What is it that makes the Kenyans such great runners? One man's quest to uncover their secrets...


Running With the Kenyans, by Adharanand Finn (Faber & Faber)

Adharanand Finn's talent for running shone through at school. As a 12-year-old growing up in Northampton, he broke a schools 800-metre record and, five minutes later, lined up for a 1500m event and won that one too.  He joined a running club and a lifelong passion began.

It is around this time that Finn begins to notice the growing numbers and frequent successes of East African runners in the world's most important long-distance races, and increasingly athletes from Kenya.  He asks himself why this might be and plants the seeds of another obsession.

As education, career, marriage and children occupy the years that follow, the need to find the answer is hardly a priority but the question still lurks in the recesses of Finn's mind.  Years later, working as a freelance contributor to Runner's World magazine, he has an assignment that involves taking part in a 10km race near his home in Devon.  To his surprise he wins, and in a personal best time.

Inspired by the realisation that his talent had not left him, and now driven by a desire to fulfil it before his own biological clock deems it too late, he wonders how he can improve his times still further and the Kenyan question resurfaces.   They have the secret, he reminds himself, and now is the time to identify it.

And so, at the beginning of 2011, at the age of 36, Finn uproots his wife, Marietta, and their three young children and transplants them in Iten, a ramshackle market town in the hills above Kenya's Rift Valley where running is such a way of life that one in every four people is a full-time athlete.   It is an adventure, one that would be too daunting for many an English family, but given his roots as a child of the hippie generation - his parents named him Adharanand after the Sanskrit word for eternal life - you suspect that adventure is in his blood as much as running.

He stays for six months, befriending the runners, training with them, learning everything he can.  He takes part in the Lewa Marathon, an event that requires the accompaniment of helicopters and armed guards to deter the interest of lions and hyenas, and while he is no match for the locals he enjoys the satisfaction of being the fastest white man, at least.
"Near the top among running books I have read" - runblogger.com

He tells the story in Running With the Kenyans, an engaging account of the life he found, the personalities he met and the lessons he learned.  It has been compared favourably with Born to Run, the tale of a similar quest, on a different continent, to unearth the secrets of distance running undertaken by the American writer, Christopher McDougall, that has been one of the best selling sports books of 2012.

Finn never really finds a secret, as such, concluding that Kenyans owe their ability to a combination of factors and circumstances, ranging from climate and diet and barefoot runs along dirt paths to school, to the simple pursuit of a better life in communities so poor that the prize money from one win can buy a cow, even build a house.

The secret he does reveal is the impact the experience has on his own form.  That comes in the final pages, in the 2011 New York Marathon, when the reader learns whether Finn fulfils his own goals as a runner.

There have been some good reviews. Runblogger.com said: "There’s a lot to like about this book. Part travelogue, part running book, Running with the Kenyans is well written and a fast read – a book that I had a hard time putting down. It is near the top among running books that I have read."

The Daily Telegraph described it as "insightful" and said that Finn's "very lack of compulsion makes him a calm, humorous presence. In unobtrusively beautiful prose, he evokes the will to run at the heart of Kenyan life."

Running With the Kenyans, by Adharanand Finn is published by Faber & Faber. For more information and to buy, visit amazon.co.ukor the William Hill 2012 page at The Sports Bookshelf Shop.

The other shortlisted titles for the 2012 award are:

  • That Near-Death Thing – Inside the TT: The World’s Most Dangerous Race, by Rick Broadbent (Orion)
  • The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle (Bantam Press)
  • Be Careful What You Wish For, by Simon Jordan (Yellow Jersey)
  • Fibber in the Heat, by Miles Jupp (Ebury Press)
  • A Life Without Limits – A World Champion’s Journey, by Chrissie Wellington with Michael Aylwin (Constable & Robinson)
  • Shot and a Ghost: A Year in the Brutal World of Professional Squash, by James Willstrop with Rod Gilmour (James Willstrop / Rod Gilmour)

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world's longest established and, with a top prize of £24,000, the  most valuable literary prize for sports writing.  The 2012 winner will be announced at a lunchtime reception at Waterstones Piccadilly (London), Europe’s largest bookstore, next Monday, November 26.

This year's judging panel comprises broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; footballer and chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Clarke Carlisle; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the judging panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop.

More reading

Armstrong scandal boosts The Secret Race
James Willstrop -- Hidden star of the sport the Olympics left behind
Why Bobby Charlton's handshake meant so much to author Duncan Hamilton
Tyler Hamilton reveals all
Hamilton and McRae go head to head for 'bookie prize'