefoot running exponents feel that we run more naturally and efficiently (as evolution intended us to run) without shoes yet, as Finn highlights, all the top Kenyan runners wear running shoes. How much being paid to wear shoes plays a role is not fully explored as Finn notices that the winners in all the children’s races he sees run barefoot. As a runner who has been tempted to experiment with barefoot running but has never managed to get that far (running barefoot in a Dublin winter is slightly different from a hot Kenyan day) it adds an interesting dimension to the debate. The book reaches it’s climax with the excitement of the Lewa Marathon with Finn aiming for a good time and his Kenyan teammates hoping to win some prizemoney. The epilogue details the effects of Finn’s Kenyan experience and his New York Marathon run to see if how he’ll compete in a slightly lower quality field then the Lewa Marathon.
Finn’s conclusions about Kenyan running are that it’s too simplistic to pick a couple of key factors but that running since childhood (many children run to and from school every day), barefoot running as a child, a good diet (low in fat, Finn himself is a vegetarian), fierce competition at local races, the altitude, and a desperate desire for victory in a country where winning a few thousand dollars can be a life changer are all important pieces of the jigsaw. Below is a video (click to 3:20 in the video for the race start) of perhaps the most astonishing Kenyan runner of recent years, Brother Colm coached David Rudisha. Rudisha’s natural talent is arguably greater than that of Usain Bolt’s and you can see the beautifully flowing style of Kenyan running. This book is well worth a read for anybody into running or contemporary Africa.
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