Thursday, April 10, 2008

Even the Gardeners Here Are Faster Than Me

In Kenya for the next few months on behalf of the KIMbia Foundation, Peter Vigneron has a few thoughts about running in the Rift Valley.

I’m staying at Silgich Hill Academy now, where even the gardener is a better runner than I am.
On my morning run Sunday, as on many of my morning runs since I’ve come to Kenya, a group of children playing near the road fell in alongside me as I passed by. This morning one boy raced me, and he almost won. Before he dropped I was wondering how long I would last if he didn’t get tired very quickly. I realized when I finished that since my arrival to Kenya in early March, this boy, this nameless, anonymous child, is the first Kenyan who couldn’t hang with my pace. I don’t think he was older than 12.

James Koskei and Timothy Cherigat run a hard 25K in Iten, with a little help from their friends.There’s been a lot written about the successes of Kenyan runners over the last 15 years, some of it by very smart people. I may not have much to add to the discussion, except to say that I think there are a lot of reasons why Kenyans are so good and why they are so good in such numbers. I think that in Kenya there exists a perfect storm of reasons, that there are layers of explanations and some work for some athletes and don’t work for others. I’ve read that Kenyans are fast because all Kenyans run or walk miles to school everyday, and that no American will ever be able to match that type of childhood aerobic development. Then I read that Paul Tergat rode the bus as a kid.

One afternoon early in my trip Paul Koech pointed to a group of children playing soccer at a local school and told me that probably one of them could be a world record holder. “It’s just a matter of organization and encouragement,” he said, “the talent is here.” That talent isn’t in the United States or Europe, or even Uganda or Tanzania, Kenya’s neighbors to the North and West. In must exist to an extent in Ethiopia, a country that has produced the world’s two best male runners, but Ethiopia’s depth is not comparable to Kenya’s. The talent is very much right here, in Rift Valley Province. Paul was exaggerating about the children playing soccer. There cannot be a potential world record holder every 100 kids, as he boasted, but I’d believe it if that ratio always produced a runner who reached world class.

There are significant, identifiable reasons for Kenya’s sustained success at distance running, of course. In fact there is an abundance of identifiable reasons, and the stories about walking and running miles to school everyday have a lot of truth to them. The Rift Valley is where Kenya produces most of its corn, and like farm communities worldwide, population density here is low. A school might have to cast its net miles to find enough children to justify hiring teachers, and there are few cars and buses to carry children those miles to class. Not every Kenyan walks 10K to school everyday—there are buses at a lot of private schools, some kids cycle, and some must live next door, after all—but many do. Even so—children run and walk to school the world over. Kenya isn’t the only poor country with farmland.

Wednesday afternoon I found myself chatting with a young man called Sammy. He had seen me go for a run that morning from Silgich, and he wanted to know about my training. Sam is the gardener here. He came because he is an orphan, and after he completed 8th grade the family he lived with turned him out, reasoning that he was old enough to fend for himself. (Incidentally, he may have been. I’d say he’s 19 or 20, and class is a notoriously unreliable way of estimating age in Kenya. A lot of kids don’t finish high school until they’re 22 or 23.) Paul houses and feeds Sammy in return for his labor, and perhaps pays him a modest wage.

It’s gotta be the food, right? John Yuda and Peter Tanui prepare ugali.In the course of our conversation, I learned that Sammy is a marathoner. He runs every morning at 5:00 before going to work at the school all day. Last year, at 5000 feet, Sammy ran 2:25. He asked if I wanted to join him for training the next morning. For the most part, I’ve been guided by an “always say yes” policy since I came to Kenya. I reason that most of the worthwhile experiences here are going to make me a little bit uncomfortable, and most of the people I’m around are intelligent and unlikely to make me do something I cannot or should not do, so I said yes.

I’ve read that the Kenyan diet is they key to their success. I’ve read that it’s the altitude, and I’ve read that it’s because they lie down and sleep in the grass everyday between runs. I’ve read that it’s because they do so much mileage, that it’s because they run twice a day every day, or even that it’s because they run thrice a day everyday. A rowing coach I met in Colorado told me it was because they sprinted all their runs. He was certain that they didn’t do high volume. I’ve read that it’s because they are poor and desperate and view running as a way out of poverty. I’ve read that it’s drugs. I’ve read that it’s genetics, and that the rest of us should just forget about beating them.

I don’t know if any of this is true. Distance running is a greatly understudied activity. Part of the confusion here is probably because we don’t know empirically if a high-volume program gets better results than a low-volume one, for example. We have loads of anecdotal evidence for what works, but it’s tough to tease apart the components of success in this sport, even on what should be a basic question like mileage. It would be one hell of study that controlled for sleeping in the grass everyday.

Timothy CherigatWhen Sammy and I began running Thursday morning the moon was shining and I had a terrific view of the stars. We started at a jog. The footing was difficult in the dark, but starting slowly seems universal to Kenyan runners, regardless of conditions. The first half mile is never, ever, faster than 4 minutes. Each time I run with them I get artificially confident as I warm up, and then the pace drops and suddenly I find myself fighting for every stride, running the tangents, and wondering if today will be the day I don’t get dropped. On Thursday I made it 55 minutes before I called it a morning and waddled home to school. Sammy added another loop and still beat me back. On Friday I found that my achilles had tightened, and I took Saturday off. Sunday saw my glorious victory.

Sammy is the rule in Kenya, not the exception. On Thursday morning we passed 5 guys just like him, all wearing faded Nike gear from the early 1990′s, training in torn shoes, most wearing winter hats against the early morning cold. When the sun rose we could see Mount Elgon, the site of a month-old government counterinsurgency campaign against a violent rebel group, looming ethereally against the fading dawn of Western Kenya and Uganda.

At World Cross Country in Scotland last month, a guy nobody had ever heard of named Leonard Komon took second behind Kenenisa Bekele and ahead of 2007 champion Zerseny Tadesse. I don’t mean nobody in the West had heard of him (which is certainly true), I mean nobody anywhere. None of the athletes I’ve talked to recognized his name beyond seeing it on the roster for Worlds. The Sunday Standard reports that another athlete discovered him in 2005 training in jeans and leather shoes. He finished 3 seconds behind Bekele, the greatest distance runner in the history of the world.

I’m a betting man, and I bet altitude has a lot to do with Kenyan success. I bet poverty is a powerful motivator, I think their diet helps, and the type of training they do should be studied and replicated further. But I also think that being the best in the world at something means that everybody else is not as good, and I’m not certain that the Kenyan dominance can be easily distilled and copied.

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