The Kenyans at Boston

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The Kenyans at Boston

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The Kenyans dominated the Boston Marathon again this Monday, although the American men had their best showing in twenty years, with five of them finishing in the top ten. But the men's winner, Robert Cheruiyot, and the women's champ, Rita Jeptoo, are both from Kenya. Kenyan men have won an incredible 14 of the last 16 Boston Marathons, and the women 6 of the last 7. Actually, the Kenyan runners have dominated the most famous marathons all around the world for at least the past decade.

The point is often made that it's a logical geographic, cultural phenomenon that Kenyans are brilliant at running distances. They grow up at 7,000 feet, ideal-altitude training conditions. In tribal areas, outside Nairobi, they have no cars. Nor bicycles. It's not unusual for boys and girls to run ten to fifteen miles to school. And then that same distance back to the village after school. I've been in Kenya on many occasions and while out for a scenic run in the Maasai Mara, golden grass land of the lion, or in Lewa Downs, home of the country's largest population of giraffes, I've been passed by gaggles of giggling school children, running by me at maybe 6 minutes a mile--Barefoot, by the way--and obviously not at all stressed.

So it's easy to surmise that the lifestyle directly lends itself to success at the marathon, just as growing up in Minnesota would tend to produce hockey players and a kid from Costa Rica is going to wind up surfing. But there's another aspect of the East African tribal culture, beyond the altitude and running as the only choice of transportation. There's a toughness. But it would never be thought of toughness there. It's more profound than that, just a way of being.

These American men, for instance, who did so well in Boston, they compliment each other for their will to withstand pain, for their determination in high-mileage training weeks. A teammate of Brian Sell, who finished fourth in Boston, calls Sell &quotthe; toughest competitor I know." And what's this teammate's barometer of being the toughest competitor he knows? He says when they play poker that Sell wants to beat him in even a $3 hand. That's tough? Any Kenyan this side of Mombasa would have a long laugh at that one. It's true that the world-class Kenyan runners have their shoe deals but tribal life is never a distant memory to them. If you hang with them the week of a prestigious marathon, you are struck by their simple needs. Unlike most American endurance athletes, neurotic about every morsel of carbohydrate, timed to be ingested like clockwork by their personal exercise physiologists, the Kenyans will huddle together on the couch of the hotel hospitality room and munch on the fruit and power bars provided as snacks. Unlike the American marathoners, high-strung and anxiety-ridden about missing a critical training run or little tweaks of the hamstring, the Kenyans can't relate to drama when it comes to their running.

Brian Sell and his teammates, training outside Detroit, actually constructed a simulated Boston marathon-course. They orchestrated it to come to hills at the same points as the Boston course--even went so far as to post a sign for Wellesley College, just like the one on the Boston course. The Kenyan woman who won Boston this week, Rita Jeptoo, never laid eyes on the Boston course before she got to the starting line on Monday morning.

If you've spent time around the Kikuyu or the Samburu or the Swahili people in Kenya, you know them generally as good-natured, easy-going people. Don't worry. Be happy. They have very little and yet they don't perceive their lives as a hardship. Running to them is a joy, not a painful enterprise. Even the marathon.

So it's not at all surprising the Kenyans once again stood atop the winners' podiums this week in Boston. They're built for the marathon. They're born to it. And to the Kenyans, being tough is not some heroic athletic trait. It's just a way of being.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad