Our anchor leg had to just hang on to the lead we had built and we would win this race and claim the top spot on the podium at the prestigious Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. High School Boys 4 X 880y relay. Little Iowa farming community whooping up on the big Iowa schools. Crowd in excess of 20,000 going nuts. As the lead off runner, I had a great vantage point near the finish line to watch the final 220 yards unfold. Seemingly out of nowhere he appeared. He cruised down the home stretch passing our anchor leg (who had run a great race) just before the finish line. Who was this kid? Just a high school foreign exchange kid. From Kenya. Nuts.
We have all done it. Researched, read, and took notes, watched race videos, all trying to emulate the success of the Kenyans and their dominance of long distance running. All of our efforts directed towards an attempt to run as fast as they do. And why not? They do run fast. Very fast.
About every 3 years there appears a new book that highlights the success of the most recent group of Kenyans running on the international stage. Toby Tanser’s book; “More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way”, Westholme Publishing, LLC, Yardley Pennsylvania, 2008, is by far one of the better books written in an attempt to expose the secret sauce Kenyans use to gain such success. Confession time. I too was drawn into this in depth exposure of their world by reading Toby’s book. Guess I took the recommendation of a coaching friend of mine.
Broken into three parts; “Kenyan Running, Training, and Profiles”, Toby does an outstanding job of clearly identifying the societal drivers behind their quest to be the world’s best. Call them incentives. Call it a chance to climb into a world of financial security to be shared with family back home. Or better yet call it opportunity to capitalize on a genetic predisposition designed to excel at long distance running. This dynamic permeates each of the athletes’ personal stories found in Toby’s book.
The Kenyans have simply dominated all distances from 800 meters to the marathon beginning in the early 1980s. Through a historical perspective Toby highlights how the Kenyans discovered the road to getting noticed on the international scene. Enter the US collegiate track and field, cross country scholarship world (NCAA and NAIA). This review begins with Joseph Ng’eno, one of the most decorated Kenyan runners who entered the college scene by way of a scholarship at Washington State University – fall 1972. Running under the tutelage of Coach John Chaplain, Joseph went on to win multiple NCAA titles. Just a few years later Henry Rono shows up at WSU and experienced like success capped off by setting four world records (while still a WSU student) in a span of just 81 days (10,000m, 5000m, 3000m and 3,000m steeplechase). Other Kenyan runners soon followed (men and women), driven by the collegiate coaching community who just found a new talent pool. Reminds me of gold fever miners experienced in the Western US.
This road to success on an international stage has shifted from just a collegiate focus to a “follow the money trail” of large road races highlighted by Kenyan success at the marathon. College success by way of a scholarship is still an option. Competition from within Kenya for both of these spots is intense.
Part Two, “Training” has to be my favorite section of this book. Mileage, pacing, diet, intervals, athlete bios are the result of the authors’ time spent in Kenya. Toby includes individual quotes from nearly two dozen of the most recognized Kenyans. These quotes provide a transparent revelation into training, race strategies, and mental attitudes of the best of the best to ever emerge out of Kenya. This section alone is worth the price of the book.
Part Three, “Profiles” is broken down by race distance. Each distance is a review following a template of Kenyan National Records, Olympic Medals, World Championship Medals and in-depth profiles of each of the Kenyan runners who claim success at their respective distance. Jewels are found in direct athlete interviews. Fun stuff.
My takeaways from Toby’s book? Answer: three points. One – a deep appreciation of their desire to work hard and leave the poverty behind so many of the Kenyans grow up with.
Two – how they train. Hard. Very hard. Easy. Very easy. Too often we get these two mixed up in our US systems. This training is rooted in a respect for other Kenyan runners trying to accomplish what they are.
Thirdly – an anticipation of what is to come with future Kenyans. Many of the successful athletes return to Kenya as business leaders providing economic opportunities in their villages. With their newfound wealth many establish foundations with objectives of improving life as a Kenyan national in their impoverished country. This will only galvanize the opportunity for younger runners following the road forged by the pioneers of Kenyans who have gone before them. The world awaits the new cast ready to step up on stage and begin their performance.
Book rating: a very good read if you want an insight to Kenyan life, economics, diet, culture and yes transparency in their training and racing regimens.
Until next time – enjoy the run!