The disease proves easier to diagnose than the cure. Brits just run wrong. We sleep too little, we run at the wrong ages of our lives. We run too little beneath the age of 10 and too much above the age of 40. Our diet contains too much fat. When we run, we over-rely on heavy running shoes to protect our heels, throwing our entire legs out of balance. We take too little interest in the top athletes; where we do develop world-class runners, they fail to inspire imitators in the younger generation. We leave runners to run alone, when we would run better in groups. Our running culture is thin; running is not revered.
“Despite all the advances in training technology, nutrition, physiotherapy”, Finn writes, “the increase in the quality and quantity of races, the introduction of prize money, in the West we’re stuck on a conveyor belt going the wrong way. In 1975, for example, 23 marathon runners were run in times under 2 hours 20 minutes by British runners, 34 by US runners, and none by Kenyan runners. By 2005, however, there were 12 sub-2:20 marathon performances by Britons, 22 by Americans, and a staggering 490 by Kenyans.”
Finn, a Devon-based contributor to Runner’s World (the first name was the gift of hippie Irish parents), spent 6-months in Iten in Kenya, reducing his personal bests from 1 hour 30 for a half marathon to under 3 hours for a marathon; an improvement of about 5%. This is pretty amazing, in someone in their mid-late thirties who had been running consistently for 10 years.
As the book progresses Finn’s personal journey towards improvement is merged into a second story, that of a group of runners who race with him including Christopher Cheboiboch (previously second in the New York and Boston marathons), and their joint attempts at glory in Kenya’s Lewa marathon.
How did Finn manage to improve so sharply? Finn took his whole family, including his children, with him to Iten. He exercised with other Kenyan runners, took part in races, and immersed himself in the local running culture. He changed his running style, slowly, from a heel to a front-foot strike and changed his running shoes. He ate the carbohydrate-rich local diet, shedding 5 kg in the process. He appears to have avoided injury (there are no direct references to any injuries in his book, beyond the most passing, and enough runs are described to make it seem most likely than he lost no more than a few weeks at a time to any of the classic runners’ complaints).
Reading Running with the Kenyans, I couldn’t help but think that some of this at least could be reproduced without needing to relocate to Iten.
Here finally is the author being interviewed about the book: