Running late with the Kenyans

An Irishman’s Diary: A stop-over in Nairobi offers an insight into what makes Kenyan athletes tick

‘In the course of his engaging story, Finn discovers many reasons why Kenyans run so fast.’ Above, Kenya's David Lekuta Rudisha celebrates after setting a world record in the men's 800m final at  the  2012 Olympic Games. Photograph: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

‘In the course of his engaging story, Finn discovers many reasons why Kenyans run so fast.’ Above, Kenya's David Lekuta Rudisha celebrates after setting a world record in the men's 800m final at the 2012 Olympic Games. Photograph: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

Sat, Mar 30, 2013, 06:00

I like to read books in their geographical context, wherever possible. So, knowing I had a stop-off in Nairobi on the way back from Zambia recently, I packed a copy of Running with the Kenyans , by Adharanand Finn.

Finn is an Englishman (his parents are recovering hippies, hence the first name) and an athlete of sorts. A couple of years ago, he moved with his young family to Kenya for six months to learn the secrets of the world’s greatest runners. In the process, he hoped to maximise his own abilities, however modest.

I say my stop-over was “Nairobi”. More precisely, it was Nairobi Airport. I did think about a quick visit into the city: there were eight hours to spare between flights. But the rumoured horrors of Nairobi traffic, and the airport’s equally turgid bureaucracy, persuaded against.

Thanks to snow in Britain, I had earlier missed my outward connection, causing a 24-hour delay. I couldn’t risk that again. So I found myself a seat in the departures area, opened the book, and settled in for a long evening.

As geographic context goes, the Nairobi Airport departures area is a poor substitute for the Rift Valley, where the best runners, and Finn’s book, are concentrated.

It’s long and narrow, like a valley. But it’s a glorified corridor, really: winding claustrophobically around the airport in a semi-circle, crowded with people and a repeating range of shops. Every hour or two, I’d go for a stroll in either direction, to see if there was something I’d missed. There wasn’t. I had no excuse not to finish the book.

In the course of his engaging story, Finn discovers many reasons why Kenyans run so fast. They live at altitude. They have a limited, but very healthy diet. As children, they often run to school. Above all, they’re poor and inured to hardship, a big advantage around the 20-mile stage of a marathon.

But one of the things that most intrigue sports scientists is that it’s not Kenyans, per se, who excel. It’s the Kalenjin people, who make up only one tenth of the country’s population, and yet account for the vast majority of top runners.

Among the more colourful theories is that the modern Kalenjin are descended from a long line of cattle rustlers, stretching back to neolithic times, whose success depended on speedy getaways. The best runners/rustlers thrived and passed on their genes. The slow ones didn’t. Hence the tribe’s latter-day success in raiding big-city marathons all over the world and making off with prizes.

Enjoyable as that notion is, I – like the author – tend to think there is no one explanation. As the book explains, the Kenyans also train very hard. And a crucial factor, surely, is that a few thousand dollars won in a race overseas can change their lives. Westerners rarely have that much riding on the outcome.

Anyway, the main point of Finn’s African sojourn was to tap into his own inner Kenyan, which he does, eventually. Having enjoyed the book, I glanced at my watch – it was still only 9pm and my flight wasn’t until 11.50. So I went in search of the departure area’s only restaurant, located at one end of the long corridor.

This too was crowded. I had to share a table with an affable American, from Kansas, whose multi-leg journey home I didn’t envy. We fell into a long conversation about Africa, and Ireland, and life. During which, occasionally, I half-noticed that the clock on the wall was an hour fast.

It occurred to me, dimly, that of all the places to have a malfunctioning clock, a departures area restaurant should know better. But I was too busy talking, and having adjusted to the long stop-over, I was now dangerously relaxed.

I remained relaxed until my companion interrupted at one point, anxiously, to ask if I was still OK for my flight. He was pointing to his watch which, like the clock, read 11.20pm. I looked at my watch, which still said 10.20pm. Then, like a spear from a neolithic cattle owner, it hit me: there was an hour difference between Zambia and Kenya!

I jumped up, said goodbye, almost threw the money at the waitress. Then I started sprinting down the corridor like life depended on it. I didn’t pace myself. I didn’t pause for breath. I just ran and ran, like a Kenyan. When I reached the gate, mercifully, it was still open. And whatever the airport lacked in geographical context, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that – if only for a few moments – was so successfully brought to life.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com