I picked up a few nerd running books from the library a few weeks ago and just finally got into my third and final book, More Fire – How to run the Kenyan way, by Toby Tanser. To be really shallow I held off reading this until last because the cover wasn’t all that enticing (despite the name being really cool) and the typeface selection and point size are pretty terrible. Hey, I’m a graphic designer, these things matter. Anyways, as I’m just about to finish the first of three sections, I must repeat the tired old mantra, “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” (actually, sometimes you can), because so far this book is quite fascinating and I’ve already gained an intense perspective shift in relation to my running.
More Fire is broken into 3 parts – Kenyan Running, Training, and Profiles. I will start with Kenyan Running and give reviews of the others after I’ve finished reading them.
Kenyan Running is fairly succinct in its title as the section gives a detailed overview of not only the nuances of Kenyan running, but also the social dynamics that play such an important role in the success of the Kenyan elites, all with a respectful, humanist touch. Tanser does rattle off enough statistics, times and distances to bore an accountant, but at the same time weaves enough of the character of the Kenyan people and his experiences with them into the story to make the whole telling quite entertaining.
Without beating around the bush Tanser jumps into the book describing exactly how the Kenyans run with “more fire”, detailing some of their typical workouts and the intensity of their group runs, however, to simply say Kenyan’s success hinges on training harder would be an insulting summary. He then gives a thorough history lesson on the rise of Kenyan runners and the motivations that got them to the top of the global running pile with such absurdly amazing performances (I’ll get to that in a second). Tanser follows up that chapter with an amusing and endearing description of Kenyan daily culture and how that plays into the management of elite runners, which involves a lot of broken meetings, a severe disregard for promptness, and the seemingly magical process where everything still gets done without rushing and stressing. Further, More Fire gives a telling and equal rundown of Kenyan patriarchy and how the social dynamics and gender roles play into the restriction of Kenya’s women runners. Kenyan women, despite their success, do not achieve at the same level as the men do in Kenya, primarily due to the social stigma that running is a man’s activity and a woman’s activity is of the subservient type. A sufficient amount of page space is, fortunately, given to the men who are breaking that trend and encouraging the women to run at the same level as the men. Another telling chapter describes Kenyan nationalism and the apparent lack of importance that Kenyan runners put on making national teams in favor of winning prize money (I’ll get to this as well). Finally, the last chapter reads like a stream of consciousness where Tanser describes traveling locally and joining in training runs where his experiences lead one to believe that all of Kenya’s greatest runners hang out on every corner just waiting to talk to you. Tanser bounces from location to location passing current and past world record holders in almost every distance like Kenya is comprised ONLY of the best runners ever to exist. It’s quite stunning how prevalent this caliber of runner is in the area and how readily accessible they are.
Here’s the thing I’m getting the most from this book. Kenyan runners are seemingly superhuman and to say they dominate the running scene is a severe understatement. They OWN it. This leads a lot of armchair sociologists and armchair anthropologists to make snap judgements on why this is so, relying primarily on a genetic advantage. There have been a lot of studies trying to detail very minor genetic differences between Kenyans and the rest of the world, but nothing really stands up to true scientific rigor. There are simply too many differences among Kenyans themselves to base their performance on genetics alone. The next knee-jerk reaction is to simply claim that Kenyans train harder. There is some truth to this, yes, hence MORE FIRE, but Kenyan training regimens are no ancient secret. Kenyan runners will graciously offer their schedules to anyone keen enough to ask, as evidenced by a number of runners training plans laid out in this book itself. Many an American and European runner have gone to Kenya to train with them, all achieving varying degrees of success, but still, training alone doesn’t cut it.
Tanser throws out one more less common theory that resonates most strongly with me, which is the impetus of social poverty. Kenyans are a very poor people, sometimes living in absolute shantytown squalor, with a lack of clean water, poor roads, ravaged by periodic droughts, and so on. There are pockets of wealth, of course, but in general the Kenyan people are poor, living in extremely simplistic housing (a room, sometimes with bedding, sometimes without) and small stoves. Their diet is simplistic as well – breads and vegetables. However, although the picture is rather bleak, there is a undeniably positive spirit to the Kenyan people, where poverty is recognized but not succumbed too. They don’t let it break them down. Still, it is not like they accept their condition and go on with life, which is where the success of their running comes into play.
Kenyans have lean bodies, yes. Kenyans train hard as well, yes. Kenyans also have a pleasant and humble spirit as well, yes, but they also have a powerful drive to escape the conditions of their poverty, and rather quickly they have come to learn that running is the way out. In Kenya, the prize winnings from even one American race offer them an almost lifelong financial cushion. A handful of race winnings can mean the difference between lifelong poverty and lifelong wealth, which is why Kenyans run. It’s the equivalent of winning the lottery, but with greater odds that are not mere chance, but simply the outcome of physical dedication. Running is the Kenyans greatest chance to get out of poverty, so at even a very young age Kenyans are motivated to run, if not primarily for the joy, then for the social success it might bring.
I lost the quote in the book, but at some point a scholar of Kenyan culture described it this way. To paraphrase, “Unless the social conditions in America deteriorate to the point that we are living in abject poverty and our only way out is running, we will NEVER be as good as the Kenyans.” This struck me deep. If you think about it, there are only a handful of American runners who can compete with the Kenyans, where the country of Kenya can throw out world record contenders one after another. The primary difference between the two areas is really simply a matter of poverty. Kenyans WANT it more, because they NEED it more, so they go after it. With this in mind, they train with “more fire” and race with “more fire”, but because they have so much more on the line.
To highlight this point further, American runners find great success and pride in making the national team. There is a great deal of exposure and relative monetary gain for American runners who make the national team, where in contrast Kenyan runners place very little importance on making the Kenyan national team due to a complete lack of support by the Kenyan government. Kenyan national runners may receive greater exposure by being on the team, but essentially make no money, so most skip out on the opportunity to instead come to America and go for the prize money. To Kenyan runners, the prize money is the ultimate motivation to run, because the prize money means an escape from poverty.
Further, think about how many American runners achieve astounding success in the running scene and after losing the ability to compete due to injury or old age, still continue running. Again, in contrast, most Kenyan elites, after winning substantial prize money that secures them life long financial wealth….quit running. Cold turkey. Never running another step, not for fun, not for health, not anything. Running, to them, is a means to an end and nothing more.
Granted, these statements sound like absolute generalizations, but we can see similar dynamics in american society as well. For instance, African Americans dominate the NBA. Does anyone truly believe this is due to some genetic advantage? And hip hop….African Americans dominate the hip hop scene, which is definitively not a genetic advantage, but there is an undeniable motivation to escape poverty by the most accessible routes offered to this section of the population. There is also a reason privileged white males dominate the stock market, because it is the most readily accessible route open to them for financial success. African Americans are so successful at basketball and hip hop because they are a portion of the population who are actively discouraged from partaking in the whole pie and these avenues are the only ones they see the most success in, which is why they are both part of the African American culture from a very young age, and why they are so disproportionately successful at both of them. It isn’t racist, it’s sociological. The same dynamic plays into the Kenyan experience. They have more to gain from running success than the average American kid does, so they put consistently MORE FIRE into their training and into their mindset.
And this is the benefit I’m trying to take advantage of, the mindset I’m trying to emulate to some miniscule degree. I have no interest in recreating the conditions of poverty that Kenyans have no choice but to endure, but that doesn’t mean I can’t derive some of the “fire” that goes into the training that develops their success. This is what I’ve been keeping in mind lately during my runs when the miles start to break me down, or the intensity throws a wall into my face. Sometimes I repeat the “more fire” mantra, but more effectively I think about my projected goals and find the drive to pull through or put in the extra effort to get there. I’m not trying to “play Kenyan”, but instead really do what it takes to push myself harder and harder, to gain more fire.
I was told recently that the marathon is about enduring pain, about pushing through and running through the point of exhaustion. There is really only one way to increase this ability…..more fire.
13.5 recovery miles from yesterday’s brutal 800’s workout.
Breakfast – Oatmeal (w/ peanut butter, almonds, brown sugar) coffee
Lunch – cous cous w/ brocolli
Dinner – Pasta w/ nutritional yeast, spices, margarine, olive oil, sunflower seeds
Snacks – post-run smoothie, plums straight from the tree!, coffee, water, peanut butter, pizza