The journalist Adharanand Finn was shocked at the conditions he discovered when he entered the training camp of one of the most successful distance runners in the world.
Gleaming, brand new cars were parked at the gates of the shanty-like compound, the temporary home of Emmanuel Mutai, the Kenyan runner who collected $80,000 (€61,000) after winning last year’s London marathon in a record time.
Such prize money would allow Mutai to live like a lord in his native country. But Mutai’s living quarters consisted of a grass courtyard that was surrounded by rows of makeshift dormitories.
Two wooden sheds had the words ‘toilets’ and ‘showers’ painted on the doors. The toilet was “a hole in a concrete floor”. The shower wasn’t a shower. The runners washed themselves by scooping water from a bucket.
Every day, every week, every month was the same: run, eat, sleep.
Finn, a journalist with The Guardian uprooted his wife and children and moved from London to Kenya. His mission was to discover why the men and women from this corner of East Africa have dominated distance running for the past 30 years.
His book, Running with the Kenyans, is an utterly engrossing read which provides many convincing explanations.
Not surprisingly, Finn wanted to know why these rich men would subject themselves to such a harsh lifestyle.
“It’s what we’re used to,” was as much as Mutai was prepared to comment on the subject. Finn was more expansive. Living and training in these camps is how the runners became successful. And as Finn observed: “To change it would be to risk everything.”
Kenya’s monopoly on distance running is staggering. Last year the 20 fastest marathons were all run by Kenyans.
Attempts have been made for more than a decade to find out if the Kalenjin tribe possesses a genetic advantage when it comes to running fast over long distances. But not a shred of scientific evidence has been produced to support that notion.
In more recent years, and following the publication of the exceptionally good, Born to Run — Finn is more swayed by the theory that Kenyans derive huge benefits from the years they spend running barefoot to and from school.
“Because they grow up running barefoot,” writes Finn, “Kenyans have a completely different style of running. Rather than landing heel first, they land forefoot first. Not only does this reduce the risk of injury, but it is a more efficient way of running. In effect, by landing heel first, most Western runners are braking with every stride. No wonder we can’t keep up.”
Despite the fact that the secret to Kenya’s success might lie in the balls of their feet, Finn was amazed at the number of athletes who ran in cushion-heeled trainers. At a school’s sports day, he noticed that the children winning the races were barefoot, while the stragglers coming last tended to be wearing spongy trainers. He was further aghast when the children who came first were presented with trainers for prizes.
A coach who Finn quizzed about this phenomenon explained why Kenyan runners don’t always run in their bare feet.
“Kenyans have too much respect for Europeans,” he said. “They don’t have enough confidence in their culture to say, ‘You know, I’ve grown up running barefoot, I’ve been winning races, I’ll keep running barefoot.”
Reading about the secrets of Kenyan running, I couldn’t help thinking about the glorious mysteries of Kerry football.
If a journalist spent a year in Kerry, what would he uncover? This is a county that hasn’t won an All-Ireland minor title since 1994. It is a county that has yet to develop one of the centres of excellence that are dotted across Ulster.
And yet, this same county has reached nine All-Ireland finals since 1997, and won six of them.
I have no doubt that if a journalist did spend that time in Kerry, then he would soon ascertain that Kerry’s success stems from a culture that is obsessed with football, and a coaching system that celebrates and focuses on the core skills of the game.
As another Championship is about to get underway, the general consensus of opinion contends that Kerry have the best footballers. Who could disagree? Marc Ó Sé is the country’s most accomplished ball-playing man-marker. As a place-kicker, Bryan Sheehan has no peers. As a high-fielding full-forward, Kieran Donaghy is the benchmark for all others. In terms of solo-running, Declan O’Sullivan is unmatched. Then, there’s Colm Cooper. Enough said.
Put simply, Kerry win All-Irelands because they produce expert footballers — and they do that by focusing on the skills of the game.
But look at what is happening to the mighty Kingdom. Last year they threw away an All-Ireland title. By messing about with horizontal passing, they lost possession at midfield and Dublin scored a goal.
More recently, they lost a league semi-final by trying to run down the clock. Once again, another sideways pass proved disastrous.
More worryingly again, there have been calls from Kerrymen themselves to change their trusted traditions.
After his players were crushed by a physically superior Tipperary side, Kerry minor manager Mickey Ned O’Sullivan said it’s time the county’s underage players were put on strength and conditioning programmes.
In a recent interview, Paul Galvin also bemoaned the fact that the county board has yet to develop a fitness centre which can be used by all the squads.
By adopting cautious tactics and looking to other counties for ideas, Kerry are like the Kenyans who look to Europe for advice on running. There is a time to lift weights, but it’s not when you’re 14.
At that age, Bryan Sheehan was practising his free-kicks and Colm Cooper never had a ball out of his hand.
It’s true, some counties have raised themselves to a certain level by engineering footballers who can pump iron, tackle like maniacs and execute a mean five-yard fist-pass. But there is a limit to what can be achieved with robots.
Ultimately, All-Ireland titles are won by artists not weight-lifters.
Putting underage Kerry footballers in a gym and telling them to lift weights is a change that, in Adharanand Finn’s words would “risk everything”.
It would be like giving a Kenyan youngster a pair of brogues and ordering him to walk to school.
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