On November 1st, 2013, Radiolab published a podcast called Cut and Run with the tagline, “Legions of athletes, sports gurus, and researchers have tried to figure out why Kenyans dominate long-distance running. In this short, we stumble across a surprising, and sort of terrifying explanation.” Here’s a breakdown of the podcast:
1968, at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, one of the highest Olympic elevations in history, many were in great anticipation of the 1500m run between the 23-year-old, Jim Ryun, world record holder, and Kipchoge Keino of Kenya, a practical nobody. Kip also ran the 5000m and 10,000m… which is a rarity. During the 10,000m, two laps from the finish, he collapsed and was rushed to the doctor and determined to have a gallbladder infection, which apparently is very painful and hurts the most when at full lung capacity, i.e. running. Obviously, the doctor told him to stop running immediately because if left untreated, his gallbladder could burst. Did he listen? Well, he is a man and do we ever listen? He went on to run the 5000m and won a silver medal. The doctor wasn’t too thrilled and warned Kip that if he ram another race, he could die. Three days later, an hour away from the race, Kip exclaims, “If I die, I’m going to die on the track.” He started the race in dead last until the third lap where he moved from third-place to take the lead. Remember, this is one of the highest elevations for the Summer Olympics ever. Many were thinking that there’s no way, at this altitude, with a gallbladder infection, that Kip can defeat Ryun, the world champion. Kip wins – in his ungodly amount of pain.
After seeing Kip’s win, a journalist by the name of John Manners, specializing in African runners, started a 40-year journey to discover why Kenyan’s dominated the sport of running. There’s a stereotype that Africans are amazing runners, specifically Kenyans, but it’s really one specific region (Western Kenya) of this tiny country, where the runners hail from. The answer as to why, will shock you.
In western Kenya, there’s a small tribe of people called the Kalenjin. When looking at the records broken, this small area of Kenya has the greatest concentration of elite athletic running demi-gods ever. In any sport. Anywhere in the world. So there is a hunger to find out why and what is going on in this region. For Kenyan runners in general, there have been hypothesis regarding the trees, cornmeal, bananas, high starchy diets, the altitude and their running to and from school. But none of these are specific to the Kalenjin. There are also speculations on their socioeconomic statuses. But then the thought that there is a genetic reason for their superiority becomes the elephant in the room. A study was done on the genetic makeup of people from hot and dry climates noting that they have long, thin limbs to give greater surface area for expelling heat. This has been proven in labs to affect running. Thin legs are easier to swing and move then fat ones like mine. But did Kip win because of thin ankles? This sounds ludicrous. So let’s think back to Kip’s gallbladder infection.
Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish Priest, running coach, and guru to Kenyan running stated that “When you train high end athletes, they’re always on the verge of pain, the brink of injury. They have to have a high tolerance for pain.” Pain? Interesting. The best runners have to bring themselves to a place where they ignore the pain and keep running. O’Connell calls this ‘expanding the pain barrier’. Here’s where the story comes to a head and makes sense.
Pain is something entirely different for the Kalenjin. It is, in their tribe, something that defines you as a man… literally. Some Native American tribes had rites of passage like running up to a bear, smacking it on the face and running away. The Jews have a bar mitzvah. The Spartans had krypteia. The Kalenjin, well they have something entirely different. Up to an approximate age of ten, boys and girls train, with cuttings, burnings, and other scar inducing ventures, for their initiation into the tribe and the right to bear children. Some examples are: crawling naked through African stinging nettles; fingers being squeezed together; and, having your ankles beaten and then told to run. After training like this it comes time for their initiation and rite of passage, which takes place after puberty. The initiation has many pain-inducing events to prove that you’re a man or a woman of the tribe, but the worst event in the trial is the circumcision. The foreskin is tied into a bow, pierced, and the head of the penis is pushed through the opening. Mud is caked on face and left to dry and if a crack appears on the mud during the circumcision, thereby proving you’ve shown the slightest amount of pain, you fail the initiation. The villagers then begin to beat you with large sticks. Failing the initiation means you are not allowed to be a part of society, to have children, nor to experience any socioeconomic benefits to the tribe. If you fail, you fail the ‘bride price’ but if you pass the initiation you are allowed to take a wife, or two, or three. So Manners thought that if there are 200 years of sexual selection ensuring only the tough guys have children and the sensitive ones don’t, maybe there’s a mentally innate ability to persevere through pain.
Elly Kipgogei, explains that his family warned him that if he didn’t go through the full process he would never be a man. He started by being beaten, then put into cold water for nine hours… but his initiation lasted for several weeks. Even the women went through a type of circumcision – female genital mutilation. Though the men are the warriors, if a woman shows cowardice through her initiation, they may bear cowardly sons. Elly further tells that the Kalenjin consider the man or woman who makes it through these pain trials to be blessed. They gain a physical prowess and a mental ability to persevere and deal with pain.
So for Kip, running through a gallbladder infection to win his race, was a part of his growing up. As for me, it all makes me feel like a wimp to realize the incredible amount of pain the Kalenjin go through when, here I am, throwing a profanity-filled temper tantrum whenever I stub a toe. I wouldn’t want to go through an initiation like that. I’m pretty sure I’d fail. The takeaway from this however, is that whenever we experience pain, physical, emotional, or mental, we can handle and persevere through a lot more than we think. Many times, we give up and run at the first sight of pain or difficulty. But, using an extreme example, look at how strong the Kalenjin have become through the pain they have to face. Think of how much stronger we can be if we face our own pains and the character we’ll develop through it. What races will we win?
Courtesy of Radiolab http://www.radiolab.org/story/cut-and-run/