When Elijah Langat crossed the finish line first this year, he kept the string of Kenyan victories going. But then, did anyone ever suspect the string would be broken? Hardly.
Many would probably expect to read my in depth discussion as to the physiological differences between the Kenyans and the Americans. Sorry. Although Kenyans are built for success in running, the true answer goes beyond their structural efficiencies.
Living With Kenyans
If I've been asked once I've been asked a thousand times. "Why are the Kenyans so fast"? Ironically, the more you know, the more you realize there may be no simple answer to this question. My experience all began in mid-1993 when a small group of Kenyans came to my hometown to begin a training program in Upstate New York. By early 1994, we had a total of 16 Kenyans living in our small, close-knit community. The first thing I did was go to our local police station and warn them they'd be getting reports of many black men running a lot. I told them not to presume robbery or some other crime. It was just a group of world class runners doing what they do best.
Kenyans are different. I don't think anyone of them could ever become American by culture no matter how long they lived here. Thomas Osano, Paul Mbugua, John Kagwe, Lazarus Nyakeraka and Gideon Mutisya certainly have developed a lot of American ways, but their heritage and lifestyle is so different, it would be similar to changing your fingerprint. Can't happen. When Thomas Osano, Josphat Machuka and William Sigei all ran under the 10-Mile world record at the 1994 Cherry Blossom, I stood close to Thomas and Josphat after the race. They quietly stood there with hardly a smile. That was their celebration. On the trip home, you would think they DNF'd.
Their diets tell a huge story. They all eat the same. We'd go shopping once a week and the cart would be filled with things like cabbage, chicken, steaks, cans of tomatoes, tea, white corn meal and whole-wheat flour. No matter how much of this stuff you buy, it still never amounts to much money. And, they all ate the same thing. I never heard one of them say "I don't like that". Different runners would prepare meals each night, but a simple system was developed and multiple cooks took over. Preparation, cooking, cleaning and a cup of tea before bed.
We had two houses with approximately 8 runners in each house. Showers were usually taken by 2 runners at a time. Conserve water. Running clothes would be hanging everywhere, as two, and sometimes three runs per day took place. In between runs, the runners would relax by going for a walk, reading the bible or visiting some neighbors. The activity was never what you'd call stressful.
One night when I came down to the house for some particular reason, I heard a lot of screaming inside the living room. As I rounded the corner, I saw all of them huddled and cheering over 2 who were seated on the floor. The two on the floor were playing a game of checkers, with the board and the checkers made from a running shoe box. Nike pays millions to have such excitement from their shoes. I'll bet they never anticipated such excitement from their boxes.
Another time, we traveled 3 hours to run a 20k in New Jersey. 15 Kenyans, my wife, my 2 sons and myself made the trip. All in a 15 seat van. A little crowded maybe, but not a word of complaint. And the aroma on the return trip certainly deserved some complaints.
Finally, they are suited for running. From their structures to their altitude training to their constitutional courage, the Kenyan has become the Lion of the roads. There are now so many Kenyan heroes; young Kenyans have these leaders to emulate while growing up. I remember Abraham Limo, father of 4, tell me how $100. would last him and his family over one month. He was shocked how quickly it could be spent here.
Paying The Price
The Kenyan runner has sacrificed more than most of us would. They leave their families and travel halfway around the world for nothing more than an opportunity. No guarantees. I remember when my wife and I first met 12 of them in Tampa in 1994, and from there, they would be travelling to Upstate New York with us (it was late February). They stood there with t-shirts on and only a small handbag with their possessions. I take more than that to the bathroom with me in the morning. I questioned whether they knew how cold our weather was. They didn't, but it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was the opportunity.
As soon as we arrived in New York, we quickly gathered coats for all of them. Alfornce Muindi came over one day wearing a woman's jacket. He didn't even know. He was smiling and happy as could be. Fashion wasn't part of his make-up. He was only one of the best runners in the world. I remember when Nike hired Alfornce to rabbit for the New York Marathon in 1993. At dinner the night before, I asked Alfornce if he knew how many people would be behind him the next morning. He smiled and sheepishly asked, "2,000?". I still love Alfornce for his innocence.
My sons learned so much from our involvement with these great people. When asked why Kenyans run faster than we do, the answer is really kind of simple. Just live with them for awhile. You'll quickly understand.
Dr. Tim Maggs