How One Kenyan Tribe Produces The World's Best Runners

How One Kenyan Tribe Produces The World's Best Runners

8:35pm Nov 01, 2013
Runners train in Ngong, Kenya, in 2012. The country has produced the world's best distance runners for decades, and most belong to the Kalenjin people.
Runners train in Ngong, Kenya, in 2012. The country has produced the world's best distance runners for decades, and most belong to the Kalenjin people.
Michael Steele / Getty Images
  • Runners train in Ngong, Kenya, in 2012. The country has produced the world's best distance runners for decades, and most belong to the Kalenjin people.

    Runners train in Ngong, Kenya, in 2012. The country has produced the world's best distance runners for decades, and most belong to the Kalenjin people.

    Michael Steele / Getty Images

  • Kenya's Wilson Kipsang set a world marathon record when he won the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 29 in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds. He is Kalenjin, a group that has produced many of the world's best distance runners.

    Kenya's Wilson Kipsang set a world marathon record when he won the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 29 in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds. He is Kalenjin, a group that has produced many of the world's best distance runners.

    John MacDougall / AFP/Getty Images

Kenyan Wilson Kipsang won this year's Berlin Marathon in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds — an average of 4:42 per mile. It was easily the fastest marathon time ever recorded, an incredible feat for another powerful Kenyan runner.

But perhaps equally remarkable was that his fellow Kenyans also came in second, third, fourth and fifth place in this major international race. On the women's side, Kenyans placed first, second and fourth.

Two weeks later in Chicago, Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto broke the course record there — after only having run for four years. Next in line behind him? Three more Kenyans.

"If you look at it statistically, it sort of becomes laughable," says David Epstein, senior editor at Sports Illustrated and author of the new book The Sports Gene.

He says that while we tend to think of Kenyans as really good distance runners, all these runners are actually from the same tribe of Kenyans known as the Kalenjin. They number around 5 million, making them a small minority, even in Kenya, yet they dominate most of the world's long-distance races.

"There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon," Epstein says. "There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011."

The Role Of Genetics

Scientists and sports gurus have proposed all sorts of explanations over the years for Kalenjin prowess on the track: from their high-starch diet, to the altitude, to socioeconomics.

All those factors are important, but none of them explain why this particular tribe is so dominant. That left Epstein when he was writing his book exploring a more controversial line of inquiry: Is there something genetically different about the Kalenjin that makes them superior runners?

Kenya's Wilson Kipsang set a world marathon record when he won the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 29 in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds. He is Kalenjin, a group that has produced many of the world's best distance runners.

Kenya's Wilson Kipsang set a world marathon record when he won the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 29 in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds. He is Kalenjin, a group that has produced many of the world's best distance runners.

John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Asking that question almost convinced Epstein to back out of his book contract. He realized he'd have to address sensitive questions of ethnic and racial differences. Academics told him they had evidence of genetic advantage but wouldn't share their research with him for fear they'd lose their jobs. "And these were professors with tenure," he says.

But some scientists did talk to him; and they explained one aspect of innate biology that clearly helps Kalenjin: the shape of their bodies.

Kalenjin have particularly thin ankles and calves, a body build common to Nilotic tribes who grow up near the equator. Epstein says this is particularly important in running because your leg is like a pendulum. The more weight you have farther away from your center of gravity, the more difficult it is to swing.

If you take a runner and put 8 pounds of weight around his waist, he can still run reasonably well. But if you put those same 8 pounds in the form of two 4-pound weights around his ankles, that will take much more energy and slow him down considerably.

Epstein says body type confers its greatest advantage among elite athletes, where other differences — in training, in aerobic capacity — are minimal. In fact, he says if you were to go to the Olympic starting line and measure everyone's ankles and calves before the race, you could predict, statistically, who's likely to win.

Or Is It 'Mental Toughness'?

Of course, when many of us turn on the Olympics we want to feel that we're watching more than a contest of physics or physical destiny.

Consider the famous 1,500-meter upset in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Kalenjin runner Kipchoge Keino defeated world-record holder Jim Ryun. That day Keino not only won gold, but he also ushered in an era of Kenyan dominance.

The amazing thing is that doctors had ordered Keino not to run the race at all. He'd been diagnosed with a gallbladder infection just a few days before. A gallbladder infection is incredibly painful. It hurts the most when you breathe hard, when you're running. Keino not only won the race, but he also set the Olympic record.

How did he push through so much pain?

John Manners thinks he can explain. He's a retired journalist who for a long time had a specialty in covering the exploits of African runners. Now he runs a nonprofit, KenSAP, that helps place academically gifted Kalenjin kids into Ivy League schools.

When Manners was 12 years old, he lived for a while in Kalenjin country, where his dad was an anthropologist. And as a boy, Manners noticed his friends had scars on their arms and legs where they'd burned themselves with hot coals.

The Initiation Ceremony

Manners soon learned that they were practicing for an initiation ceremony, a rite of passage that is all about enduring pain.

Elly Kipgogei, 19, remembers going through the ceremony at age 15.

First, he says, he had to crawl mostly naked through a tunnel of African stinging nettles. Then he was beaten on the bony part of the ankle, then his knuckles were squeezed together, and then the formic acid from the stinging nettle was wiped onto his genitals.

But all that was just warm-up; early one morning he was circumcised, with a sharp stick.

During this whole process — the crawling, the beatings and the cutting — Kipgogei was obliged to be absolutely stoical, unflinching.

He could not make a sound.

Indeed, in some versions of this ceremony, mud is caked on the face and then the mud is allowed to dry. If a crack appears in the mud — your cheek may twitch, your forehead may crinkle — you get labeled a kebitet — a coward — and stigmatized by the whole community.

Manners says that this enormous social pressure placed on your ability to endure pain is actually great training for a sport like running where "pushing through pain" is so fundamental to success.

"Circumcision," he says, "teaches kids to withstand pressure and tolerate pain."

Manners says he thinks there's a distinct advantage conferred on athletic kids who grow up in a pain-embracing society, as opposed to a Western, pain-avoiding one.

It's not a silver bullet. Any athletic success has to be ascribed to a host of factors including body type and diet and socioeconomics and upbringing. Nevertheless, in traditional Kalenjin society, pushing through pain isn't only a desired trait, it's also part of what makes you a man or a woman.

Modernization Of The Kalenjin

After Kipgogei was circumcised, he wasn't allowed to go home. He was taken to a hut on the outskirts of the village to heal from the operation and he was told, whenever you leave this hut, you are not allowed to walk.

"So you're supposed to run and it's very fast. So you're running very swift, having the pain," he said.

Before the circumcision, Kipgogei was never a runner. Afterward, when he was done with initiation and back in high school, he decided to give it a try.

"So I could run and I'd feel pain. I feel pain. I'm feeling pain and I'd wanted to stop," Kipgogei said. "Then I realized, no. Let me try to persevere. Let me just try. Let me try one more, one more, one more time and two minutes later I'm at school."

Kipgogei is now the fastest runner on his track team. In Kalenjin country, that's pretty fast.

He acknowledges he might have had a natural talent for the sport. His mom was one of the fastest runners in Kalenjin country, back in her day. She, like many Kalenjin girls, went through a painful initiation rite of her own that also demanded stoicism — female genital mutilation.

Manners says that in traditional Kalenjin belief, Kipgogei got two things from his mother. One was physical prowess, his speed on the track. The other was a mental ability to withstand pain.

But Kipgogei is part of a new Kalenjin generation that's challenging old ways of doing things. He says when he has kids, his sons will be circumcised pain-free in a hospital. His daughters won't go through any such procedure at all.

Kipgogei told himself that he can pass on the Kalenjin values without resorting to the ancient rituals.

"I believe perseverance you can get though many ways. Not necessarily through circumcision," he says. "I will teach [my children] how to persevere."

And he says his kids will still be able to be champion runners — if that's what they choose to be.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

It's the New York Marathon this weekend, and I'm going to go out on a limb as a sports prognosticator now, and say there is a good chance that the winners - amongst both the men and the women - will be Kenyan. That country produces an apparently endless supply of superlative distance runners. At the recent Berlin Marathon, Kenyan men took the top five places while Kenyan women came in first, second, and fourth. To explain such startling performances in track and field, we turn to such news organizations as Runner's World, and Sports Illustrated and WNYC's Radiolab. Why Radiolab, you ask? Well, for the answer, here are the hosts of that program: Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well Robert, the answer is quite simply that Jad and I are extraordinarily fast on our feet.

JAD ABUMRAD: Fast like the wind.

KRULWICH: Yeah, and we recently came across a fascinating story about why Kenyans dominate the sport so totally.

We actually heard this one from NPR's East Africa correspondent, Gregory Warner. Yeah, so where do we start with this Greg?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I think we should start in 1968, Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mexico City, tranquilly a city of peace on the Olympic opening day.

WARNER: That year everyone was waiting for the 1500 meter which pit the world record holding American favorite, Jim Ryun against a Kenyan policeman named Kipchoge Keino. And the thing to know about Kip is that just a few days before this match up, Keino was running another race. And two laps before the finish line, he collapsed. He was raced to the doctor, diagnosed with a gallbladder infection - which is incredibly painful, actually hurts the most when you take deep breaths, like when you're running. And the doctor literally says, if you run any more races you could die. But Kip decided to run anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're off and running, three and three-quarter laps of the stadium.

WARNER: So Kip starts out, dead last. By the end of the first lap he's in third. And in the third lap, he takes the lead. But that's OK for Jim Ryun because Jim Ryun is famous for his kick.

KRULWICH: What's a kick?

WARNER: Kick means that right in the last lap, he gives this extra boost. And in the final lap, Jim Ryun makes his kick. Out in front, there's Kip in pain - sort of grimacing, gritting his teeth, lurching forward. And even though pain is shooting through his entire body - amazing - he did not slow down. Jim Ryun never catches him and he wins. And on that day in 1968, Kip Keino ushered in an era of Kenyan dominance in the sport of running.

DAVID EPSTEIN: It appears to be the greatest concentration of elite athletic talent ever in any sport, anywhere in the world.

WARNER: David Epstein is senior editor at Sports Illustrated. He wrote a book called "The Sports Gene."

EPSTEIN: In the United States we think of Kenyans as being good runners, but really it's the Kalenjin.

WARNER: This particular tribe of Kenyans, Kalenjin. It's a blanket term for a number of Nandi-speaking tribes living mostly in the highlands of western Kenya. And even though the Kalenjin make up about .06 percent of the world's population, they dominate most of the world's long-distance races.

EPSTEIN: If you look at it statistically, sort of becomes laughable. There's 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. Seventeen American men in history; there were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.

WARNER: Really? Now there are all sorts of theories about why this is the case. Like the fact that the Kalenjin live at altitude, that they have a high-starch diet.

EPSTEIN: They run to school. This is a very prominent phenomenon. We know that the runners that come from the Kalenjin tribe that become great runners, they're much more likely to have run to and from school.

WARNER: Then there is the socioeconomic argument, that in rural Kenya, the salary of a runner is attractive - 10 or $20,000 is seen as something worth striving for.

EPSTEIN: But there are millions of kids in Kenya who run to and from school.

WARNER: Or who live at altitude. Or could use 20,000 bucks. The problem with all these arguments is they're not specific to the Kalenjin. Which left David Epstein, when he was writing his book, with a stickier question. Maybe there's something genetically different about the Kalenjin that makes them superior runners.

EPSTEIN: I almost backed out of writing the book because I realized I was going to have to address ethnic differences and gender differences.

WARNER: Now despite the title of his book, Epstein says there is not a single sports gene that ensures success. But the scientists he talked to did tell him that genetics are important in one particular way.

EPSTEIN: One aspect of innate biology that clearly helps Kalenjin, that's been studied by scientists, is their body build.

WARNER: The shape of their body.

EPSTEIN: So the Kalenjin, what's called a nilotic people; they have ancestry at very low latitude. I was criss-crossing the equator when I was visiting their training camps. And we've known this for over a century. It's called Allen's Rule. That organisms, not just humans, all organisms that evolve in hot and dry climates, evolve a certain body type for cooling.

WARNER: Namely...

EPSTEIN: Their limbs get thinner the farther away they get from their center of gravity. So they have extremely thin ankles and extremely thin calves, which is particularly important because your leg is like a pendulum, and the more weight you have farther away from your center of gravity, the more difficult it is to swing.

WARNER: Now you can find Americans with thin ankles, and you can find Kalenjin with fat ankles. The differences he's talking about are all in averages, over populations. But Epstein says that this body type confers such an advantage that if you were to go to the Olympic starting line, and you were to measure everybody's ankles and calves, you could predict statistically who's likely to win. It's physics.

EPSTEIN: I don't know. Somehow, like I - to somehow peg it all on physics smells like an argument that I really don't like.

JOHN MANNERS: Well, nobody likes it.

WARNER: I don't think it's a question of like or dislike. I think it's just not the reason I watch the Olympics. I mean, many of us when we're watching great athletic competitions feel that there's something more than physics going on. We want some room for willpower or...

EPSTEIN: Triumph over adversity.

WARNER: Yeah.

EPSTEIN: You know. It's like the triumph of the human over everything.

WARNER: Right. I mean, you know, going back to Kip Keino who overcame a gall bladder infection to break the Olympic world record in 1968. He didn't win because he had thin ankles. He won because of something that scientists haven't found a gene for - a mental ability to persevere through unimaginable pain. And this is where I ran across a completely new, fascinating and honestly somewhat disturbing way of thinking about why the Kalenjin are so good at this.

MANNERS: OK, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine....

WARNER: This is John Manners.

MANNERS: John Manners, a semi-retired journalist who for many years had a specialty in covering the exploits of Kenyon runners, African runners in general.

WARNER: Manners now runs a nonprofit called KenSAP to get Kalenjin kids into Ivy League schools. But when Manners was 12 years old, he lived for a while in Kalenjin country, and as a boy, he would notice that all his friends had these self-inflicted scars.

MANNERS: Marks of having burned their arms and legs with hot coals in order to...

WARNER: And he soon learned that they were practicing for an initiation ceremony, a rite of passage.

MANNERS: And you know you're facing it for 10 years at least.

WARNER: Because as a Kalenjin teenager, boy or girl, you have to go through an experience which is so painful, it's kind of a theatrical orgy of pain. And it starts with you crawling, mostly naked, through a tunnel of African stinging nettles.

MANNERS: It's a really scalding pain.

ELLY KIPGOGEI: It's just bad.

WARNER: This is Elly Kipgogei. He's 19 years old. He went through this four years ago when he was 15.

KIPGOGEI: Oh, there's beatings, all those things.

WARNER: After the stinging nettles, he was beaten.

KIPGOGEI: This is the part of you they normally beat. This ankle, yeah.

WARNER: On the bony part of the ankle. Then his knuckles were squeezed together.

KIPGOGEI: They are pressed, and it's very painful. It's done at night.

WARNER: Then the formic acid from the stinging nettle was wiped onto his genitals. But all that's just warm-up. Because then...

KIPGOGEI: Then early in the morning, circumcision.

WARNER: He was circumcised.

KIPGOGEI: They use a sharp stick. I hope you understand that, a sharp stick.

WARNER: And here's where we get to the heart of the issue, because while he was being cut, Elly could not make a sound.

MANNERS: When he undergoes the operation...

WARNER: This is John Manners again.

MANNERS: ...he is obliged to be absolutely stoical, still, unflinching.

WARNER: So, in some versions of this ceremony, mud is caked on the face and then it's allowed to dry. And if a crack appears in the mud - your cheek may twitch, your forehead may crinkle. And if that happens, you get labeled a kebitet, a coward.

KIPGOGEI: You're not a full man.

WARNER: Historically, you'd be stigmatized by the whole community.

KIPGOGEI: You don't get, let's say, friendship after that.

WARNER: So you have this enormous social pressure placed on your ability to endure pain. And that's also a key part of being a long-distance runner. It's something that every marathoner or heavy jogger is familiar with, the breathlessness, the needles in your lungs, your muscles seizing up; all these signals from the body to slow down. The best runners have to learn to mentally override these distress signals to run despite the pain. So Manners argues that this ritual ordeal is actually a kind of training for the track meet.

MANNERS: I think the circumcision, insofar as it teaches kids to be able to withstand pressure and tolerate pain, yes, there is some advantage there.

WARNER: Is he saying that that's like a cultural learned advantage or is he actually go so far as to say it might be genetic, like built up over generations?

MANNERS: Right. There's certainly no gene for stoicism that's been discovered and any athletic success has to be ascribed to a host of factors, including body type and diet and socioeconomics. But we do know that the current crop of Kalenjin running stars, both men and women, they all grew up in this pain-embracing society. In fact, pushing through pain is what makes you a man or a woman. When I was talking to Elly, he said that after he was circumcised, still healing from this operation, he was taken to a hut on the outskirts of the village and he was told whenever you leave this hut...

KIPGOGEI: You are not allowed to walk.

WARNER: You're not allowed to walk.

KIPGOGEI: You're supposed to run and it is - it's really painful.

WARNER: Before the circumcision, Elly was never a runner. Afterwards, when he was done with the initiation and back in high school...

KIPGOGEI: I said, oh, let me give it a try. So I could run and I'd feel pain. I feel pain. I'm feeling pain and I wanted to stop. Then I realized, no. Let me try to persevere. Let me just try. Let me try one more, one more, one more time and two minutes later I'm at school.

WARNER: Now Elly's one of the fastest guys on his track team.

KIPGOGEI: Runners, the school athletes.

WARNER: Which in Kalenjin country is pretty fast. Is that really true?

KIPGOGEI: Yeah, it is true. So probably my ability of running was a bit higher than the rest.

WARNER: Turns out that Elly's mom was a semi-famous athlete and not only that, but she, like many Kalenjin girls, went through a painful initiation rite of her own, one that also demanded stoicism - female genital mutilation. So some Kalenjin might say that Elly actually got two things from his mom. One was his physical prowess, his speed on the track; the other was a mental ability to persevere through pain.

KIPGOGEI: Yeah, people here say it's called a blessing. In Kalenjin, called peruto(ph), the blessing, as they call it.

WARNER: Hum. So they think of it as genetic in some way, like, that it's--

ABUMRAD: That's interesting.

WARNER: But Elly takes a different view.

KIPGOGEI: The system is changing from the traditional format to the new format right now.

WARNER: I mean, he's part of a new generation of Kalenjin. He says for his contemporaries, the pain-free hospital circumcision is becoming slowly less of a stigma.

KIPGOGEI: So my son won't go through the same procedure as I did.

WARNER: But didn't - I mean, don't you want your son to be - to have the benefits of what you...

KIPGOGEI: The benefit is only about the perseverance part of it. And I believe perseverance you can get though many ways.

WARNER: He tells himself he's going to be able to pass on those Kalenjin values without resorting to the ancient rituals.

KIPGOGEI: I will teach him how to persevere.

WARNER: And he thinks his kids will still be able to be champion runners - if that's what they want to be.

(LAUGHTER)

KRULWICH: Our thanks to Gregory Warner, NPR's East Africa correspondent.

SIEGEL: And thanks to Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at Radiolab. You can hear the Radiolab version of this story at Radiolab.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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