Stay in touch

Running with the Kenyans, a review

Running with the Kenyans
Adharanand Finn
Faber and Faber

Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand FinnWhy are Kenyans the best runners in the world; no matter if it’s a 1.500 metre race or the marathon? Adharanand Finn decided there is only one way to find out; by training with them. In his book Running with the Kenyans he unravels their secret. A review.

I’m in shape when I’m writing this review. In fact, I’m fitter than I’ve ever been before. I even dare to say that I could break my own personal record in the marathon. That means running 42 kilometres and 195 metres in 4 hours, instead of 4 hours and 1 minute. And that’s, uhm, only 2 hours slower than Kelvin Kiptum, who tragically died this year in a car accident.

Kiptum ran the Chicago marathon last year (2023) in 2:00:35. That’s 2 minutes and 51 seconds per kilometre. I can’t even sprint that fast. It also is 5 kilometres in 14:17 and 10 kilometres in 28:35. That’s not running, that’s flying.

How do Kenyans run so fast?

So how do the Kenyans do it? And could we, mere mortals, do the same? Adharanand Finn falls in love with running as a kid. ‘As we set off along the gravel pathways that wind their way around the council estates of east Northampton, I feel for the first time the sensation of running in the middle of a group of people. The easy flow of our legs moving below us, the trees, houses, lakes floating by, the people stepping aside, letting us go. Although most of the other runners are older and constantly making jokes, as I drift quietly along I feel a vague sense of belonging.’

As one of the few lucky ones, he is able to make his hobby into his profession, but from the sideline. As a freelance writer for Runner’s World magazine. And as so many of us, who were once good at something, the What if-question. keeps nagging him. What if I only tried harder? What if I only took it more seriously.

To work or to run?

But as with so many of us, life gets in the way. ‘With young children it’s still hard to get out more than twice a week. I descend the stairs from my office to find Marietta (his wife; jk) with little Ossian hanging off her hips, struggling to get the lunch ready, my two daughters, Lila and Uma, screeching at each other as they tussle over a book. The garden is overgrown, the bins need taking out and the phone is ringing. It’s not easy to say, ‘I’m just popping out for a long run. See you in an hour or so.’ So even though I start racing regularly, my times barely improve. I run my first half-marathon when I’m twenty-nine in 1 hour 30 minutes. Seven years later I’ve run three more in exactly the same time.’

The will to succeed not only motivates Kenyans to become athletes, it helps them when they are racing, too.

Adharanand Finn

The couple of runs Finn does every week are partly because Runner’s World wants him not only to write about races, but also to participate. One day he finds himself back on the starting line of a 10k charity race near Devon. There the magic happens: ‘The course dinks down a short hill and then along by the Exe, the sailing boats bobbing and clinking out on the water. I’m still near the frond, and decide to stretch my legs to make use of the wind blowing behind us. No one else seems to have the same plan, and they let me go, racing off at the front, blown like tinder along the path. … I keep expecting a stream of runners to pass me at any moment. Where are they? … It’s strange being out on my own. … In the end I finish well clear of the field in a huge personal best time of 38 minutes and 35 seconds. … A reporter from the local newspaper comes up and starts asking me questions. I feel like I’ve won the Olympics.’

What if?

It’s that victory that makes the What if-question come back. ‘I begin devising a crazy plan. A few months earlier Marietta’s sister, Jophie, suggested I came to Kenya, where she lives, to run the Lewa marathon. … I wasn’t really listening. I wasn’t ready to run a marathon and besides, I couldn’t travel all the way to Kenya just for a race. Life doesn’t work like that. Right? But now, sitting here, weaving our way along the A379 back to Exeter, it seems like a great idea.’

However, not for one race. Adhanarand’s wife has always fantasised about living abroad for a while with the family. Okay, South America, but abroad is abroad. ‘That night, after the children are in bed, I put forward my idea. Six months in Kenya. … She’ll get to visit her sister. And I’ll get to run. Really run. With the greatest runners on earth.’ Marietta loves the idea and a new book is in the making.

Running with the Kenyans

Running with the Kenyans is the adventure Adhanarand and his family have in Kenya. It is his running adventure. It is a fascinating story that little by little exposes the secrets of the Kenyans. What are they? I’m not going to tell you. You have to read the book yourself. But don’t worry, it’s absolutely worth every minute of your time.

Okay, one spoiler alert: When I spoke to Yannis Pitsiladis, the man who has delved deeper into the Kenyan secrets than anyone else, I pushed him to put one factor above all the others. … ‘Look’, he said. ‘My daughter is a great gymnast, but she probably won’t become a gymnast. She’ll probably go to university and become a doctor. But for a Kenyan child, walking down to the river to collect water, running to school, if he doesn’t become an athlete then there are not many other options. Of course you need the other factors too, but this hunger is the driving force.’ The will to succeed not only motivates Kenyans to become athletes, it helps them when they are racing, too. When the crunch comes in a race and your body is shouting at you to slow down, it is the drive to win that pushes you on.’

The Great Gatsby

It’s the same drive that Adhananrand Finn had to leave England behind for six months and to go running with the Kenyans. It is the same drive that makes the book so interesting. The next book I picked up when I finished Running with the Kenyans was The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know I can’t compare both books. Running with the Kenyans is an adventure book, The Great Gatsby is a portrait from the roaring twenties, with its big parties, alcohol abuse and meaningless conversations. Yet, if you ask me which book I would reread, it’s definitely Finn’s book. More humour, more adventure, more emotion, more depth.

So if you want to know why the Kenyans are such good runners, you better get a copy yourself. And who knows, maybe the book even makes you a better runner.

Related posts

The Race Against Time by Richard Askwith, a review

Can we still be good runners when we get old? Yes, discovers Richard Askwith, in his book The Race Against Time.

The race that changed running, a review

Is the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc the greatest ultra trail running race of all time, or a commercial monstrosity?

The Rise of the Ultra Runners, a review

I have a new favorite book; The Rise of the Ultra Runners by Adharanand Finn. Why? Because I just couldn't put it down.