Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

by Adharanand Finn

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Overview

“Completely satisfying, as well-paced and exhilarating as a good run.”—The Boston Globe
 
Whether running is your recreation or your religion, Adharanand Finn’s incredible journey to the elite training camps of Kenya will captivate and inspire you, as he ventures to uncover the secrets of the fastest people on earth. Finn’s mesmerizing quest combines a fresh look at barefoot running, practical advice on the sport, and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: to run with his heroes. Uprooting his family of five, Finn traveled to a small, chaotic town in the Rift Valley province of Kenya—a mecca for long-distance runners, thanks to its high altitude, endless paths, and some of the top training schools in the world. There Finn would run side by side with Olympic champions, young hopefuls, and barefoot schoolchildren, and meet a cast of unforgettable characters. Amid the daily challenges of training and of raising a family abroad, Finn would learn invaluable lessons about running—and about life.
 
With a new Afterword by the author
 
“Not everyone gets to heaven in their lifetime. Adharanand Finn tried to run there, and succeeded. Running with the Kenyans is a great read.”—Bernd Heinrich, author of Why We Run
 
“Part scientific study, travel memoir, and tale of self-discovery, Finn’s journey makes for a smart and entertaining read.”—Publishers Weekly
 
“A hymn to the spirit, to the heartbreaking beauty of tenacity, to the joy of movement.”—The Plain Dealer

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345528803
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 373,248
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Adharanand Finn is a journalist at The Guardian and a freelance writer, contributing regular features for The Guardian, The Independent, and Runner’s World (U.K.).

Read an Excerpt

One

Running in the Northamptonshire County Championships, 1988

We’re running across long, wavy grass, racing for the first corner. I’m right at the front, being pushed on by the charge of legs all around me, the quick breathing of my schoolmates. We run under the goalposts and swing down close beside the stone wall along the far edge of the field. It’s quieter now. I look around. One other boy is just behind me, but the others have all dropped back. Up ahead I can see the fluttering tape marking the next corner. I run on, the cold air in my lungs, the tall poplar trees shivering above my head.

We go out of the school grounds, along a gravel path that is normally out of bounds. My feet crunch along, the only sound. An old man pushing a bicycle stands to one side as I go by. I follow the tape, back down a steep slope on to the playing fields, back to the finish. I get there long before anyone else and stand waiting in the cold as the other runners come in, collapsing one after the other across the line. I watch them, rolling on their backs, kneeling on the ground, their faces red. I feel strangely elated. It’s the first PE class in my new school and we’ve all been sent out on a cross-country run. I’ve never tried running farther than the length of a football field before, so I’m surprised by how easy I find it.

“He’s not even breathing hard,” the teacher says, holding me up as an example to the others. He tells me to put my hands under my armpits to keep them warm as the other children continue to trail in.

N M

A few years later, at age twelve, I break the 800 meters school record on sports day, despite a few of the other boys attempting to bundle me over at the start in an effort to help their friend win. Five minutes later, I run the 1,500 meters and win that, too. When we get home, my dad, sensing some potential talent, suggests that I join the local running club and looks up the number in the telephone directory. I hear him talking to someone on the phone, asking directions. From that point on, a course is set: I am to be a runner.

It all begins rather inauspiciously one night a few weeks later. I put on my shorts and tracksuit and walk across the bridge to the shopping mall next to our suburban housing estate in Northampton, England, a town of 200,000 people sixty-five miles north of London. The precinct is half deserted, save for a few late shoppers coming out of the giant Tesco supermarket. I head down the escalator to the car park, and then across the road to the unmarked dirt track where the Northampton Phoenix running club meets. It’s a cold night and all the runners are crammed into a small doorway in the side of a huge redbrick wall. Inside, the corridor walls are painted bloodred and covered in lewd graffiti. Down the hall are the changing rooms, where men can be heard laughing loudly above the fizz of the showers. I give my name to a lady sitting at a small table.

Rather than head out onto the track, as I had imagined, I’m taken back across the road with a group of children my age, to the shopping mall’s delivery area, a stretch of covered road with shuttered loading bays all along one side. The road itself is thick with discharged oil. A man in tights and a yellow running jacket gets us to run from one side of the road to the other, touching the curb each time. Between each sprint he makes us do exercises such as push-ups or jumping jacks. I begin thinking, as I lie back on the cold, hard concrete ready to do some sit-ups, that I’ve come to the wrong place. This isn’t running. I had imagined groups of lithe athletes hurtling around a track. My dad must have gotten confused and called the wrong club.

N M

I’m so convinced this isn’t the running club that I don’t return for another year. When I do, they ask me if I’d like to train in “the tunnel”—which I take to mean the shopping mall loading bays—or head out for a long run. I opt for the long run and am directed over to a group of about forty people. This is more like it. As we set off along the gravel pathways that wind around the council estates of east Northampton, I feel for the first time the sensation of running in the middle of a group of people. The easy flow of our legs moving below us, the trees, houses, lakes floating by, the people stepping aside, letting us go. Although most of the other runners are older and constantly making jokes, as I drift quietly along, I feel a vague sense of belonging.

I spend the next six years or so as a committed member of the club, running track or cross-country races most weekends, and training at least twice a week. Much of my formative years I spend out pounding the roads. Even when I grow my hair long and start playing the guitar in a band, I keep on training. The other runners nickname me Bono. One night, when I’m about eighteen, I pass a bunch of my school friends coming back from the pub. We are going at full pace in the last mile of a long run. My school friends stare at me open mouthed as I charge by, one shouting, incredulously: “What are you doing?” as I disappear into the distance.

N M

I first become aware of Ken­yan runners sometime in the mid-1980s, around the time I join the running club. They seem to emerge suddenly in large numbers into a running world dominated, in my eyes, by Britain’s Steve Cram and the Moroccan Said Aouita. I’m a big fan of both of these great rivals. Cram, with his high-stepping, majestic style; and the smaller Aouita, with his grimacing face and rocking shoulders, who is brilliant at every distance—from the short, fast 800 meters right up to the 10,000 meters.

But by the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, it is all Ken­yans, winning every men’s middle-distance and long-distance track gold medal except one. What impresses me most about them is the way they run. The conventional wisdom is that the most efficient method, particularly in the longer distances, is to run at an even pace, and most races are run that way. The Ken­yans, however, take a more maverick approach. They are always surging ahead, only to slow down suddenly, or sprinting off at a crazy pace right from the start. I love the way it befuddles the TV commentators, who are constantly predicting that a Ken­yan athlete is going too fast, only to then see him go suddenly even faster.

I remember watching the 1993 world championship 5,000 meters final on a warm mid-August evening in our living room in Northampton. My mum keeps coming in and out, suggesting I go and sit outside in the garden. It’s a lovely evening, but I’m glued to the TV. The television cameras are focused on the prerace favorite, the Olympic champion from Morocco, Khalid Skah, and also on a young Ethiopian named Haile Gebrselassie, who won both the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters at the world junior championships the year before. The athletes stand side by side at the start line, looking back into the camera. They smile nervously when their names are announced, and give the odd directionless wave.

The race sets off at a blistering pace, with a succession of African athletes streaking ahead one after the other at the front. Skah, who has taken on and beaten the Ken­yans many times before, tracks their every move, always sitting on the shoulder of the leader. Britain’s only runner in the race, Rob Denmark, soon finds himself trailing far behind.

With seven laps still to go, the BBC television commentator Brendan Foster is feeling the strain just watching. “It’s a vicious race out there,” he says. Right on queue, a young Ken­yan, Ismael Kirui, surges to the front and, within a lap, opens up a huge gap of more than 150 feet on everyone else. It’s a suicidal move, Foster declares. “He’s only eighteen and has no real international experience. I think he’s got a little carried away.” I sit riveted, screaming at the TV as the coverage cuts away to the javelin for a few moments. When it switches back, Kirui is still leading. Lap after lap, Skah and a group of three Ethiopians track him, but they aren’t getting any closer. The camera zooms in on Kirui’s eyes, staring ahead, wild like a hunted animal as he keeps piling on the pace. “This is one savage race,” says Foster.

Kirui is still clear as the bell sounds for the last lap. Down the back straight he sprints for his life, but the three Ethiopians are flying now, closing the gap. With just over 100 meters left, Kirui glances over his shoulder and sees the figure of Gebrselassie closing in on him. For a brief second everything seems to stop. This is the moment, the kill is about to happen. Startled, frantic, Kirui turns back toward the front and urges his exhausted body on again, his tired legs somehow sprinting away down the finishing straight. He crosses the line less than half a second ahead of Gebrselassie, but he has done it. He has won. Battered and bewildered, he sets off on his lap of honor, the Ken­yan flag, once again, held aloft in triumph.

That evening I head down to the track for a training session with my running club. I try to run like Kirui, staring straight ahead, going as fast as I can right from the start. It’s one of the best training sessions I ever have. Usually, if you run too hard at the beginning, you worry about how you’ll feel later. You can feel it in your body, the anticipation of the pain to come. Usually it makes you slow down. It’s called pacing yourself. But that night I don’t care. I want to unshackle myself and run free like a Ken­yan.

N M

The night I spend hurtling wide-eyed around the track after watching Ismael Kirui turns out to be one of the last sessions I ever have with my running club. Just over a month later I pack my belongings into my parents’ car and drive up to Liverpool to begin college. Although I join the college running team, my focus on training is soon lost amid the whirlwind of university life. Like most teenage students, I’m unleashed into a new world in which anything seems possible. Running seems to belong in a previous life, although I never completely let go of it.

The extent to which my training peters out becomes clear by the time the British University cross-country championships come around the following March. The night before the race, I take off on a spontaneous road trip to Wales with three friends, clambering onto the team bus the next morning ready for little else other than sleep. It’s a miracle I make it at all.

A hundred miles away, in the small northern town of Durham, it’s a cold, blustery day. I lace up my spikes and go through the familiar routine of jogging and stretching, but once the race starts, my legs, sucked down by the thick mud, give up without a fight. I jog around, unable to rouse myself to run any faster. I finish in 280th position. My good friend and rival from my running days in Northampton, Ciaran Maguire, comes second. Just a few years earlier we battled neck and neck all the way in the county cross-country championships, until he edged past me on the line to win. And now here we are separated by almost three hundred people. I see him after the race. “All you need is to give yourself one good year of training,” he says consolingly. I nod, but deep down I know it is not going to happen.

Over the years, I’ve met others like me: former runners who still, every now and then, dig out their old sneakers and start lapping the local park in the vague hope of remembering what it felt like. We sign up to a local 10K or half marathon, determined to get back in shape. But something—life, an injury, a lack of dedication—always gets in the way, and we stop training. But the embers refuse to die, and we refuse to chuck our moldy old sneakers away. We know we might need them again, that the urge to run will return.

After I have children, it becomes even harder to find the time to train, that is, until I manage to land a freelance job writing race reports for Runner’s World magazine. Although it doesn’t pay much, it makes the running feel less self-indulgent. It isn’t just me doing something for myself in an effort to revive some lost childhood fervor. It is now work.

With regular assignments from Runner’s World, I start training more frequently over the next few years, although with young children it’s still hard to get out more than twice a week. I descend the stairs from my office to find Marietta with little Ossian hanging off her hip, struggling to get lunch ready, as my two daughters Lila and Uma are screeching at each other and tussling over a book. The yard is overgrown, the trash needs to be taken out, and the phone is ringing. It’s not easy to say, I’m just popping out for a long run. See you in an hour or so. So even though I start racing regularly, my times barely improve. I run my first half marathon when I’m twenty-nine, in 1 hour 30 minutes. Seven years later I’ve run three more in exactly the same time.

I keep telling myself that one day I will train hard and run really fast. I’m not sure what that would mean exactly—an under-three-hour marathon, perhaps? But the years are slipping away. Every time an athlete over thirty-five wins a big race on television, I tell myself that there is still hope. It isn’t that I want to achieve any specific goal; I just don’t want to look back one day and regret that I never gave myself a decent chance to see what I could do.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Advance praise for Running with the Kenyans
 
“Completely satisfying, as well-paced and exhilarating as a good run.”—The Boston Globe
 
“Not everyone gets to heaven in their lifetime. Adharanand Finn tried to run there, and succeeded. Running with the Kenyans is a great read.”—Bernd Heinrich, author of Why We Run
 
“Part scientific study, travel memoir, and tale of self-discovery, Finn’s journey makes for a smart and entertaining read.”—Publishers Weekly
 
“A hymn to the spirit, to the heartbreaking beauty of tenacity, to the joy of movement.”—The Plain Dealer

“Equal parts cultural examination, cult-of-running treatise, and poignant memoir, Running with the Kenyans thrives on a variety of levels. Like the skilled distance runner he is, Finn paces this book marvelously and then saves the best for the final kick. This book packs all the pleasure and satisfaction—and none of the ancillary pain—of a long training run.”—L. Jon Wertheim, senior editor, Sports Illustrated, and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Scorecasting
 
“Not everyone gets to heaven in their lifetime. Finn tried to run there, and succeeded. Running with the Kenyans is a great read.”—Bernd Heinrich, author of Why We Run
 
“If you want to know the secrets of Kenyan runners, and have a rollicking adventure along the way, join Finn in his fascinating tale of what it is to go stride for stride with the fastest people on Earth.”—Neal Bascomb, author of The Perfect Mile
 
“An extremely good book . . . If Born to Run taught us what to wear (or not to wear) when running, Finn’s fascinating Running with the Kenyans teaches us how to run. . . . In the tradition of the best sports writing, Finn embedded himself fully in his subject and reveals, for the first time, just how close we are to the holy grail of the sub-two-hour marathon.”—Robin Harvie, author of The Lure of Long Distances
 
“A beautiful and inspiring must-have for every runner, Running with the Kenyans is far more than an inspirational story, but a guide toward running, humility, and life, from the amazing people of Kenya.”—Michael Sandler, author of Barefoot Running

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Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
_Zoe_ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you¿re interested in running and travel, you¿ll want to read this book. It¿s the story of a guy from England who, wondering what it would take to become a better runner, packs up his family and moves to a small town in Kenya to figure out the secrets of the best runners out there.The secrets, as it turns out, are not very surprising, and are a combination of factors rather than one single thing. Lifestyle plays a huge role in producing top runners; Kenyan children in rural areas live hard, physically-demanding lives, and often run miles every day just as a way of getting to and from school. When they choose to become athletes, they have an extremely high level of dedication because achieving success can change their lives so dramatically; even a relatively small amount of prize money can allow them to vastly improve their families¿ standards of living. And once some runners have achieved such success, it sets off a spiral of positive reinforcement: more people are driven to become runners, and their families are willing to make sacrifices so that they can dedicate their lives to training. Other factors are mentioned as well: barefoot running, and diet, and so on.These ¿secrets¿ are mainly presented in an anecdotal way; there are occasional mentions of scientific studies, but that¿s not the driving force of this book. Mostly, Finn just talks to people and considers what he sees. This makes for a very easy read, but it did occasionally lead me to have doubts about his conclusions. He largely rejects the idea that the specific subgroup of Kenyans that excels most in races, the Kalenjin, has some sort of genetic advantage, at least partially on the grounds that this would diminish their achievements and discourage other competitors. He also confidently asserts the benefits of a low-fat diet, when I¿d thought that recent science had rejected this idea. There¿s no doubt that the standard western diet leads to a lot of health problems, but I¿d thought that it was now seen as more a matter of refined carbohydrates and specific types of fat. I¿m certainly not an expert on the matter, and I may be completely wrong¿but Finn isn¿t an expert either, and he presented no convincing evidence to support his position and make me change my views.So, this has to be viewed as more a travelogue and memoir than as a serious work of scholarship on Kenyan athletes. And I don¿t think that¿s a problem, as long as you go in with the right expectations. As a travelogue, I'd say it¿s only average in terms of writing and depth of observation, but the interesting premise of going to train with the Kenyan runners is enough to make it a worthwhile read in my eyes. I don¿t really know of another book like this, though I do have Toby Tanser¿s More Fire on my TBR pile.Ultimately, I found this a quick and interesting read, but was left feeling that I wanted to get a little bit deeper into this world. Finn focuses pretty exclusively on the runners he meets and the runs he participates in, but one of my favourite parts was actually his description of his daughters¿ first day at the local school. I would have liked to read a bit more about life in Africa, both his own life and that of the locals. Maybe because he was a foreigner and only lived in Kenya temporarily, I didn¿t feel like I really came away with a great understanding of what life was like for a Kenyan runner. We heard about life in the training camps, but I wanted to know more about the runners¿ childhoods and their families as well. I didn¿t feel as connected to the people described here as I did to the ones in, say, Stephanie Nolen¿s 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa. I¿m left hoping that someone like Jacques Steinberg (You Are an Ironman) or Liz Robbins (A Race Like No Other) will eventually write a book profiling a small group of Kenyan runners in the leadup to a major race. In the meantime, though, Finn¿s book has the advantage of actually existing; it¿s a quick and easy read, and worth the time if yo
brendajanefrank on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
British author Adharanand Finn spent six months living in Kenya with his wife and three young children trying to discover the reason that Kenyans dominate the world in running and attempting to learn to run like a Kenyan. No, he wasn't a world class athlete or even a serious amateur runner. Finn is a journalist at the "Guardian" with additional regular assignments from "Runners World". As a youth, he ran with a local club in Northampton, England. In college in Liverpool, Finn joined the running team but failed to take training seriously and simply participated. As an adult with a wife and three children, training was an indulgence that time did not permit.Although describing himself as an "overweight office worker," Finn never gave up his dream of training really hard and running really fast. This dream became a reality after he won a 10K charity race in Devon with his personal best time of 38 minutes and 35 seconds. (Kenyans commonly run sub 30 minute 10Ks.) His sister-in-law, who lived in Kenya, suggested that he run the Lewa Marathon, one of the toughest marathons in the world, run across a wildlife conservancy in Kenya. In the glow of his victory in the local charity run, Finn gave serious thought to the invitation. With the enthusiastic support of his wife, the whole family moved to Kenya.Kenyans dominate distance running, particularly those of the Kalenjin tribe. By living near and training with elite runners, Finn gained insight into reasons for their success.* Life style, culture, genetics and drive distinguish the Kenyan runners. They devote themselves to running. It's a vocation rather than an avocation. Running is one of the few ways to escape a life of poverty, creating the need to excel. A lack of alternatives fuels the drive to win.* Kenyans run, eat and sleep. They train in groups and, for races, live in training camps. Training is about two runs a day, with total rest in between. Kenyans will sleep as much as sixteen hours a day.* The diet of Kenyan runners is high in carbs. Ugali, the national food, predominates. This is a porridge or dough made of maize.* Genetically, the Kenyans are lean and built well to run. Males are generally below 130 lbs. The Kalenjins live at altitude and children grow up running everywhere they need to go. Running is a way of life."Running with the Kenyans" is a well-written narrative of the difficulties of integrating Finn and his family into the local culture and his path to completing the Lewa Marathon. You don't need to be a runner to enjoy this story.
sblock on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to love this book. I've lost track of the number of times I've watched Kenyan runners head for the finish line of a race I've barely started. Adharanand Finn moves his young family to Kenya and trains for a marathon with some of Kenya's elite runners in an effort to figure out their secret. It's an intriguing premise, but the characters Finn meets are so indistinguisable and his writing is so flat (and sometimes downright ungrammatical) that by the time I was two-thirds of the way through this book, I didn't care how Finn did in the marathon. This is a book that should have been a magazine article.
mkboylan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand FinnThis was one of my favorite reads of the year so far. My perspective is not that of an athlete by a long shot, but the idea of going to Kenya and running across the country was so intriguing. Still, the running information was interesting, especially the different attitudes and beliefs of Kenyans compared to Americans. (Although, the author is British) The relationships between coaches and athletes were different. The biggest part of the story for me was the author and his wife making the decision to move to Kenya for this adventure, taking their two children with them. This is a great story for both runners and armchair adventurers. I found myself missing these people when I finished the book.
cwlongshot on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting read about what it's like to live and train in Kenya from the perspective of a UK runner. The book addresses some of my questions about why Kenyans are such great runners and why they didn't dominate the longer races until the last 20 years or so. Recommended for anyone interested in running or life in Africa.
JechtShot on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Adharanand Finn, or just Finn, moved his family to Kenya for six months in hopes of learning the secrets of Kenyan runners. Is it their barefoot running style or just plain necessity that has set the Kenyans as the gold standard in distance running? Finn sets out on his ambitious journey to not only run with the Kenyans, but also to compete.Finn's book fell flat for me. The story started out well, an English mid-pack runner sets out with visions of grandeur to become one with the Kenyan running lifestyle. However, once Finn arrives in Kenya the story becomes dull and repetitive. Most chapters of the book went something like this: Finn meets world famous athlete, running times are shared, everyone eats and Finn goes to sleep. Next Chapter: Finn goes out for a run and is slower than everyone else, but is improving. Next Chapter: Finn meets world famous athlete, running times are shared, everyone eats or watches television, and Finn goes to sleep. Rinse, Repeat. I think another reviewer put it best... this would have been a brilliant magazine article, but there was just not enough content to keep the reader interested for the entire book.
Drewano More than 1 year ago
A well written and interesting look at Kenyan athletes and running. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say there are secrets in the book or that reading this would make you a better runner but I found some the information interesting and I found the author’s trips within Kenya absolutely fascinating. If you’re a hard core runner you’ll probably enjoy this book but those who aren’t or only have a passing interest in the sport probably won’t enjoy it as much as I did.
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Well this is my name and well i doNT LIKE THAT MUCH