Would you move to another continent to jump-start your running routine? That’s what Adharanand Finn did. The British journalist moved to Kenya to learn the secrets of the country’s world-class runners and chronicled his journey in his new book, Running With the Kenyans. So, is he still running now that he’s back in England? Read on to find out.
I sit in my office and look out the window. The sky is a threatening, howling grey. Rain is driving sideways across the sky. I had planned to go for a run, but perhaps I should just go and sit in a café instead.
Then I remember the Kenyan runners up in Iten, in the Great Rift Valley. Every morning at dawn, they wake up, they get dressed and they run. They don’t have to convince themselves to get up and run. They just do it. I know, because for six months I ran with them.
For six months, every morning, I faced the same dilemma. Should I go running today? As the alarm beeped in the dark, I asked myself, “What are you doing? You should just stay in bed.” But I knew they would be there, waiting. They always were.
By the time we were running, the sun edging over the horizon, it all felt right. Our feet pounded gently in unison, as we snaked past mud huts and children making their way to school. By the time I returned home from the early morning runs I was refreshed, reset and alive. It was an amazing way to start the day.
So rather than head for the comfy sofas of my neighborhood café, I lace up my shoes and head out into the drenched streets of London. The first few drops are cold on my back, but soon I’m enjoying myself. I splash through the puddles, my hair tossed around by the wind. It’s exhilarating, like being five years old again.
The rain clears the streets and parks of pedestrians, leaving the pathways clear for the runners. It’s like we own the city when it rains. I get back, 40 minutes later, tingling with excitement.
It hasn’t always been like this. I’ve always enjoyed running, but I spent whole years convincing myself to go to the café, or the pub, or to sit on the sofa instead. That was until, at 37, I managed to haul myself off to Kenya to do something serious. As well as writing my book Running with the Kenyans, I trained hard enough to complete two marathons in decent times (under three hours).
All the while, I was inspired by the men and women of Kenya for whom running was a way of life. In this tiny corner of the world, running is just what people do. When you leave school at 16 or 18, your two major options in life are subsistence farming or running. And anyone with enough talent chooses to run. In Iten, the town where I lived, the streets in the morning are filled with lean athletes in Lycra, passing back and forth like commuters would in any other city.
The result is a dominance unparalleled in the annals of sport. In the world’s most universal and accessible sport, the Kenyans reign supreme – their only regular challengers coming from their east African neighbours Ethiopia, where a similar culture of running exists. In the marathon at the 2011 World Track and Field Championships, for example, the 20 fastest runners in the world were all from Kenya.
As well as gaining the discipline to run regularly, I also learned a lot about running form while I was in Kenya. Watching how they ran, I reshaped my action, using what is commonly called a “barefoot” running style – wearing thin-soled shoes and landing forefoot first, rather than heel first as the majority of western runners do.
It was a revelation. Suddenly, running felt easier. I felt lighter on my feet. Although I won’t claim that I ever fully emulated the incredible grace of the Kenyan runners – which comes from years of running barefoot as children – I did become more graceful. And the result was that running became more enjoyable.
If you do decide to switch to a “minimalist” or “barefoot” style of running, I should just sound a word of caution. It needs to be done properly. Get yourself an instructor, or at the very least do lots of research on the internet, and start off with short, easy runs until you feel like you know what you’re doing – otherwise you could end up injured.
So running in Kenya has taught me lightness of foot, and strength of mind. As a result, running has become part of my daily routine. Whenever I’m tempted to I ask myself whether I should go for a run or not, I now know that the right answer is always “Yes.”