The Spirit of Running


The Spirit of Running:

Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn


Book Review

In Running with the Kenyans, Adharanand Finn reflects upon his journey to the elite training camps of Kenya.  Leaving behind his daily job as an editor of Runner’s World, Finn sets out to discover the running secrets of what many call “the fastest people on Earth.”  While numerous scientists travel each year to find some magic formula, there have not yet been any salable experimental discoveries.
During Finn’s journey, one of Kenya’s top running coaches Brother Colm O’Connell challenges the West’s obsession with discovering the secret to Kenyan running: “You people come to find the secret,” chides the Irish priest, “but you know what the secret is? That you think there’s a secret. There is no secret.”  Originally surprised by Brother Colm’s blunt statement, Finn comes to agree that there is no secret, no specially designed plan, but instead, he finds a certain Kenyan spirit, an ubiquitous mentality towards the act of running, differing greatly from our Western mentality.
This discovery begins while Finn, out to dinner with a friend, chats unexpectedly with an executive of Safaricom, one of the countries biggest telecommunications company, who offers him an economic perspective on Kenyan’s running success.  This man observes that almost none of the top runners come from the city, and almost all of the top runners come from poor, rural backgrounds.  Their tough upbringing includes herding goats and digging in the fields at high altitudes, which helps to build an aerobic house suitable for endurance running.  Not only does this laborious upbringing contribute to their physical strength, but it also allows for the ambition of social and financial advancement.  Finn explains, “Humans evolved as runners over millions of years in order to survive, not because it was a fun thing to do.  Catching the antelope meant the difference between life and death.  So it makes sense that even in the twenty-first century, if you’re running to survive, then you’ll become better at it.”
            Not only does the appetite for financial survival drive Kenyan runners, but also the love and support of their families.  In the book, we learn the story of a Kenyan woman who habitually evokes her daughter during especially tough races.  Runners of all economic backgrounds have special people in their lives who they run for.  It might be their spouse, or their parents, or a friend, but regardless of the relationship, there are always those special people in a runner’s life to whom they dedicate their careers.  Finn explains, “The love she felt for her daughter and the raw emotion of running come from the same source.  Evoking love helped push her on, even though rationally it shouldn’t have made any difference.”  One of the most passionate motivators of running is love, Finn explains, because it connects us with a primal feeling deep within us.  Love exists far from the realm of reason, which is why Paula’s chant, and the love that runners feel towards their friends and family, has proven to one of the most successful emotions in athletics.
Uprooting his family of five to run side by side with Olympic champions, Finn comes to realize, like Colm, there is not one secret, but rather, many secrets contributing to the Kenyans’ athletic success:

For six months I’ve been piecing together the puzzle of why Kenyans are such good runners.  In the end there was no elixir, no running gene, no training secret that you could neatly package up and present with flashing lights and fireworks.  Nothing that Nike could replicate and market as the latest running fad.  No, it was too complex, yet too simple, for that.  It was everything, and nothing.  I list the secrets in my head: the tough active childhood, the barefoot running, the altitude, the diet, the role models, the simple approach to training, the running camps, the focus and dedication, the desire to succeed, to change their lives, the expectation that they can win, the mental toughness, the lack of alternatives, the abundance of trails to train on, the time spent resting, the running to school, the all-pervasive running culture, the reverence for running.

While previous scientists researching in Kenya studied everything from diet, to running form, genes, and daily routine, Finn becomes a witness to their upbringing, their emotions, their attitudes, and their life aspirations, all when evaluated together forge a certain spirit of Kenyan running, a spirit that is not exclusively Kenyan, but universally human. 

-A

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