When Eliud Kipchoge completed the Berlin Marathon in 2:01:39 in September 2018, he was not only celebrating victory in that particular race but also a new world record. Kipchoge, who was recently named world male athlete of the year at the end-of-season IAAF Awards, comfortably beat the previous record of 2:02:57, which was run by Dennis Kimetto in the German capital four years ago. Before Kimetto, the fastest ever marathon time belonged to Wilson Kipsang, who finished 15 seconds faster than the previous incumbent, Patrick Makau.
What, aside from the fact that they are all very fast over long distances, do the four aforementioned athletes have in common? Each of them hails from the same country: Kenya. The East African nation is not exactly small, but its population of 49.7 million means it ranks as only the 28th largest state on the planet. Why, then, is it so good at producing long-distance runners?
As you might expect, both nature and nurture play a part. Most Kenyan athletes hail from mountainous areas of the country, and living in high altitude from a young age aids their running ability. Those who spend long periods in such conditions tend to develop stronger lungs and more red blood cells than the average person, which generally allows them to perform better when it comes to physical activities which require endurance.
Many have claimed that the genes of East Africans lend them some sort of inherent advantage in this field, but there is currently no evidence of this. However, the fact that many Kenyans are naturally lean is a possible explanation for the vast numbers of marathon runners the country produces.
“We have found that young Kenyan kids from rural areas who do a lot of running have incredible VO2 maxes,” Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor who studies the evolution and history of running, told NPR in 2015. “They have VO2 maxes most of us would dream to have. It’s probably due to a combination of factors: that they’re very active and living at high altitude and perhaps some genetic component.”
If altitude was the only factor, however, we would expect to see numerous world-class runners from Peru, Nepal, Bolivia and parts of China and India. That is not the case, though, so there are other reasons why Kenya – and, to a lesser extent, northern neighbours Ethiopia – dominate this discipline.
Intriguingly, most of Kenya’s long-distance runners come from a minority tribe, the Kalenjin, who are thought to number no more than 4.5 million people. There is a strong running culture in this community, with Kip Keino – an Olympic gold medallist in the 1500 metres in 1968 – kick-starting a chain whereby each generation is inspired by the one that went before. For those growing up in Kalenjin communities, becoming a professional athlete is the dream.
That is particularly significant when you consider that success on the track or road is a potential route of poverty for both youngsters and their families. A substantial amount of time is therefore dedicated to the pursuit, and hundreds of scouts and coaches are on hand to ensure the most talented children do not slip through the net.
There is one myth we can debunk, though: the suggestion that Kenyans make for excellent long-distance athletes because they run several miles to school while they are young. This idea has been dismissed by countless Olympians from the East African country, while 14 of 20 respondents to a survey revealed that they either walked to school or caught a bus, much like youngsters from Europe or the United States.
Kipchoge’s remarkable time in Berlin caught many by surprise. It is not a shock, however, that the latest athlete to break the marathon world record comes from Kenya.