Every book, like every life, is a pilgrimage with one central question: Is this about the journey or the destination? The subtitle of Adharanand Finn’s “Running With the Kenyans” promises “passion” and “adventure” but also “the secrets of the fastest people on Earth.” Are we going to wander and find enlightenment, too? Yup.
An editor at the Guardian, Finn waited until one night when the children were asleep before proposing a family outing certain to horrify their mother. An “adventure,” he called it, meaning elephants and zebras — not malaria, poverty and tribal violence.
Finn’s dormant passion for running had been enflamed when, on assignment for Runner’s World magazine, he entered the Powderham Castle 10K near his home in Devon, England, and astonished himself with a win and a personal best. “Six months in Kenya,” he told his wife, Marietta. “The kids will love it.” The author, more writer than athlete, would train with “the greatest runners on earth. And if I find their secret, I can bottle it and make a fortune.”
“Brilliant,” said Marietta. She had a sister in Kenya, a brother in Tanzania.
And so the five Finns, two adults, two young daughters and a toddler, set their sights on the highlands above the Rift Valley. “In 2011 the top twenty fastest marathons of the year were all run by Kenyans,” Finn tells us.
If his difficult-to-pronounce first name, Adharanand, throws you — as it did me — you should know that the author’s parents were hippies and Adharanand is Sanskrit for Eternal Bliss. I don’t know about bliss, but Finn is a pleasure to read. He learned of excellence early and he learned on foot. When he was 12, he broke the record for 800 meters at his school and won the 1,500-meter five minutes later.
Since then, he has slowed down, along with the rest of the developed world. “Despite all the advances in training technology, nutrition and physiotherapy . . . in the West we’re stuck on a conveyor belt going the wrong way,” he writes. In 1975, 34 marathons were run in under two hours and 20 minutes by Americans, 23 by Britons and none by Kenyans. “By 2005, however, there were 22 sub 2:20 marathon performances by Americans, 12 by Britons and a staggering 490 by Kenyans.”
Energized for his adventure, Finn gets faster until he reads the bestseller “Born to Run,” Christopher McDougall’s investigation into the secrets of the Tarahumara Indians, great distance runners who run barefoot or in paper-thin sandals. Finn concludes that his shoes are inhibiting the natural action of his feet and tendons. He abandons the comfy shoes and heel-first style that has long been doctrine in the West. He changes his stride to mimic that of barefoot runners, and, not surprisingly, his legs hurt. He’s aiming to take part in Kenya’s Lewa marathon, one of the most punishing in the world, but by the time the family bags are packed the farthest he can run is a pitiful three miles. Worse, he’s distraught to see Kenyans striding comfortably in the footwear he’s been struggling to do without.
The family rents a house in Iten, which lies in an area that is arguably the geographic center of long-distance running. They hire a guard, although almost everybody is kind to the Muzungus (whites). Home-grown and visiting running stars are thick on the ground. Even Joan Benoit is there with her son, Anders. She won the gold medal for the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984.
Caught in the first boom of adult-onset running fanatics during the late 1970s, I ran 60 marathons before I stopped counting. I still run at least one a year and wanted to visit the Rift Valley in the same way some Catholics want to visit the Vatican. My trip was led by John Manners, a man who could — and should — write a book about Kenyan runners. A transplanted baseball fan, John came to Kenya with his anthropologist father when he was 12 years old and saw the promise of the country’s world dominance in running, before the world had any idea. He’s one of many whom Finn interviews in his quest for secrets.
The children who run to school here are fast, Finn learns, because if they’re late they’ll be caned. So toughness is one secret. Another is elevation — running in thin air increases the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen. The doughy dish ugali, made of cornmeal, may not figure in Kenyans’ running success, but there may be something in how little of anything they have to eat. They are hungry, but also hungry to win, and running is one of a very few ways to earn cash in a country without much. Rest is another secret. Lornah Kipligat, who has held several world records and operates a training center in Iten, is famous for sleeping 16 hours a day.
Finn and his newfound African friends all run the Lewa marathon, which is held in a wildlife reserve. Helicopters are used to distract the lions. He’s not as fast as he had hoped, but we mustn’t judge his transformation until he returns to the developed world and finishes the New York Marathon. How did he do? Well, that’s my secret.
RUNNING WITH THE KENYANS
Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth
By Adharanand Finn
Ballantine. 265 pp. $26