Tag Archives: African Runners

“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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“Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila” by Paul Rambali

1956 was Year Zero for African running on the world stage, a 60th anniversary that few people appear to have noticed in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. For sure, South African teams had competed in global sporting events prior to that date, but the teams were entirely white. Given the dominance of East Africa in distance running nowadays, it is amazing to think that there was once a time when there were no African champions.

Ethiopia, under its dictatorial emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly applied to join the Olympics in the 1940s and 1950s, and was just as repeatedly dismissed with laughter, until the International Olympic Committee finally relented and allowed Ethiopia to compete in Melbourne in 1956, where its athletes failed to make much of an impression. The prevailing view was that Africans lacked the discipline and temperament to be athletes, and would therefore humiliate themselves in global competition. Barefoot Runner tells the story of when everyone stopped laughing and paid attention: the day when a member of the emperor’s bodyguard seemed to come from nowhere to win the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, barefoot.

It was Hollywood stuff. Abebe Bikila had only joined the team as a last-minute substitute when a first-team member injured himself playing football. The marathon itself was scheduled late in the day, so that it finished at night, the final miles lit atmospherically with burning torches as Bikila and Rhadi of Morocco duelled it out for gold. In a sweet moment of national vengeance, Bikila won his victory by passing under the arch of Constantine, the very spot from where Mussolini had set out 25 years previously to conquer Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia. He even set a new world record of 2:15:16 to boot. Four years later, and just a few weeks after having his appendix removed, Bikila won gold again in Tokyo, becoming the first person to score double marathon gold medals.

Bikila’s final years ended in tragedy. Involved in a car crash, he became paralysed from the waist down, and spent months recovering at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK. He toured Ethiopia for a while, giving inspirational talks to schoolchildren, but eventually died in 1973 from complications relating to his injuries. He was just 40 years old.

The words “story” and “Hollywood” that I used earlier are important here. Barefoot Runner is a fictionalised imagining of Bikila’s life. Although Rambali has clearly done a lot of research, he has filled in the gaps with speculation and incidents that may not have happened. There is a horrifying scene during Bikila’s first journey to Addis Ababa where a thief in a marketplace is identified by a boy in a trance and then hacked apart by a mob. Bikila himself is nearly fingered as the culprit before the trance-boy changes his mind. It’s a shocking and vividly described moment, and perhaps such things are known to have happened in Ethiopia at the time, but was Bikila actually there, and was he really nearly the victim of mob justice? Similarly, there is a roll-call of 20th century figures that have cameo roles in the narrative: Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest; Lee Evans, who was one of several US medallists who gave the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics; and Wilma Rudolph, the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and worthy of a biopic in her own right, to name a few. Rambali imagines how these conversations might have unfolded. There’s no proof of course.

None of which actually gets in the way of enjoyment of the book. It’s beautifully written, and Rambali gets into the minds and motivations of his three main characters: the humble Bikila; his guilt-ridden Finnish coach Onni Niskanen; and the powerful and paranoid Selassie. Indeed much of the books is actually a fascinating portrait of an absolute monarch facing the pressures of modernity. And what an eccentric king he was. Selassie split his day into Hours in which certain types of business took place: the Hour of Informants; the Hour of Purse; the Hour of Judgements etc. The most pivotal moment in the story comes when two of the emperor’s’ western-educated “next generation” betray him and launch a coup, supported by the imperial bodyguard. It’s here where I feel Rambali crosses a line into dangerous embellishment, depicting Bikila as an (unwilling) witness to the massacre of aristocrats by his fellow bodyguards. Once the coup is defeated, the perpetrators are hanged and Bikila is only saved by a royal pardon because of his sporting success. It is a fantastically dramatic account…but there’s not a shred of evidence for it either way.

Ultimately the reader has to make up their own mind about where fact and fiction part ways. I have read some alternative accounts that suggest Bikila was not the mild-mannered man depicted in the book, but rather like later tragic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, he succumbed to drink and womanising as he grew famous and wealthy, and was possibly drunk at the wheel at the time of his crash. We will probably never have the full story.

Don’t let any of this stop you from reading the book. It’s a cracking story, blisteringly told, and unlike any other work of ‘sporting fiction’ you’ll ever read.

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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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“The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success” by David Epstein

My great-great-great uncle William Cayley was a country doctor, infamous for once riding up on his horse to a patient’s house. Peering through the window from his saddle, he intoned to the man’s wife that “he will be dead in 3 days”, before galloping off into the distance. I come from a long line of such consummate medical professionals, so you would think that science and medicine would be in my blood. However, I am the black sheep of my family, the rest of whom all work for the NHS. Somewhere along the line my genetic inheritance took a funny turn, and I ended up being a history geek with a terrible grasp of basic anatomy.

I therefore approach any popular science book with a sense of trepidation, anxious that it will highlight my feeble understanding of the subject. So I do not say it lightly when I pay The Sports Gene the highest compliment in my arsenal: This book is so compelling it will even make you care about Alaskan dogsled racing.

As a jumping-off point, David Epstein takes the current nature vs nurture debate. A number of writers, most notably Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, have popularised the idea that when it comes to sporting or artistic success, practice is a far more significant factor than innate talent. In particular, the concept of a ‘10,000 hour’ rule has taken root, this being deemed (based on one small study of violinists) to be the approximate amount of time required to master a skill at a world-class level.

Epstein doesn’t dismiss the importance of rigorous practice and the right environment, but his book investigates the other side of the question: is there such a thing as innate talent, and what are the genetic markers for it? While there is no single sports gene that makes someone a talented sportsperson, there are a number of genes that make people more disposed to excel at particular sports.

For example, he tells the story of Donald Thomas, a student from the Bahamas, who took up high-jumping at university for a dare, and within 8 months won gold at the World Championships. Thomas has a particularly long and springy Achilles tendon, something determined by a particular combination of genes.

There are all sorts of astonishing facts in the book. If an American man is 6’2” there is a 5 in a million chance that he plays in the National Basketball Association. If he is 7 foot tall, it drops to 1-in-6. Or how about this: 17 American men in history have run a sub-2:10 marathon; 32 Kalenjin men from Kenya went under that threshold in October 2011 alone.

One point that boggled my mind is that there is often more genetic diversity in single African populations (e.g. the Maasai) than the rest of the world combined. This is almost certainly because non-Africans are mostly descended from a small group that left the continent around 90,000 years ago. This has huge implications for sport. The sheer amount of genetic variation means that Africa is very likely to contain the extremes – the outliers – in a given athletic activity. Africa is potentially where you will find both the best AND worst at any sport – the fastest marathon runner and the slowest.

And the Alaskan dogsled racing? The Iditarod is a 1000-mile race across some of the harshest conditions on earth. In 2007 the sport was revolutionised by a simple discovery; if you breed huskies for their work ethic (i.e. their willingness to pull a sled all day and night) rather than their speed, the race could be won in 9 days rather than 14. Huskies that were pulling at 7mph could beat those that pulled at 15mph, something which previously had seemed counter-intuitive. There’s something vaguely comforting about this; somewhere out there is a sport for me that would reward my ability to grind out the miles, even though I am not the fastest greyhound in the pack (although I was robbed of the senior men’s road title, I tell you, robbed!).

Alas, I am missing the crucial genes. I’m not a dog.

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