Book review: The Way Of The Runner by Adharanand Finn

At the end of last year the team behind Like the Wind magazine along with some wonderful friends opened a Pop-Up for a week. We had film screenings, talks, workshops and hundreds and hundreds of runners coming in. It was actually a bit of an overwhelming experience and there were too many amazing experiences for there to be highlights – it was all one massive highlight.

In the middle of the week, on a rare quiet moment, a man walked in through the doors. I instantly recognised him as the author of one of the books that I love and that we were selling in the Pop-Up: Adharanand Finn. Author of Running With The Kenyans.

It was great to meet Adharanand and I was really excited when he told me that he was writing a new book. He had decided to travel with his family again to experience another hot-bed of distance running – Japan.

A week ago his latest book – The Way Of The Runner – dropped on my doormat and I immediately started looking for opportunities to dive into the pages.

The Way Of The Writer

IMG_3089One of the fantastic things about Finn’s first book was the way that he threw himself into running with the Kenyans who were his neighbours in the village where he and his family lived for a year (hence the book’s title). This was not a dispassionate look at the way that east Africans train, live, eat and race. Adharanand was out there with them trying to understand why they are the best marathoners on earth whilst also trying to improve his own running.

And so it is with this latest book. Finn wants to get inside Japanese running and especially the Ekiden – wildly popular road relays that have millions hooked on the TV as they take place.

Whilst Finn’s brilliant way with words, self-deprecating humour, intensity about his running and journalistic rigour are as much in evidence in The Way Of The Runner as they are in Running With The Kenyans, it is clear that Adharanand wasn’t as welcome in Japan as he was in Kenya. Actually that doesn’t make the book any less interesting, but I was left feeling frustrated for Finn that he didn’t get as involved in the Japanese running scene as he seemed to be in Africa.

Points of comparison

It isn’t just the access issue that allows Finn’s two books to be compared. Adharanand refers regularly to the differences between east African and Japanese runners. Sometimes favourably, sometimes not. There is clearly a question that gnaws at Adharanand, which is why, when looking at the Ekiden in particular, Japanese runners are clearly capable of taking on the Ethiopians and Kenyans at their own game, and yet they don’t? Runners who cover 20km legs in the Ekiden at a pace equivalent to a low-60 minute half marathon never graduate to the global marathon scene.

It also seems to me that Finn’s young family also had a harder time integrating themselves into Japanese society than they did in Kenya. They clearly have the ability to land in a very foreign land and really get on with people there, but again I got the feeling from reading the book, that they didn’t really settle and I wonder if that made it harder for Adharanand to spend as much time with the runners that he did meet as he would have wanted to?

A great insight

Despite the fact that Adharanand appeared to have a harder time getting into the running scene in Japan than he did in Africa, the book is still utterly fascinating. I could spend much, much longer telling you about all of my favourite bits from this book, but I won’t. Because I really want you to buy it. In fact I want you to buy two and give one away. I believe that there is not enough good storytelling about running (there could probably never be enough for me!) so I want people like Adharanand Finn to keep doing what they do.

As you would expect from such an accomplished writer and journalist, the stories flow and it is a really lovely book to read. It is also satisfyingly long, not just a brief synopsis of the Ekiden phenomenon and a few personal observations. No, for as long as it takes you to read this book, you will be immersed in the scene. It has certainly made me want to go to Japan even more and take my running shoes. It is as though Adharanand is fast becoming my personal fantasy-travel agent. I wonder where will be next…

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.