Watch the YouTube video above of Kenyan runner Kipchoge Keino win the 1,500 meter race in the 1968 Olympics. Keino’s victory marked the beginning of nearly 50 years of Kenya’s dominance in long-distance running.
Many scholars and scientists have sought the answer to the question: Why are Kenyans such great long-distance runners?
In it’s own inimitable style, Radiolab tackles that question in this podcast. You can read books on the subject, you can read magazine articles on it, but this 25-minute podcast is worth your time.
In the story, NPR’s Gregory Warner explores the many factors that have led Kenyans — and specificially the Kalenjin tribe — to dominate long distance races over the past 40+ years. Among the many factors are:
- High-altitude living
- Mileage run over a lifetime, beginning as children
- Socio-economic benefits derived from running success
- Genetic differences that benefit runners
But perhaps the most dramatic — and, for me, headline grabbing — reason for the Kalenjin success is their self-nurtured ability to withstand pain.
Faced with an extremely taxing and painful rite of passage shortly after puberty, Kalenjin children spend years preparing themselves for the ordeal. And since the ordeal includes a unique manner of circumcision, it’s easy to understand how the Kalenjin can endure the pain of a measly marathon.
Give the podcast a listen. I guarantee you’ll be enlightened and entertained.
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Here are links to several other interesting topics mentioned in the podcast:
- Allen’s Rule
- Bergmann’s Rule
- “The Sports Gene,” by David Epstein
- The Kalenjin Tribe, a Nilotic ethnic group