Why do Kenyans dominate the sport of distance running? Take, for example, Kenyan Wilson Kipsang -in the 2013 Berlin Marathon, he ran the fastest time in history: 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds. That’s an average of 4:42 per mile. 8 of the 10 fastest marathons on record were won by a Kenyan. Since 1988 there have been 20 Kenyan male winners of the Boston marathon alone. In this year’s NY Marathon, Kenyans were the victors in both the male and female divisions. There have only been 17 American men in history of our large powerful country to run a sub 2 hour 10-minute marathon while 32 Kenyans had no problem completing this feat in one single month – October 2011. What makes them such outstanding and dominating distance runners?
This may sound crazy but Kenyan runners might be so darn good because of their requisite adult circumcision practice (and no, it’s not because they are a few ounces lighter or encounter less wind resistance after the procedure). It has a lot more to do with the ‘brutal’ initiation ceremony into adulthood most boys endure, resulting in an indomitable tolerance to suffering. Many Kenyans who live in Kalenjin country (a tribe of 2.7 million) are primed from a very young age to withstand vast amounts of pain. As children, they practice for it by cutting and burning themselves. There is immense social pressure for boys at the age of 13 to go through a deeply scarring and painful ceremony in order to be branded ‘brave’ and marriage worthy. The boys who opt out or are not ‘strong’ enough to endure the pain are labeled kebitet — cowards — and stigmatized by the entire community. If you thought your Bar Mitzvah was hard, take a gander at this little ritual:
- Crawl buck naked through a tunnel of African stinging nettles (much worse than the ones found in your backyard) – causes severe pain, rashes, blisters and scars.
- Accept a beating on the bony parts of the ankles and knuckles with hard sticks – while remaining still and quiet.
- Have the formic acid from the stinging nettles rubbed judiciously on the genitals.
- And if that is not enough, be circumcised without anesthesia or pain reliever of any kind – with not a scalpel or knife but instead a sharp stick! And by the way, don’t make a peep.
During this ceremony, the young boy must remain stoic and unflinching the entire time. To ensure stoicism the boy’s face is covered in dry mud. During the circumcision, he must not move a muscle to prevent any of the mud from cracking. A little involuntary twitch of the cheek might split the mud and cause the boy to be branded a coward. Unlike American children, who are pampered to avoid pain, these boys are taught to withstand and push through pain or suffer the consequences of societal ostracism. Gives a new meaning to ‘no pain no gain’.
One might argue this obscene toughness helps them become better runners. Running a marathon under two and a half hours is not pleasant and takes extreme physical and mental fortitude. It hurts, plain and simple. The Kelenjin of Kenya have been around for thousands of years and the boys who passed this test into adulthood were more likely to be married and have children. With each succeeding generation, the lineage of those ablest to cope with ridiculous amount of pain grew stronger. The ‘weak ones’ were simply selected out. Darwin would be proud, survival of the fittest and toughest indeed.
Combine this innate ability to deal with suffering, the typical body structure of a Kenyan (thin ankles/calves with a medium to light stature), add in higher altitude training, a drive to escape rampant poverty and the canonization of the sport via the local idols it creates and viola! you get one fantastic endurance athlete. These runners prove there is little need for gel bars, $200 sneakers, computer aided training devices, heart rate monitors and so on. A confluence of cultural and genetic factors result in creating the best long distance runners the world has ever seen.
To learn more about this tribe listen to NPR Radiolab story here: Cut and Runby