Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Running With the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, And the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Olympic track and field events don't normally interest me.  If the Olympics are on (miss them already!) and I'm in the mood to watch, I'll watch, but it's not like I specifically plan to watch track and field the way I specifically plan to watch swimming or gymnastics.  I was in the middle of Running With the Kenyans when the track and field events began (and ended it on the last day of the Games, which includes the running of the marathon), so I paid a lot more attention to the track events than I normally do.  Trying to figure out which runners run toe first (as many Kenyans do, which is attributed to the fact that many rural Kenyans grow up running barefoot--great Kenyan runners do not hail from urban areas) or heel first (which is how many non-Kenyan runners run, including Jamaican runner Usain Bolt) was a bit tricky (well, following Usain Bolt wasn't tricky, since he always stormed ahead of the group in the middle of the race, was the one that the commentators were most excited about, and showboated in front of the audience and camera before and after each race) as the races were shot at a wide angle (as should be expected, since the main interest is in who is first).  Reading this in conjunction with the track and field events were going on definitely enriched my viewing.

Even people who casually pay attention to marathon results know that Kenyan runners tend to dominate international marathons.  Author Adharanand Finn was eager to discover their secrets: is it their training? Their diet? Their society?  What makes Kenyan runners different than runners of other nationalities? Finn, along with his wife and young children, move to the small village of Iten, located in the Rift Valley and home to champion marathon runners.  As Finn discovered, a combination of many things put Kenyan runners at an advantage. This is not just a book about running (I wouldn't have read it if it were); it's an exploration of Kenyan society just as much as it is an insight into Kenyan running techniques and training, as well as an exploration of the ups and downs of incorporating yourself (and your family) into a very different culture. It's also rewarding to read a largely positive account set in an African country.  Recommended for readers who enjoy reading about other cultures.

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