July 15, 2010

Run Like a Kenyan.

Recently Andrei and I traveled to Nairobi for the day. We woke at 3am, were picked up at 4am, departed from Dar es Salaam at 5am, and arrived into Nairobi at 6am. Luggage and agenda free, we had 11 hours of adventure ahead of us before our return flight home. While we both enjoy getting lost in urban settings, we have found that trekking through concrete jungles can make for a less than relaxing getaway. 

So instead we hired a driver for the day and headed straight to Ngong Hills, about a 40 minute drive outside of the city center. "Ngong," literally meaning "knuckles" in Maasai, is a series of 4 peaks overlooking the Great Rift Valley on one side and the skyline of Nairobi on the other side. These hils resemble the knuckles of a giant whose fate is the subject of several Masai legends.

At altitudes above 2000m, the air was thin and left us breathless. As we rested and enjoyed the views,
these guys ran circles around us. The Kenyans, famed for their running prowess, did not fail to impress.
But why is it that Kenyans are such good runners? The theories are many and varied.

According to some, high altitude running partially explains this phenomenon, as running at higher altitudes builds greater lung capacity as runners grow more used to the athletic rigors of thinner air. The vast majority of Kenya's most accomplished runners were born and raised at high altitude, hailing from a hilly region surrounding Eldoret ranging in altitude from 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level.

But certainly that alone cannot explain this phenomenon, as worldwide many populations live at high altitudes. One theory our driver explained to us in great detail is that the "Kenyan" running stardom actually lies mostly with one particular tribe, the Kalenjin. Though Kalenjins represent just 12 percent of Kenya's population, they comprise about three-quarters of the nation's elite runners. It was Kip Keino who kicked off this trend back in 1968 when he won Olympic gold for his winning performance in the 1,500 meter event. In 1972, added an Olympic steeplechase title. His successes apparently inspired succeeding generations of Kalenjins to seek distance-running titles.

Kip Keino, among many other Kalenjin marathon winners, are viewed as heros and idols for Kalenjin youth. However, not only are they admired for their athletic talent, but also because many young Kenyans view winning distance running titles as their ticket out of poverty. In races where winning cash prizes reach upwards of $100,000, surely this helps aspiring runners keep their eye on the prize. This in turn feeds the legacy and tradition of "Kenyan" running talent because as interest in running increases, so does the competition for much coveted positions on traveling squads and accordingly so does the intensity and difficulty of Kenyan training regimes.






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