Tag Archives: Adharanand Finn

“Strides: Running through history with an unlikely athlete” by Benjamin Cheever

Running “makes a wide variety of people palatable to each other” says Benjamin Cheever in this memoir about his lifelong passion. Well, it doesn’t sound to me like he’s been in a fast-moving pack of men – and I do mean men – during a 10k. By mile 2 it’s like they’ve been scoffing baked beans all night. The sheer amount of methane that gets emitted is staggering, let alone the frog chorus of orchestral flatulence. The only thing palatable about a fast farty group is that it gives you an incentive to head to the front and push the pace, if only so you’re not downwind of several tiny pairs of Ron Hill shorts.

Strides is one of those running books I pick up occasionally on Amazon at random for 1p. I knew nothing about it before reading, and was not familiar with Cheever himself, who is apparently a successful novelist with an even-more famous father. I hadn’t heard of him either.

It’s a ramble through a life in running, interspersed with stories of running in history. Cheever himself is easy company, and his attitude to running – sociable, yet still mildly competitive even in his veteran years – is far more familiar to me and most runners I know than the knit-your-own-snacks-bollocks (see earlier review) of some writers I could mention.

Structurally, Strides is a mess, but it had just enough “Did You Know” stuff in it to keep me interested. One fact that struck me is that exercise science only started as a field in 1953. Professor Jeremy Morris found that London bus drivers, who spent all day sitting, had significantly more heart attacks than the conductors, who ran up and down stairs all day. The connection between exercise and heart health – so obvious now – was finally established.

There are some interesting chapters about Kenya (but Adharanand Finn’s book is better) and the wine-soaked Marathon du Médoc (which went straight on my bucket list), but surprisingly for me the best chapter was about running in the US army. Strides was published in 2007, with huge numbers of American soldiers still stationed in Iraq. Where I am a bleeding-heart pacifist liberal, Cheever is unapologetically pro-military, and his descriptions of the various men and women he met challenged my assumptions about who signs up for the US army and why they serve. In one scene that stayed with me, he asks a Princeton-educated lieutenant if he should salute a high-ranking officer, and is told no – the US army believes Cheever, as a civilian in a democracy, outranks everybody in the army.

We learn about how running is an integral part of army life, with every rank of soldier expected to pass the Army Physical Fitness test, which includes a 2-mile run, at least once a year. To get full marks, the run needs to be completed in 13mins, which is a decent pace…but reassuringly feasible for the likes of me. Many soldiers take their running far more seriously than just passing the test, and the Boston and Honolulu marathons even run satellite versions of their races on US army bases in Afghanistan and Baghdad, complete with official t-shirts, numbers and timing gear.

Cheever ended up running a 10k in Iraq, running on the pavement around Saddam’s ornamental lakes, coming first in his age category

He declines to mention how fragrant the race was.

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“Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon” by Ed Caesar

Elite marathon running suffers from what I call the “Kiprotich Problem”. The men’s Olympic marathon in 2012 featured high drama and one of the most shocking turnarounds and upsets in the sport. Having been whittled down to a leading pack of 3 runners, one of them fell off the pace, apparently in some pain. The question now was whether gold would go to the world champion, or to the man who had won the London Marathon earlier in the year. Instead, out of nowhere, the man in pain suddenly came surging back, overtaking the other two and claiming a surprise gold. The fact he was an unheralded Ugandan, from a country that hadn’t topped a podium since 1972, made it all the more inspirational. When he returned home to a hero’s welcome in Uganda, he was rewarded with $80,000, a presidential state breakfast, and promptly promoted to Assistant Superintendent at his day job in the Ugandan prison service.

If you follow elite marathon running, all of this was genuinely exciting. Your non-running friends and family, on the other hand, would have seen a race where a runner called (Stephen) Kiprotich beat another runner called (Wilson Kipsang) Kiprotich. Admittedly silver went to a man called Abel Kirui, which is a cracking name for anyone’s firstborn, but the fact remains that elite marathoners come across to the uninitiated as…well…samey.

Ed Caesar’s excellent Two Hours has an admirable mission. The East African runners that we see winning big city marathons are not boring, identikit athletes, blessed by good genes. Instead, in a phrase I love, he describes them as “rare, intriguing men”, and he sets out to prove it.

Caesar has spent considerable time in Kenya, getting to know top athletes such as Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Kamworor, and Geoffrey Mutai. In TV interviews, these men come across as polite, easy-going and somewhat shy, and generally being unbothered if beaten in a race. What is very apparent from this book is that this is all a facade. These are intensely driven and competitive men, who kick themselves for months if they lose. It is Mutai’s story around which Caesar chooses to structure his narrative, providing a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of an elite marathoner. Boring? Hardly. This is a man who was nearly chopped up by a machete-wielding mob in 2008. These are not ordinary, mundane lives.

When Mutai won Boston in 2011, he ran the fastest time ever recorded over 26.2 miles. What he didn’t realise until afterwards was that this could not be an official world record, because Boston, with its net downhill and point-to-point course, is not eligible for records. On top of that, people talked about his performance being wind-assisted. In Caesar’s account, despite clinching $500,000 in that race, Mutai was privately tortured and infuriated by this downgrading of his achievement, and from that point on he had something additional to prove to his critics. That something was the quest to set a new world record, and perhaps be the first man to run a sub-2.

Is a sub-2 physically possible? Interestingly, a peer-reviewed paper was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1991 by scientist Mike Joyner, who calculated that if a man had the best possible values for lactate threshold, running economy and VO2 Max, they could run 1 hour 57 minutes and 58 seconds. 1:57:58. This highly specific time has been the subject of controversy ever since, with “dreamers” believing it gives evidence we will smash the barrier one day, perhaps within the next decade, while naysayers such as Ross Tucker (of the Science of Sport blog) think that it simply will not happen because we are already at the edge of racing performance; shaving seconds off the record is conceivable, but knocking off 3 minutes is fantasy.

Perhaps there are other means of making the fantasy a reality? When you read Adharanand Finn’s enjoyable Running with the Kenyans, based on Finn’s experience of living in Iten, you see Kenyan training centres as places of harmony, fellowship and neighbourliness. Ed Caesar certainly shares that view, but he also presents an interesting balance to this image; the East African running community is also a snakepit of gossip, rumour and slander. All the top marathoners, including Mutai, are suspected (on minimal evidence) by their slower peers of doping. “You think you can run 2:03, only with blood?” said one 2:10 marathoner to the author with incredulity, claiming that anything faster than 2:06 was suspicious. Caesar, for his part, believes that Mutai is clean, but he makes a good point that is obvious when you read it: we should pity the poor bastard who does break two hours, because he will be hounded by accusations of cheating for the rest of his life.

For me, one of the highlight sections of the book is the breathless account of the 2013 London Marathon, which could also be named The One Where It All Went Pear-Shaped. This race featured the greatest line-up ever (including me), and everything about it suggested “fast time”. Then the men went off at a phenomenally quick pace, led by Emmanuel Mutai (no relation, again exemplifying the Kiprotich Problem), who threw in surge after suicidal surge to break up the pack. The elite group consequently detonated, with the world’s top runners crossing the line in relatively embarrassing times, and the eventual winner coming from around 12 places down to overtake a spent Emmanuel Mutai in the last mile, breaking the tape in a “pedestrian” 2:06:04. Mutai apparently came in for a lot of anger behind closed doors from the other runners for “killing” them and denying a 2:03 or 2:04 finish, but he was simply treating it as a race, not a time trial. And in a race, a winner aims to bury his competitors.

This is why, both Caesar and Geoffrey Mutai conclude, we are unlikely to see a sub-2 in the current climate. Not because the runners can’t do it – Mutai is convinced it can be done – but because the events are not designed to facilitate it. Most of the main city marathons are big-money races, where winning will always take precedence over setting records. What is needed is a special event where a sub-2 is the only goal, with a huge number of pacemakers acting as windbreakers, and a team of stars driving each other on, all of whom would get big paydays whoever actually broke the barrier. To generate the money needed to make this happen, Caesar envisages a big show modelled on championship boxing matches, where much of the excitement is generated in the build-up, accompanied by attention-grabbing HBO-style documentaries about the training and preparations for the race.

But first, marathoning would have to overcome the Kiprotich Problem, and get the wider public interested in these characters, their stories, and what is at stake. A copy of the superb Two Hours, pressed into the right hands, would be a good start.

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“The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running” by Adharanand Finn

Back in the early 2000s I lived for two years in Japan, working as an assistant English teacher in the small Hokkaido town of Mitsuishi-cho, as part of the government’s JET programme. I was not a runner back then, and my hobbies mostly consisted of drinking beer. I recently rediscovered my blog – Japan: The Alcohol Years – from the time. Here is a choice excerpt from 2002:

“So I agreed to run in the school mini-marathon.

Yes, believe it or not, Japanese PE teachers manage to be even more sadistic than their British counterparts. Every single student in my school (ages 11-15) is being forced on Thursday to run 4km in the name of building school spirit….Still, it’s amusing for me, because even though my fitness isn’t great, I’m still 10 years older than most of the students, so capable of outdistancing most of them. The fact that in the practice runs I’ve been finishing in the bottom third is, of course, deliberate.”

All of which is to say that, having completely missed out on the Japanese running scene when I lived there, I was very much looking forward to reading Adharanand Finn’s latest book. Following his success with Running with the Kenyans (see my previous review), Finn moved his whole family to Japan for six months so he could immerse himself in the local running culture. What follows is a classic fish-out-of water narrative, with Finn describing many of the strange things that happened to him while wrestling with a completely alien culture, although none of his stories rival the time that I ate raw fish semen.

Finn’s main goal was to understand why Japan has such deep strength in distance running. Case in point: in March this year, 265 Japanese university men ran a half marathon in under 66 minutes…in a single race. At the time of writing, only 6 British men have done that this year. Japan is generally considered to be in third place behind Kenya and Ethiopia in global distance running rankings.

It quickly becomes obvious that Japan’s obsession with ekiden – long distance relay races – is a significant factor here. The top ekiden races attract large television audiences, with the result that athletics is a much more popular spectator sport in Japan than anywhere else in the world. The Hakone ekiden, astonishingly, attracts viewing figures on a par with the Superbowl. This in turn provides athletes with huge incentives to perform and impress on the national stage. The running system is better sponsored and supported than in the West, with many companies even funding professional teams on their payroll. Runners might find themselves being employees of Toyota or Nissin Foods, making occasional token appearances at the office to boost company morale.

Finn explores other factors too, such as the famous Japanese work ethic, and the much-touted healthy Japanese diet. While it is true to say that the emphasis on fish, pickles and steamed vegetables in traditional Japanese cookery plays a role in a healthy lifestyle, I think this can be overstated in modern Japan. Most people don’t eat like this all the time. There is a lot of junk food in current Japanese cuisine, including tonkatsu (fried cutlets), creamy curry and greasy ramen noodles. All delicious of course, but self-evidently not conducive towards great performance. It is noticeable that in Finn’s account, even the elite runners he hangs out with go to the American chain restaurant Denny’s for breakfast.

The book takes an interesting turn when Finn realises that the question he should be asking is not “why are Japanese runners so good?”, but “why are Japanese runners not better?”. Despite the depth of running talent in the country, Japanese athletes are still not able to pose a serious challenge to the East Africans in international races. This becomes the crux of the story, and it turns into the opposite of Running with the Kenyans. Whereas in Africa Finn learned how to be a better runner, in Japan he learns how not to do things. He observes various things in Japanese running he takes issue with, such as poor running form, training constantly on roads, and – most of all – how excessive monotonous training can turn running into a chore instead of fun. Many Japanese runners, overwhelmed with pressure from their university ekiden coaches, burn themselves out before hitting their prime running years.

The national inward focus on ekiden, at the expense of standard global race distances, creates some perverse anomalies too. The Japanese record for the half marathon stands at 1hr 25secs, but this has actually been (unofficially) beaten during one of the stages of an ekiden. The problem is that, by focusing on national relay races, most Japanese runners do not take global 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons seriously, despite clearly having the talent to beat the majority of nations on a good day.

For me, given that the book marries two of my favourite things – Japan and running – the issue became “why is the book not better?” Alas, despite the various interesting elements I’ve picked out above, the book is a disappointingly shallow read, especially compared to Running with the Kenyans. Part of the problem is that Finn clearly never got the levels of access he needed in order to fully explore his questions. Japanese culture has the twin concepts of tatemae (outward appearance) and honne (true feelings). It took me 18 months of living in Japan to make some true local friends, where we could talk freely and easily at the level of honne, instead of the surface-level pleasantries of tatemae. With only 6 months in the country, and with no understanding of the language, Finn never broke down the polite barriers of tatemae to understand what the athletes truly thought and felt.

Added to this is the gigantic Zou-san (Mr elephant) in the room. Japan Running News is the website for English-speakers wanting to learn about the Japanese running scene. In terms of access and understanding, the site – and ideally an interview with its owner Brett Larner – should have been essential for Finn’s account. However, it gets just a single reference in the book, and Brett Larner is not even mentioned by name. Perhaps there was some sort of disagreement or professional jealousy between the two – I remember seeing that Japan Running News blocked Finn on Twitter a couple of years ago – but whatever the reason, it’s a huge weakness for the book. For those who want deeper insights into Japanese running, I encourage people to seek out Larner’s interview on Marathon Talk.

Overall, despite my reservations, this is still an enjoyable book, and Adharanand Finn is as charismatic a narrator as ever. Although he is never able to fully deal with the questions he asks, the observations and details about ekiden racing are genuinely fascinating, and something that completely passed me by while I lived there. To be honest, according to my blog I was too busy doing this:

“Got extremely pissed for a second night in a row, as the teachers kindly organised a welcome party. Theme: what crazy ethnic alcohol will this stupid gaijin drink in the name of not offending us? Three hours of this and my conversation had deteriorated to the point of telling the men that, if they want to compliment a girl in English, they should compare her to a pavlova.

Well, in my defence, it is a nice-sounding word.

In a wonderful piece of Japanese scheduling, the next day was the mini marathon. Actually, thinking about it, they just have a cruel sense of humour. After the 3rd kilometre I had to veer off course to do a tactical chunder behind a tree.”

I have, of course, improved immensely as a runner since then. My tactical chunders now all take place at around the 10k mark.

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“Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth” by Adharanand Finn

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.

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