Book review – Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

Make this top of your reading list

It is not all that often that I wait with real anticipation for a book to be published. Even less common for me to pre-order it online and count the weeks and days until it will arrive, mainly due to the fact that I always have a pile of books next to my bed that I have yet to start, so adding to that pile is never a priority. But a combination of some brilliantly written articles in advance of one particular book and the fact that the subject matter is something I am fascinated by, meant that I was impatiently waiting for my pre-ordered copy of Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn from the day that the publishing date was announced.

Thankfully my great friend and mentor, Charlie Dark, passed on a pre-publication copy that he had been sent to read so I was able to see whether the book would live up to my rather high expectations earlier than anticipated.

I was hoping that the book would be part-training manual, part-inspirational tome and part-sports psychology discussion – maybe a combination of Paul Thoroux, Rasmus Ankersen and Professor Tim Noakes. It turned out to be a bit of all of them, though perhaps not in the proportions I was expecting.

The big question

There is no doubt that there is a plethora of literature, research, opinions and even movies about the reasons behind the recent and current domination of endurance running by people from east Africa and in particular the areas around Iten in Kenya and Bekoji in Ethiopia (there is a pretty amazing film coming out about Bekoji and you can see the trailer here) and the question that comes up again and again, is what is the secret behind their success? I have my own opinions and I’m happy to talk about this until the cows come home. But this is about what Adharanand discovered…

The (bigger) answer?

In Running with the Kenyans, Finn transports himself and his young family to Iten for a year to try to find the answer to the vexing question of why there are pockets of outstanding achievement in endurance running in east Africa. Along the way to trying to answer that question, Adharanand has adventures, set-backs, triumphs and no small amount of self-discovery.

I loved the parts in the book when Finn starts to train regularly and discovers that he is capable of much more than he thought he was. The descriptions of some of the runs – those that went well and those that didn’t go quite as well – had me variously laughing, wincing and nodding in sympathy. Finn ran the full gamut of experiences (pun intended) on his way to becoming the best runner he could be.

All along the journey of self discovery, Adharanand met people who gave him hints and tips, ideas and little nuggets of advice. But the answer to the big question always seems slightly out of reach. There are many examples of runners who are not super-human, of little set-backs, of every day struggles which makes the amazing achievements of the greatest runners alive seem even more extraordinary. So does Finn finally get the answer he is looking for?

I think in the end up Finn does answer the question. Certainly the answer might not be to everyone’s liking, but the end of the book has a very satisfyingly concise conclusion, that only someone who has really got up close and personal and lived the experience that Finn has, could confidently come to. The book is very well written – so really easy to read: I finished the book in two days on my warm-weather training camp – and whilst I personally might have liked a little more ‘science’ (I’m a running geek after all), I was massively inspired by the book and my desire to go to Iten has been stoked more than ever. And when I do pack my bags for Kenya, I’ll most certainly take a copy of Running with the Kenyans because is it well worth a second read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The route to success

In my other life – the one where I am not running, writing about running, reading about running or thinking about running – I work in the design industry. I subscribe to a blog written by a man considered by many in that industry to be a guru; Seth Godin. His daily emails are pithy and thought provoking, often helping me to think about the industry and business in which I work, in new ways. Today my two worlds collided, when I received this in my inbox;

Adversity and the route to success

Resource-rich regions often fall behind in developing significant industrial and cultural capabilities. Japan does well despite having very few resources at all.

Well-rounded and popular people rarely change the world. The one voted most likely to succeed probably won’t.

Genuine success is scarce, and the scarcity comes from the barriers that keep everyone from having it. If it weren’t for the scarcity, it wouldn’t be valuable, after all.

It’s difficult to change an industry, set a world record, land big clients, or do art that influences others. When faced with this difficulty, those with other, seemingly better options see the barrier and walk away.

Why bother? The thinking is that we can just pump some more oil or smile and gladhand our way to an acceptably happy outcome.

On the other hand, people who believe they have fewer options take a look at the barrier and realize that even though it will be difficult to cross, it’s the single best option they’ve got.

This is one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies. Without an astute CEO in charge, they begin to worry more about not losing what they’ve already got than the real reason they started the project in the first place.

I think what Seth describes is not only “one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies” – it is also one of the dangers for overfunded and undertested athletes who live very comfortable lives in societies where there are much easier (and let’s face it, more reliable) ways to earn a very comfortable living. So what is it that drives the best to be the best? It must be pretty powerful, because if you believe what Matthew Syed, Daniel Pink, Rasmus Ankersen and others say (you can read my take on that here and here) then it is only due to hard work that they will succeed, which is difficult in a comfortable world.

The Mental Muscle with Rasmus Ankersen

I recently attended a one day seminar called the Mental Muscle, presented by Rasmus Ankersen, the High Performance Anthropologist. The seminar was billed as an exploration of the factors that create environments where high performance becomes the norm, and that is exactly what it delivered.

The Gold Mine Effect - out soon!

To begin Rasmus Ankersen offered the delegates a brief background to his life and how he ended up starting a project that would take him around the world trying to find common links between ‘gold mines’ of high performance. Having harboured ambitions of being a top-flight footballer, Rasmus’ career was shortened by injury and so he found himself coaching. He was part of the coaching team in charge of an academy in a rural part of Denmark.

At one point Rasmus was coaching a player called Simon Kjaer, who at the time was considered to be disruptive, lacking discipline and low on talent. He was not one of the players picked by any of the coaching staff when they were asked to nominate the five players they thought would ‘make it’ in the game. Several years later, Simon Kjaer is now considered to be a world class footballer.

Simon Kjaer - hidden talent

This inability to spot Simon Kyaer’s talent by a team of highly qualified and experienced coaches, forced Ankersen to ask what it was about talent that was so elusive. What Rasmus found is pretty exciting.

Genetics vs application

Ankersen said that in many cases there is a temptation to assume that dominence in a particular sporting field by a national or even regional group, must be down to genetics. Or in the case of individual prodigious exponents of a particular field, down to natural talent. But Rasmus told us that he was doubtful that this was the answer to the question of why these groups or people were so much better at whatever it was they did than everyone else.

He pointed out that in the case of Moses Kiptanui – the 3,000m and 5,000m world record holder as well as steeplechase world record holder and World Championship and Olympic medal winner – none of his extended family of 500 showed any ‘talent’ in running, despite obviously being closely genetically linked.

And when it comes to individual prodigies, such as Mozart or Tiger Woods, they were the products of environments where their fathers introduced them to the field they would become renowned in, at preposterously early ages.

The key in all these cases, was starting early and working continuously and as hard as possible.

Talent as the entry ticket

Who's holding the entry ticket here?

Rasmus acknowledges that a certain degree of ‘talent’ is the entry ticket required to put individuals with potential in a position to become exceptional. Much like basketball players who need to be tall to start with or sprinters who need to be blessed with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres, only those who work the hardest actually excel.  Tall people or people with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres are actually pretty universally evenly spread. But the will to turn that initial advantage into excellence, is not.

Rasmus went on to introduce us to a theory proposed by James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who has suggested that in fact the existence of pockets of excellence is less to go with the distribution of talented people and more to do with how good any particular society is at capturing and nurturing a talent.

Capturing and nurturing talent

For example, Rasmus believes that the east African dominence of middle and long distance running is less to do with an uneven distribution of genetics and more to do with an uneven distribution of self belief and the desire to work hard.

This uneven distribution of the desire for hardwork – what could be commonly called ‘hunger’ – is key to Rasmus’ argument and to the concept of the Gold Mine Effect. After the seminar Rasmus was kind enough to allow me to publish a section from his up-coming book, which explains the important of hunger:

Hunger factor 4: Spartan and simple facilities

I still remember my meeting in Iten, Kenya with one of the world’s absolute best 1500 m runners, Augustine Choge, as though it were yesterday. I’m watching his training on a running track a couple of kilometres outside Iten. Choge has just launched into the last of his merciless interval runs which he has been forcing his body to endure for the last 45 minutes. Stony-faced, he rounds his last corner and accelerates towards the finishing line, where I’m sitting in the baking hot sun watching them train.

Mr. Choge is the very man I have come to meet. He was the fastest man in the world in the 1500 m in 2009. After training we sit for a while in his big white Land Rover, the only sign of his success, and trundled back towards his home. Twenty minutes later, Augustine Choge turns in onto a grass field between two trees and parks in front of two dilapidated shacks.

Somewhat taken aback, I ask him: “Is this where you live?”

He nods. By Western standards it looks more like a chicken shack than somewhere people would live. And certainly not the world’s fastest 1500 m runner. The rusty hinges let out a high-pitched squeak as he opens the wonky wooden door into his living room. Here, an old massage couch and a sofa with a cover full of holes come into sight. An old 15 inch television set is chattering away on the table. The walls have been papered with old newspapers. Behind the tiny living room is an even tinier double room with a bunk bed and from the ceiling hangs a small electric bulb which struggles to light up the room.

This is where Augustine Choge sleeps. But not alone, it transpires; he shares his accommodation with David Rudisha, Kinnear’s best 800 m runner, who this year managed to topple his fellow countryman Wilson Kipketer’s 15-year-old world record.

I have great difficulty believing what I see as I sit in Augustine Choge’s living room as he boils water on his humble gas cooker to make the Kenyan tea he drinks after every training session. This man has made an absolute fortune from his sport. He drives around in a big Land Rover and could easily buy himself a fashionable flat in Nairobi. Nevertheless, he isolates himself in this little chicken shack a few hundred metres from the centre of Iten all year round – interrupted only by the few months when he is competing in Europe. These are, as he puts it, the optimum conditions for doing what it takes. Sleep, train, eat, sleep, train, eat, etc.

I saw the same thing at MVP Track & Field Club in Jamaica, where the world’s best sprinters trained on the diesel-scorched grass track – not the hypermodern running track I had expected for athletes of that calibre. But as Stephen Francis puts it:

“There’s no need for anything that is not absolutely necessary. A performance environment should not be designed for comfort, it should be designed for hard work.”

This seriously challenges the modern American/European mindset. In poor, rusty and overcrowded facilities in the West it’s almost impossible to create world stars. We instinctively strive for groomed fields, top-level technology, comfortable surroundings. It’s just that the burning question is: Do we develop better performance in fine, fancy and comfortable facilities? Or is it possible to imagine that it may be advantageous to train under primitive, humble conditions like Augustine Choge certainly does, and which Stephen Francis insists on at the world’s most successful athletics club? Perhaps these are in reality perfect facilities for developing World class performance because they really test people to find out whether they have the will to maintain their focus, which is what it’s all about, and at the same time send a clear signal that the road to the world elite is far from easy or comfortable. Perhaps luxurious surroundings diminish effort. The Gold Mines deliver the point that if you want to create and maintain drive, then aim to make and keep facilities spartan and simple.

This idea confronts anyone who works on a day-to-day basis with talent development with a number of urgent questions. If hunger is created and reinforced by spartan and simple facilities, does this give certain parts of the world an advantage? And if it does, then how is an English boy growing up in an affluent and comfortable society ever going to match the hunger gnawing inside the belly of the Brazilian boy growing up in a São Paulo favela? It important to emphasise here that the message about simple and spartan facilities does not mean that we in the West should tear down our ultramodern training centres and train in rusty old fitness centres and on uneven grass tracks. Nor does it have anything to do with Roger Federer not being able to win a grand slam if he stays at a luxury hotel. But we must understand that creating World class performance does not necessarily require World class facilities. The Spartan conditions at the Gold Mines make sure that nobody falls asleep in comfortable surroundings and constantly reminds their performers of the humbleness and laser-like focus that is required to get good and stay good.

(reproduced with kind permission of Rasmus Ankersen. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Cultivating my hunger

So where does that leave me? Well, it is always going to be a challenge to replicate the conditions necessary to create Rasmus’ hunger for success in a comfortable society like ours.  But I do think that it is possible to create deep intrinsic motivation if the concept of competition and self-development is put at the heart of the ways in which we educate our children and if as adults we accept that we must be live the change we want to see in future generations. So on that note, I’m off out for another run… if I keep going, I might just become the world class runner that I know I have the potential to be (maybe!)

Meeting Rasmus Ankersen, the High Performance Anthropologist

A few months ago, whilst leafing through Athletics Weekly, I came across an advert for a seminar that was going to be presented by a chap called Rasmus Ankersen, known as the High Performance Anthropologist. The talk was going to centre around a project that Rasmus had undertaken, called the Goldmine Effect, which lead him around the world visiting locations, often remote and usually very unassuming, from which had emerged world beating athletes. And not just one from each location, but dozens if not hundreds from each place. This examination of the forces that create these pockets of excellence dovetailed perfectly with some of the books I had been reading; Bounce by Matthew Syed, Drive by Daniel Pink, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Gold Rush by Michael Johnson.

So I bought a ticket and waited for the date to come around. But I also tweeted Ankersen (@rasmusankersen) asking whether he would give me 15 minutes before or after the seminar so I could conduct an interview. Well if you don’t ask you don’t get, and I was delighted when Rasmus replied to say that he would have time for me.

Here is my interview with Rasmus Ankersen.

I asked Rasmus to tell me a bit about how he became interested in high performance and specifically the apparent clustering of excellence around certain nodes. He told me that when he was younger he harboured an ambition to play professional football, but injuries put paid to that. So, as he says, like many players with unfulfilled ambitions, Rasmus started coaching. During his time as a coach he encountered situations where apparently talentless players turned out to be world-class and others, who were great performers, fizzled away and never reached the heights expected of them.

Fascinated by why it is so difficult to identify talent and untangle performance now from future success, Rasmus quit his coaching role and identified five locations around the world where excellence thrived;

  • Seoul, South Korea, where 137 of the world’s 500 best female golfers come from
  • The MVP Track Club in Kingston, Jamaica which has produced the vast majority of the world’s best sprinters
  • Iten, Kenya from where almost all the world’s best marathon runners come
  • Rio de Janiro, Brazil from whose residents every second World Footballer of the Year has been chosen
  • A run-down tennis club near Moscow, Russia which in the last 10 years has produced more Grand Slam winners than the whole of the US and UK put together

Ankersen then travelled to these locations and interviewed the athletes and coaches in these special places to try to understand how they consistently created such excellence.

Elite performance and science

When we started talking I asked Rasmus what were the main drivers for him taking on the challenge of identifying the features that linked the Gold Mines of performance. Rasmus started by saying that he thinks there is a curious relationship between elite performance and science. He pointed to the fact that in Kenya, whilst training with the greatest distance runners in the world, he never saw a heart rate monitor or found an athlete who knew, much less cared, what their VO2 Max was. In fact the only HRM strap he saw was strung between two posts and was being used to dry running kit!

Ankersen went on to talk about the ‘tale of the tape’ – a concept commonly found in boxing circles, where certain physical characteristics are identified as being optimum for different weight categories, despite the fact that arguably the greatest boxer ever – Muhammed Ali – deviated from pretty much every measurement that was expected of a heavyweight boxer. With such blind adherence to pointless ‘science’ it is no wonder that sport desperately need people like Rasmus Ankersen to unravel the myth from reality, especially when so many of the myths are based on apparent science!

The mental muscle and the power of the mind in elite performance

With an obvious interest in how the brain and not the physical characterisitics of an athlete have such a fundamental impact on performance, I asked Rasmus what he thought about the comment that Ben Johnson made during his recent appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, when he said that once he had reached a certain level of fitness, racing became almost equally mental and physical? Rasmus responded with the story of one Kenyan athlete who, when he heard on the radio that all the runners in the Kenyan Olympic team that year had returned with gold medals he assumed that was normal and that he was therefore destined to get a gold medal. Obviously huge amounts of hard work were required, but it was the belief – the mental element – that would, in the end make the difference for this athlete.

From talking to Rasmus, it seems clear therefore that it is this power of belief and the use of the ‘mental muscle’ that creates pockets of outstanding performance where genetics cannot possibly be the reason for the clustering of high performers. The examples are too numerous to list here, but in Mattew Syed’s book, Bounce, he talks about being at the centre of a clustering of world class talent in table tennis around a tiny area of a suburb near Reading in Berkshire. This cannot be explained by genetics. Looking further afield, Rasmus is quite clear that whilst, when we see the best endurance runners in the world coming from east Africa, the assumption is that their dominance is down to genetics, the reality is that their dominance is not down to genetics – it is down to sheer bloody hard work and a belief that they will be the best in the world.

So how far can that belief take us? I asked Rasmus about one of the athletes he interviewed for the Gold Mine project; Bridget Foster-Hylton, who trains at MVP Track Club. She says in the video that she trains differently and more than anyone else. That she believes that statement is undeniable. But I asked Rasmus whether he thought that Foster-Hylton did in fact train more and harder than anyone else and this was the key to her astonishing improvements and recent results, or was it simply that she believed that she trained harder and more and that belief gave her the mental edge?

Rasmus’ answer was intreaguing. He said that he believed that Bridget Foster-Hylton probably did do more training and harder training than the people she competes against. However without the self-belief and mental strength that she possesses, she wouldn’t train to the degree she does. It seems that it is a virtuous circle.

The future for the Gold Mine Effect

And at this point Rasmus and I had to wrap up so that he could get ready for the seminar. So I had one last question – I asked Rasmus what he is planning on doing with the research he is conducting for the Gold Mine Effect project? Rasmus, it seems, is not a man afraid to test himself and his theories for real. He is planning on opening a football academy near Rio in Brazil, where he will utilise all he has learned to help create a gold mine of football talent. From there he will focus on education and helping parents understand how to tap into the talent that every child has, but in so many cases is unfulfilled. So if you are reading this in 2030 and the greatest footballer the world has ever seen is thanking his coach and mentor, Rasmus Ankersen, for helping him reach his or her potential, you will know that Rasmus was indeed right and he has really struck gold in that mine of his!

Next week I will publish my thoughts on the seminar itself and there is a very special treat – Rasmus has allowed me to publish a section of his book, due out in the UK next year, which deals with the difficult issue of how to keep athletes hungry for success. Keep checking back for that.