The Boston Marathon is one of the oldest continuous running marathons around. The 122nd just finished today, and—surprise surprise—a Kenyan man and Ethiopian woman took first place. For the men, Lawrence Chereno (time at 2:07: 57) barely edged out the second place winner Lelisa Desisa Benti (2:07:59; an Ethiopian) while for the women Worknesh Degefa (2:23:31) beat Edna Kiplagat (2:24:13; a Kenyan). For the men, all 5 of the top placers were East African, whereas for the women all 3 were East African. What explains Kenyan marathon success? Incredibly, from 1992 onward—with the exception of 2001 and 2018—East Africans have won the Boston Marathon. We know that athleticism is irreducible to biology, and while genes do play a part in morphology and other things that are conducive to running success, they do not—of course—tell the whole story. A whole slew of factors needs to come together to make an elite athlete, while one thing does not fully explain marathon success.
Back in September of 2017, I covered many factors that make both elite marathoners and sprinters. All of the factors that make an elite athlete combine, no one factor is more important than any other, but if one does not have the will to train and win, of course, they will not do well.
When it comes to Kenyans, a small tribe in Kenya explain the success of—the Kalenjin, most specifically, the Nandi sub-tribe and a complex interaction of genotype, phenotype, and socioeconomic factors explain their success (Tucker, Onywera, and Santos-Concejero, 2015). The Kalenjin account for a whopping 84% of Kenya’s Olympic and world championship medals, 79 percent of Kenya’ top 25 marathon performances, contributing to 34%. Kenyans have won 152 medals, compared with 145 with other African countries—42-61% being Ethiopian—while the rest of the world combined won 153 medals. The Nandi sub-tribe has won 72 medals, accounting for 47& of the total for Kenya. What accounts for the insane disparity between East African marathoners (specifically Kalenjin, and a more specific sub-tribe at that) and the rest?
In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk (2010: 102) writes:
Take the running Kenyans. Relatively new to the international competitions, Kenyans have in recent years become overwhelmingly dominant in middle- and long-distance races. “It’s pointless for me to run on the pro-circuit,” complained American 10,000 meter champion Mike Mykytok to the New York Times in 1998. “With all of the Kenyans, I could set a personal best time, and still only place 12th and win $200.”
The Kenyan-born journalist John Manners describes a just-so story to explain how and why Kenyans dominate these competitions: The best young men who were the fastest and had more endurance acquired more cattle, and those who acquired more cattle could then get a bride and have more children, Shenk explains. “It is not hard to imagine that such a reproductive advantage might cause a significant shift in a group’s genetic makeup over the course of a few centuries” (John Manners, quoted in Shenk, 2010: 103).
However, no matter what the origin of Kenyan running success is, the Kalenjin have a passionate dedication to running. Kipchoge Keino was the one who put Kenya on the map regarding distance running. Shenk quotes Keino saying:
I used to run from the farm to school and back … we didn’t have a water tap in the house, so you run to the river, take your shower, run home, change [run] to school . . . Everything is running.
However, when Keino entered 1968 Olympics in Mexico, he came down with gallstones and his doctor told him not to race. However, he took a cab to Aztec Stadium, and when he get caught in traffic he ran the last mile to the stadium and barely got there before the race started. Even though Keino was sick, he destroyed the then-world record by 6 seconds.
Sports geographers don’t point to one variable that explains Kenyan running success—because they all interact. They train at high altitude—and while high altitude is not the only factor regarding long-distance running success, it is crucial. Because training at a high altitude and then running at a lower altitude can change running time by a large amount. One with a normal running economy who goes by the mantra “live high, train low” can shave off about 8 minutes of their time in a 26.2-mile marathon (Chapman and Levine, 2007). Further, socioeconomic variables also explain the success, with it being part of what drives them to succeed, along with favorable morphology, a strong running economy, high intensity training (living at and training at high altitude) and a slew of psychological factors related to social status and socioeconomic factors (Wilbur and Pitsiladis, 2012). This paper speaks perfectly to the slew of variables that need to come together to make an elite athlete.
Shenk (2010: 108) then reverses John Manner’s just-so story:
… it’s an entertaining theory that fits well with the popular gene-centric view of natural selection [it fits well because it’s selected to be so]. But developmental biologists would point out that you could take exactly the same story line and flip the conclusion on its head: the fastest man earns the most wives and has the most kids—but rather than passing on quickness genes, he passes on crucial ingredients. such as the knowledge and means to attain maximal nutrition, inspiring stories, the most propitious attitude and beliefs, access to the best trainers, the most leisure time to pursue training, and so on. This nongenetic aspect of inheritance is often overlooked by genetic determinists: culture, knowledge, attitudes, and environments are also passed on in many different ways.
Further, Shenk also cites sports scientist Tim Noakes who states that the best Kenyan runners cover 230 km (about 143 miles) a week at 6,000 feet in altitude—and this, of course, would be conducive to running success when the event is held at lower altitudes.
David Epstein wrote a solid book on athleticism in 2014—The Sports Gene. Chapters 12 and 13 are pivotal for this discussion. Chapter 12 titled Can Every Kalenjin Run? In this chapter, Epstein, too, cites John Manners, explaining the same thing that Shenk did, but adds this:
In the next breath of the very same chapter [after describing the just-so story about cattle-gathering and wife-acquisiton], though, Manners seems to doubt the suggestion as soon as he raises it. “The idea just occurred to me, so I just put it in.” (pg 184)
Manners came to see his just-so story as less powerful since, over the years as he interviewed Kalenjin runners because “other “hot spots” of endurance running talent have materialized in East Africa, and the athletes responsible are also from traditionally pastoralist cultures that once practiced cattle raiding” (Epstein, 2014: 184-185).
Epstein then discusses how 17 American men in history have run a marathon better than 2:10—or 4:58 per mile—while 32 Kalenjin men did it in October of 2011 alone. Five American high-schoolers have run a sub-4 minute mile, while one high-school in Kenya alone produced 4 sub-4 mile runners!
Kenyan runners have long legs for their height, along with “upper leg length, total leg length and total leg length to body height ratio were correlated with running performance” (Mooses et al, 2014)—which means that they can cover more distance than one with shorter legs. This is critical for running success—of any kind. Kenyans have a high number of type I muscle fibers, but, of course, this alone does not explain their running success. Elite Kenyan distance runners are characterized by low BMI, low fat mass and slim limbs (Kong and de Heer, 2008).
So now let’s discuss altitude adaptation. One objection to this variable—out of many others, of course—that are conducive to running success is why are Tibetans and Andeas not succeeding in these types of competitions as well as the Kalenjin? The answer is simple—because they do not have the long, ecto-dominant (Vernillo et al, 2013) body types. There is also another, perhaps more critical, component to altitude training—hemoglobin, since the amount of oxygen one has in their blood is dictated by two factors—how much hemoglobin one has in their blood and the amount of oxygen the hemoglobin carries. Altitude increases the number of red blood cells in the body, since it is a good way to get oxygen in an environment with less oxygen.
Epstein (2014: 208) writes:
Preferable to moving to altitude to rain is being born there. Altitude natives who are born and go through dilchood at elevation tend to have proportionally larger lungs than sea-level natives, and large lungs have large surface ares that permit more oxygen to pass from the lungs into the blood. This cannot be the result of altitude ancestry that has altered the genes over generations, because it occurs not only in natives of the Himalayas, but also among American children who do not have altitude ancestry but who grow up in the Rockies. Once childhood is gone, though, so too is the chance for this adaptation. It is not genetic, but neither is it alterable after adolescence.
Epstein (2014: 213) quotes the first man to run a sub-4 minute mile, Roger Bannister who says:
The human body is centuries in advance of the physiologist, and can perform an integration of heart, lungs, and muscles which is too complex for the sciencist to analyze.
This, of course, is a hard pill to swallow for some people, who may not believe this. I believe this is true—though we can point to certain factors, each individual’s trajectory into X is unique, and so, explaining Y for all will be close to impossible.
Finally, Epstein (2014: 214) cites Claudio Berardelli:
Berardelli believes that Kenyans are, in general, more likely to be gifted runners. But he also knows that no matter their talent or body type or childhood environment or country of origin, 2:05 marathon runners do not fall from the sky. Their gifts must be coupled with herculean will.
Although that, too, is not entirely seperable from innate [whatever that means] talent.
Hamilton (2000) concludes that:
It seems that the presumed causes of such domination are often recycled, out of date, and based on misinformation and myth.
This, however, betrays understanding of a systems view of running success. Just because North Africans are beginning to show up in these types of competitions it does not mean that the systems view of athleticism is false.
Of course, the East African running advantage is more than ‘genetic’, it is also cultural—which, rightly, shows how every part of the system interacts to produce an elite athletic phenotype. As Louis (2014: 41) notes “The analysis and explanation of racial athleticism is therefore irreducible to biological or socio-cultural determinants and requires a ‘biocultural approach’ (Malina, 1988; Burfoot, 1999; Entine, 2000) or must account for environmental factors (Himes, 1988; Samson and Yerl`es, 1988).” Genetics alone cannot explain the running success of East Africans.
In sum, what explains the success of East African runners? A whole slew of factors that are irreducible, since the whole system interacts. Of course, I do not deny the role that physiological and anatomic factors have on running performance—they are crucial, but not the only, determinant for running success. Reducing a complex bio-system to X, Y, or Z does not make any sense, as every factor interacts to create the elite athlete. East African dominance in middle- and long-distance running will, of course, continue, since they have the right mix of factors that all interact with each other.