Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Running with the Kenyans (2012)

This review originally appeared in The Buffalo News on July 1, 2012

By Adharanand Finn

Noted sportswriter Frank Deford wrote his new memoir that "fish out of water" stories are a staple of journalism, perhaps only topped by "Cinderella" and "man bites dog" tales.

Adharanand Finn's story definitely qualifies as one of the former.

The freelance author of several running articles in Great Britain had noticed, like anyone paying attention to that sport in the past quarter-century, that world-class long-distance running has been virtually taken over by East Africans. Kenyans usually dominate such races as the Boston or New York City Marathon. If the men and women of that country don't win, it's because someone from Ethiopia was a bit better on that day.

Finn (his first name means "enternal bliss" in Sanskrit) decided to try to find out why the Kenyans were so good. He convinced his family, consisting of a wife and three children, that it would be an adventure to move to Africa for six months. Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

The resulting book from that trip is called "Running with the Kenyas." It's an entertaining and often charming look at the Kenyans and their running culture.

The Finns pack up and eventually land in Iten, the running capital in Kenya. Out of 5,000 residents, perhaps 1,000 are in training for the next foot race. The level of talent is astonishing; it seems that everyone that Finn meets was second in the Boston Marathon, or (in the case of men) run under two hours and 10 minutes for a marathon -- a very good time.

While the roads and trails of the Rift Valley of Kenya are crowded, Finn almost never saw anyone who wasn't serious about training. In other words, the recreational runner, such as someone who might run around Delaware Park before after work, is extinct in Iten. That sort of behavior is associated with the relatively wealthy, and few in Kenya qualify. Running has become one of the few ways out of poverty.

Coaches and managers have been flocking to Kenya for the past few years. They've set up training camps there in an attempt to find and nourish talent. If a runner is lucky, he or she will leave the country and win enough money to change the lives or entire families.

Finn and family discover in no time just how quickly the people Iten welcome them to their town. Admittedly, a white man from England who tries to run with the Kenyas does tend to stand out. He's the one who quickly falls toward the back of the pack. But Finn's family can't take many steps outside the door without drawing attention and invitations to share food and drink.

Finn examines possible reasons for the Kenyan dominance in the sport during the course of his trip. The Kenyans' stride is different and their diet is different, while the subject of whether the people of the region have some sort of genetic advantage is discussed but never really proven or disproven.

Finn puts together a running "team" for a marathon that comes at the end of his stay, and the author tries to meet a goal of being the first "mzungu," or person of foreign descent, to finish the 26.2-mile race. It's a good cap to the story.

Few runners will ever get to see what the Kenyans' running experience is like back home. "Running with the Kenyans" is the easy way of taking that trip in a sense, a book that goes past like the countryside on a long run on a pleasant day.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB

No comments:

Post a Comment