At least he never walked.
– on Haruki Murakami’s future headstone
Adharanand running on trails around Iten via Guardian
I started reading Adharanand Finn’s column Running with the Kenyans when I was training for a half-marathon over a year ago. A half-marathon is extremely small potatoes – it’s a small seed potato, really, but it’s big enough to get nervous about and to warrant a full-body application of anti-chafing cream – to make you feel like a runner. I started running in my early teens. It was always a grim business. And even though it was shot through with brief, addictive moments of euphoria – like seeing the sky lighten after setting out on a starry morning – my running was usually a way of flagellating myself. I ran because I thought I was a fatty, and generally useless, and running helped to pound these thoughts out of me. I can’t run very far now because of injury, but if I could, I’d go about it differently.
Finn’s column interrupted my joyless half-marathon training in a welcome way. He described another, far-removed world of running that had nothing to do with self-punishment or compulsion.
The start of the local district cross country championships in Iten, via Guardian
In January 2011 Finn travelled from Britain with his wife and three small children to spend six months at a running camp in Iten, a small town in Rift Valley in Kenya. In Iten, school children run as if possessed, athletes meet at 6 every morning to run by the light of the moon, a local cross country race draws Olympic medallists, and most run barefoot. No one runs for ‘fun’ – and yet the way Finn tells it, their love for it is all-consuming. Running holds their community together. Not just companionably, either; in one column Finn describes how, after violence broke out following the 2007 election, some athletes started schools with the money they’d won in road races. Running is fiercely competitive because it offers a way out of poverty and hardship.
Not surprisingly, in that part of the world, as Finn describes, nearly every second person you meet is a world champion runner. He tells the story of trying to contact a particular athlete, but calling a wrong number:
“Is that Wilson Kipsang?”
“Oh, I thought your name was Wilson. The 2:04 marathoner, right?”
Even a wrong number here ends up with a person who has run a time 10 minutes quicker than the fastest British runner this year, and three minutes quicker than the British record, set over 25 years ago.
For obvious reasons, Finn stands out at the running camp. By British standards he’s pretty damn fast – ‘My fastest ever 5km time, run on a flat course in Exeter, is over 18 minutes,’ he wrote back in April last year, and he recently nailed the Bideford half marathon in 1 hour 19 minutes, which, for those who know about such things, is ridiculously fast – but alongside the Kenyans he describes himself as “like a clown trotting along”, or “like a cart horse that has somehow slipped through into the wrong enclosure”, a runner who, when running with others, lags behind into the far distance, over the line from humbling to humiliating.
Finn’s writing is also wonderful – spare, but vivid with detail and funny exchanges. (If his prose were a runner it would be “long and sinewy, gliding along through the trees.”) His writing has even been praised by marathon-machine novelist Haruki Murakami. I’ve often thought that writing about running is difficult. It’s hard to recapture the solitude, monotony, and difficulty of it, and the way strange and completely banal thoughts surface. Maybe because of that, there’s an urge to talk about it – and to explain why you’re doing it, why anybody would do it.
Adharanand Finn’s column has became a book (his first), Running with the Kenyans, which will be published on 5 April. I sent him some questions about the experience.
AY: In your early entries of Running with the Kenyans, you express some anxiety about not being able to handle the pace – feeling understandably out of your depth amongst these fast, tenacious Kenyan runners. Nearly six months down the line, with many miles behind you, did that “impostor” feeling ever ease off?
AF: It never really did, but I got better at picking which run to go on. If I ran with the Kenyans on their most easy runs, I could keep up fairly well.
One morning, quite near the end, I turned up for an early morning run on a Wednesday, forgetting it was a fast day. I could see they were all surprised to see me, and after talking to each other for a few minutes, one came over to me.
“Today is fast,” he said.
Well, as I’d come this far, I thought I’d give it a go, see how far I could last.
“OK,” I said calmly.
A few minutes later we set off. I lasted less than 100 yards! And it was a 12-mile run. They were flying.
So, as long as I avoided sessions like that, I was OK, although always clearly the slowest runner in town.
AY: There’s a moment where you describe your first dawn run with the locals of Iten. You’re falling behind and feeling embattled when a runner turns to you and simply says “Try.” And that one word takes you to the finish. How important to you is the support of your fellow runners?
When you’re drifting off the back of a group, it’s very easy mentally to just give up, so encouragement like that makes all the difference.
The Kenyans were incredibly accommodating of my slowness, and usually someone would drop back to run with me if I was falling behind.
They never asked for anything in return – it was done from genuine kindness and kinship.
AY: Where does your mind go when you’re running?
AF: I run best when it doesn’t go anywhere, but just stays focused on the feeing of running. Sometimes, when I’m struggling, I try to smile, to tell myself that it feels great to be alive and running, or to sing to myself, even.
Often, of course, the mind escapes and it can go anywhere and everywhere. On easy runs, this can be quite nice and I often have good ideas when I’m running – I had the idea to go to Kenya while I was running, for example. Most of my best ideas, in fact, come when I’m running. The problem is remembering them afterwards.
Running can be a bit like dreaming in that afterwards, you struggle to reassemble your thoughts.
AY: Kenyan runners are world champions, yet the way you describe it, their approach to running is so simple. There is no particular secret other than that they run hard, eat well, and get loads of good, proper rest. Running is a big part of their everyday lives and it’s also fiercely competitive. What do you think it would take for the West to produce better runners? Maybe if we all went back to simple stopwatches and bare feet we’d focus more on the road? (As you noted once when watching an inter-schools cross country race, the only runners wearing running shoes were all at the back.)
AF: If we all ran around barefoot as children, I’m sure as a nation we would produce better athletes. But that’s unlikely to happen. Better incentives for young people to run might help. Of all the talented runners in the UK, very few actually pursue it in any serious way. I’m sure 99% of the UK’s running talent is lost through a lack of motivation.
AY: One of my favourite entries of “Running with the Kenyans” is one where you go running in Ngong, with the Hash House Harriers, who describe themselves as “a drinking club with a running problem”. I love this scene:
As we stand around eating and getting our breath back, someone says: “Let’s have a song.”
Spontaneously, they all break into a hearty version of Singing in the Rain, except with compulsory actions like wiggling bums and sticking out tongues. The people living down this particular backstreet, with its dusty hair salons and mango stalls, stand around in groups, agog.
Do you think sport needs more spontaneous singing?
AF: Not really! It was fun, but it wasn’t really running.
AY: I imagine that going home to the UK would’ve been a kind of reverse culture shock. How did your life in the UK change after your experience in Kenya? [Sorry, big and vague question….]
AF: When I got back, it was surprising how quickly Iten felt like a dream. The biggest difference is that I now run a lot more – about five times a week compared with two.
My youngest child had the hardest time readjusting. He had spent quarter of his life in Kenya, so when he got back he was always looking for monkeys when he heard rustling in the trees.
So there you have it. I wish I’d asked different questions now – What kind of shoes do you wear or do you go barefoot? Why did you start running? Who are your Olympic medallist picks? What did you eat in Iten? – but hopefully some of these questions will be answered in the book.