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How Has Kenya Had So Much Success in Long-Distance Running?

The sport of long-distance running changed precipitously in 1968, when a Kenyan runner named Kipchoge Keino finished ahead of American world record-holder Jim Ryun in the 1,500-meter finals at the Olympics in Mexico City. In race after race since then, East African runners, especially those from Kenya, have dominated the sport, particularly the grueling marathon, contested at 26.2 miles (42 km). But did you know that nearly all of the really great distance runners, both men and women, are members of Kenya's Kalenjin people, an ethnolinguistic group with a population of just five million? For some perspective on their success, consider this: In the entire history of the marathon, only 17 Americans have run the race in under 2 hours 10 minutes. Astoundingly, 32 Kalenjin runners bested that time in October 2011 alone.

In shape to win marathons:

  • There are many theories about why the Kalenjin dominate, but in his book The Sports Gene, David Epstein suggests that body shape gives the Kalenjin their running advantage. Specifically, they have relatively thin ankles and calves, allowing their legs to swing like a pendulum.
  • John Manners, a former journalist who helps gifted Kalenjin students get into Ivy League schools, thinks the ability to push through pain is the key. Historically, the Kalenjin undergo painful initiation rites during childhood.
  • Kalenjin runner Kipchoge Keino's victory over Ryun at the 1968 Olympics occurred only a few days after he was diagnosed with a painful gallbladder infection. Despite his illness, Keino not only won the race, but also set a new Olympic record that day.
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