After a couple of disastrous and cramp-filled races the previous year, my friend Tim had a “marathon monkey” on his back at the starting line of the 2014 Edinburgh Marathon. He wasn’t the only one. Japhet Koech is one of the key personalities described in “Running with the Kenyans”, first published in 2012.
Off the back of the book’s popularity, a crowdfunded campaign helped scrape the money together for Japhet to compete at the 2013 Edinburgh Marathon, to give him a chance to compete on the international stage. Unfortunately he blew it, accelerating too early in the race and detonating a few miles later. He came 5th in a ‘pedestrian’ 2hrs 21mins, a time that only a handful of British runners have beaten in the last few years. The fact that Kenya boasts such a depth of long-distance running talent that someone of Japhet’s ability is considered mediocre is what inspired Guardian journalist Adharanand “unpronounceable first name” Finn to write this book, subtitled “Discovering the secrets of the fastest people on earth”.
The book is part investigative journalism, part travelogue. Finn and his family moved to Iten village in rural Kenya for six months, living in a town that is 100% dedicated to running. Japhet was his amiable next door neighbour, helping him settle into the rhythms of training as a Kenyan. Along the way, Finn observes various factors that help the Kenyans be such champions.
For one thing, while the rest of the world thinks that it is “Kenyans” who dominate the sport, Kenyans themselves will tell you that it is the Kalenjin, an ethnic group that represents only 11% of the population. Many Kalenjin live in the high altitudes of the Rift Valley, so one theory is that Kalenjin runners have naturally adapted to be oxygen-efficient runners.
Finn explores other factors, such as the fact that rural Kenyans run from an early age in order to get to school, so develop a strong fitness base in childhood. He also notes that the extreme poverty in the area is a powerful incentive to train hard and win races; the financial rewards for placing highly in an international marathon can be sufficient to purchase land back home and support the local community. Barefoot running gets a mention too, although Finn points out that local runners are not especially evangelical about it and are very happy to run in trainers if they can afford them.
The book is very well-written, with lots of touches of gentle humour. Having won a 10k race in the UK in a time of 38mins, the author is quickly humbled in his first major training session in Iten, where he fails to keep up with even the slowest runners. He then sets a goal of entering the local Lewa marathon, and builds up a team of local runners who will compete in it alongside him. It is probably one of the few races in the world where finishing times can be affected by the presence of lions on the course.
Ultimately, Finn comes to the view that there is no single “secret”, and that hard work is as responsible for Kenyan success as any innate genetic advantage. Knowing this conclusion in advance will not spoil the book, nor should it come as a surprise – the real pleasure here is spending time with the personalities and comprehending what it must be like to live somewhere where every aspect of life is focused on running.
And Japhet? The Edinburgh Marathon organisers were so won over by his popularity in 2013, despite his disappointing time, that they invited him back to run the race again the following year. At mile 15 or 16 of the race I saw him coming back on the other side of the road, in a leading pack of 3. He looked comfortable and relaxed, and eventually came a fantastic second in a time of 2:16. We all conquered our marathon monkeys that day.