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What's secret of Kenyans' running success? Maybe just hard work

Stephen KurczyThe Christian Science Monitor
Frame from ESPN video

Kenyans dominate long-distance running. Why? To see them gliding effortlessly at mind-boggling speeds to record-shattering marathon times worldwide can cause bewilderment. They seem super-human, almost alien, a mere pair of lungs atop two pistons.

Most of us have not attempted a single 8-minute mile since our eight-grade physical. Top marathoners run a 5-minute mile 26.2 times in a row. There must be a secret, is the simple explanation to this madness. If only we slow Westerners knew the secret, we too could run with the Kenyans.

And so the British journalist Adharanand Finn moves to Kenya in search of the answer for his book “Running With the Kenyans.” That alone is audacious.

Making the book borderline silly, the 37-year-old Englishman fashions himself as a potential elite marathoner after winning a local 10k race (6.2 miles) in 38 and 1/2 minutes. To give some perspective: That’s the rough equivalent of winning a backyard game of horse and then heading to the Miami Heat summer camp to train with Lebron James.

There are easier ways to run faster than relocating with your wife and three children to East Africa. For starters, run daily. Finn, however, has not trained seriously in nearly two decades or ever run further than 13 miles. Anyone would get faster if they trained hard for several months, and Finn’s improvements hardly seem the result of living in Kenya.

Still, while I would rather have read about an already elite British or American runner testing the results of training in Kenya, Finn’s mix of naiveté and courage (and his wife’s patience and support) give him the incredible opportunity to meet and train with the world’s fastest runners. He is constantly bumping into a Boston Marathon winner here (Geoffrey Mutai) or a London Marathon winner there (Emmanuel Mutai, unrelated) as he trains for his first-ever marathon while also hunting down the “secrets” as to why Kenyans are fast. His search focuses on the storied town of Iten in Rift Valley Province, a dusty village at 8,500-feet elevation known to be a breeding ground for the world’s fastest runners.

Finn tallies the “secrets” in his notebook: Is it the shoes (or Kenyans’ lack thereof)? The food (ditto)? The high-altitude training? Perhaps it’s an active childhood that often includes running to school (and a lack of easier modes of transport). Finn also considers Kenya’s pervasive running culture, its people’s desire to win at all costs, and the simple lack of job alternatives. Finn provides interesting details and funny anecdotes for his points, which makes “Running With the Kenyans” a breezy read likely to be enjoyed by the budding young runner or recreational jogger.

But the book falters on several levels. Much of the time, Finn is simply talking to the wrong people: Asking a runner why he is fast is a bit like asking a musician how to get to Carnegie Hall. His research is sometimes shallow: as when he wrongly claims that the top 20 fastest marathons of 2011 were all run by Kenyans (actually an Ethiopian and an American were both in the top 10) or when he misleadingly says there were only 22 sub-2:20 marathon performances by Americans in 2005 (there were 39 in the 2008 US Olympic Trials and 50 in the 2012 US Olympic Trials).

And Finn’s obsession with “the secret” seems to mirror Western culture’s own desire for simple solutions.

Finn is not the first or last to seek to pinpoint what makes East Africans fast. In fact, the new documentary “Town of Runners” released in April of this year also seeks an answer from the legendary Ethiopian running coach Sentayehu Eshetu. His response: Eat more barley.

Which is as good as any answer, really. Because in the end the secret to running like a Kenyan is this: There is no secret. Runners run, period. Top US marathoner Ryan Hall, who trains in California, has proven that all nations can compete with the Kenyans by shattering several records and heading into the 2012 London Olympics as a medal favorite.

John Parker, whose cult classic “Once A Runner” remains my favorite book in the genre, answered Finn’s question this way: “In a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes.”

Stephen Kurczy, a reporter for The Financial Times Group, is a former Monitor staff editor who ran the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2:32:14.