How Do Kenyans Get So Fast?
Lifestyle, pride, high altitude, coaching, and cash all aid their prowess in foot races
NAIROBI, KENYA — AS the bell rang for the last lap in the 1,500 meters at the recent Armed Forces Championship races here, William Tanui, an Olympic hopeful, was still back in the pack.
Then, with 200 meters to go, he turned on the steam, surging into the lead down the last straightaway and winning by a few meters in 3 minutes, 36 seconds.
Tanui's time was seven seconds slower than the world record of 3:29, held by another African, Moroccan Said Aouita, who also hopes to compete at the Barcelona Olympics next month. But Tanui had raced the day before in the semifinals and had two more events ahead of him today. Tanui's 800-meter best of 1:43.3 last year is less than two seconds off the world mark.
A few minutes after his 1,500-meter win, as he took off his racing shoes, Tanui, still short of breath, commented on his win:
"It was a very tough race. It was a very competitive race."
The main competition Kenyan runners face in the world is often other Kenyan runners. In the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco in May, for example, Kenyan men took the top three spots.
At the championship here, young Kenyan Richard Chelimo won the 10,000 meters one day, then took second the next day in the 5,000. Last year, at 19, Chelimo ran a time of 27:11 in the 10,000 meters, setting a Kenyan record and missing the world mark by three seconds.
In the women's 3,000 meters here, Helen Chemngeno, a promising newcomer, led most of the way before giving up first place in the sprint. A few minutes later, still sweating profusely, she said it was a good race - her first try at 3,000 meters. How does she feel?
"Not bad, not bad." Is she tired? "No, no."
Where do Kenyans learn to run like a cheetah chasing its prey? And what motivates upcoming runners like Helen?
One theory behind the success of Kenyan runners is that they live at high altitudes, and grow up running to school. That much fits Tanui's pattern.
He grew up in the Kenyan highlands, in Eldoret. "I used to run to [primary] school. It was about eight kilometers," nearly 5 miles, Tanui explains after a recent training session in a downtown stadium. He used to run carrying his books.
When he went to secondary school, he often ran the 20 kilometers round trip. But it was only after he joined the Air Force, in 1985, that he got serious about running. "We were given time to train, and I discovered I could run," he says. Many Kenyan runners in the military or civil service are given time off to train.
But not all good Kenyan runners come from the highlands, or ran to school. Some grew up in the city and rode buses. Good coaching is another ingredient in the Kenyan formula. Many are coached while on scholarships to such countries as the United States, Italy, or Japan. But Kenya has its own batch of coaches.
"The athletes in Kenya are very serious with their training," says Tanui's coach, Danson Samoita. "If God has given you that talent, you go [to the track] with an interest - and then train." That's another ingredient: hard training.
"Tomorrow morning, you do stairs," another Kenyan coach, John Anzara, tells his runners. "It's not a game," he reminds them. Kenyan Wilfred Oanda Kirochi, whose 3:32 in the 1,500 meters is only three seconds off the world mark, runs three times a day - around 6 and 10 in the morning, and again at 3 in the afternoon. Mornings, he runs for 40 to 60 minutes each session. In the afternoon, he may run five times 400 meters at about 57 seconds per lap, with a rest in between. Or he may do a series of 600- to 1 ,000-meter runs.
"I run for my country," Kirochi says after finishing his workout. Then, he adds another reason: to keep his scholarship.
So a practical note enters the Kenyan running formula: education. Sportswriter Gishinga Noroge, who works for the Kenyan daily newspaper, The Nation, puts it this way: "Now there is a motivation: to run and earn money, a livelihood. That's basically what's driving them. In athletics, you can have a career, make money: many, many times more than what you would make if you were a regular employee or a small-time peasant farmer."
That's true. The per-capita income in Kenya is only $380 a year. But there's another key to Kenyan running: inspiration from earlier Kenyan runners.
Helen Chemngeno says she's inspired by the running of Ruth Waithera, Kenya's only woman runner to make it to the finals in an Olympics: Los Angeles, 1984, in the 400 meters.
Waithera, now coaching in Kenya, says few Kenyan women overcome the cultural pressures to get married and have children - at which point, she adds, they usually put on weight. "The woman who defies that does good," Wiathera says.
Kenyan sprinter Joyce Odiambo is trying to make a comeback in the 100 and 200 meters after giving birth to twins. Ruth Onsarigo, who holds the Kenyan 100-meter hurdles record (13.9 seconds) won both that and the 400 meter hurdles at the Armed Forces Meet.
Kenyan heptathlon competitor Carolyn Kola, who came in fourth last year in the all-Africa games, mentions another challenge women athletes here face: "Women are not given all that much exposure, so they're not up to the standards of the men." Women "rarely" get the same travel funds as men to international meets, says Kola, a point Waithera confirms.
Male runners often have a model, too. Middle-distance runner Tanui says his inspiration was the Kenyan runner many others name: Kip Keino, who won several medals in the '68 and '72 Olympics.
The inspiration factor in-creases as more and more Kenyan runners win international competitions.
Put it all together, and you get the secret Kenyan running formula for success: often a combination of running to school, living and training at high altitude, the search for national glory (and cash), a serious attitude toward running and training, good coaching, and the inspiration of earlier Kenyan champions.