Lessons from the Kalenjin

It’s far too long ago for any of you to remember, but Peter Sissons was a BBC journalist and newsreader. He retired back in 2009, having hosted Question Time, presented the 10 o’clock news and, perhaps most famously, received death threats following an interview with the Iranian ambassador about Salman Rushdie.

I mention him here, though, because shortly after his death earlier this month a photograph was released of Sissons on a school trip to the Isle of Man back in the 1940s. Alongside him on the photograph was a boy called Jimmy Tarbuck, who became a famous comedian of the 1970s and 1980s, and a boy called John Lennon, one of the world’s finest musicians of Beatles fame.

The same week that Sissons died, another Liverpudlian, Katarina Johnson-Thompson won her first World title in the Heptathlon. I particularly like her story: you may remember the pictures of misery as she finished 28th in 2015, 6th at the Rio Olympics, and 5th in the 2017 World Champs. The struggle was at last worth it.

I only mention her here, though, because KJT was in the same year at school, and good friends with, Jodie Comer, the BAFTA and Emmy award winning actress, most famous for her portrayal of murdering psychopath Villanelle in Killing Eve.

You may also be aware that Real Madrid footballer Gareth Bale was at school in Cardiff with recently retired Welsh rugby captain Sam Warburton.

Something special, surely, must have been going on in these schools to produce such excellence in the fields of performing arts and sport?

I’m sure you saw over the weekend two remarkable feats of human endurance. On Saturday morning, Eliud Kipchoge became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours. In quite a coincidence, on Sunday, Brigid Kosgei smashed the women’s marathon record which has stood for 16 years. Quite a coincidence?

To explore this questions of coincidences, I want to talk to you today about long-distance running and the success of East African athletes. If you watched the World Championships in Doha, you will have seen the success of Ethiopian and Kenyan runners. You may also know that our own Mo Farah came from Somalia, part of the same corner of Africa.

In fact, I only want to concentrate on Kenyan runners and, even then, only on one tribe of Kenyan people, the Kalenjin, who make up around 4.9 million people, less than 10% of Kenya.

To put the success of the Kalenjin people into context, there are 19 American men in the whole of history who have run a marathon in under 2 hours 10 minutes. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011 alone!

Since 1980, about 40% of world and Olympic men’s races at every distance from 800m to the marathon have been won by Kalenjin. Eliud Kipchoge, is a Kalenjin. The first Kenyan to hold the marathon record was Paul Tergat – yes, you’ve guessed it, also a Kalenjin. He lost that record to Wilson Kipsang – no surprise, a Kalenjin. Brigid Kosgei is a Kalenjin.

So, something special must be going on here.

Scientists tend to tread carefully in their suggestions, wanting to avoid sensitive questions of ethnic and racial genetic differences. Some biologists have pointed out that Kalenjin have a slightly different body type: their ankles and calves are very thin. In the mechanics of running, this reduces the amount of energy used every time the leg swings.

But, this body type is not unusual in equatorial people, yet no others have the same success as Kalenjin.

Others argue that the Kalenjin have evolved able to process oxygen more efficiently, that many of the top runners grew up having to run long distances to school, that many come from backgrounds of poverty and violence, and are motivated by the lifestyle and prize money that success brings or that the diet of the Kalenjin fuels their success. People want to be runners – they are idolised in the way we, sadly, idolise footballers.

The only problem is that these theories apply equally well to many other tribes and nations who don’t enjoy the disproportionate success of the Kalenjin. Some have been disproved: 14 of the last 20 Kalenjin race winners walked or got the bus to school.

Environment may be important. The Great Rift Valley – coincidentally, possibly also the birthplace of mankind – is the training ground. Undulating but, at 7000 feet, high, helping the athletes to adapt to thin air and then a major advantage when it comes to competing at sea-level.

But, then similar conditions exist in Nepal and Switzerland …

Before Mo Farah runs, he eats a small piece of dark chocolate and drinks an espresso. Some evidence suggests that this increases the pain threshold. One theory around the Kalenjin is that some fairly unusual and painful cultural traditions have led to greater mental toughness. One scientist believes that athletes who grow up in pain-embracing societies are at an advantage in comparison to Western pain-avoiding cultures.

So, how is this story relevant to us and our future success? The Kalenjin are amazing people, whatever the explanation really is. I suspect the equation is something like:

Environment and opportunity + drive and a tremendous amount of hard work = Success

That’s absolutely no different for you.

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