Saturday, July 9, 2016

Thoroughbreds: Men in Nyahururu

To properly set the stage in this post about runners, I first need to talk about basketball.  Because basketball is the one global sport in which the United States dominates the rest of the world.  The NBA is the preeminent competitive league worldwide.  The US has won 14 of the possible 18 Olympic gold medals in mens basketball, and 5 of the last 6.  The women's stats compare.

As dominant as the US is globally in basketball, Kenyans (and East Africans as a regional group) are staggeringly - embarrassingly, for the rest of the globe - more dominant than that in distance running (we'll say 10k and up).  On the list of top marathon times by men in 2015, the first non-East African is 48th. This list contains 200+ times and not a single one of them was run by an American.  Only three of them were run by some loose definition of European-American (German, Ukrainian, Spanish).  

The marathon world record for men is 2:02:57, unsurprisingly held by a Kenyan.  The American marathon record for men is 2:04:58, held by a retired runner.  The fastest personal record of someone still competing is 2:09:07.  The winning time in the race to determine the current marathon national champion is 2:11:13.  

At their paces, the WR holder would finish with the current American national champion nearly two miles behind him.  The US Olympics mens basketball team wins consistently, but they aren't holding their opponents to 30 points.  

So: awe befitting unequivocal dominance (and a touch of reality for the upcoming Olympics).

After I crossed into Kenya, I would occasionally see a runner - as in someone who obviously wasn't messing around to burn a few calories.  But it wasn't until Nyaharuru that I saw Kenyan runners.  

For some reason I decided that morning, in a town situated at 2200m above sea level, to run for the first time in 6+ weeks.  It was quite lovely on the unpaved roads east of town.

I made a turn that I thought would take me back to my hotel when I heard floating through the air "no, don't go that way!"  

Out on their first of three runs that day, Bedan (on the right) invited me to come to their track workout at 11 am.  [NOTE: Johanna on the left had just returned from a 10k race in Japan where he tried to qualify for the 2015 World Championships, which were scheduled for three weeks from when I met them on that road.  Despite being a nearly World Championship quality runner, he was an unknown in this group.  I asked one of the coaches about him later and they didn't even know his last name.]

I had a bus ticket to Maralal for 10:30 am, but you know what you do when you're studying exercise physiology and a Kenyan national champion (which basically means he could easily become the world champion....) invites you to his track workout?  You change your ticket.

And it was supremely cool.  Obviously.  I missed the marathon and sprint groups' workouts, but many of them were cooling down during or watching the middle distance (mile, 5k, 10k) group's workout, so basically this gravel track in a town of 40,000 at altitude in Kenya was crawling with runners, all of whom could probably vie for the American national championship in their event.  (Bedan is in the orange singlet with the blue bottom, and orange shoes.)

I sat and watched and had a hilariously brutally honest conversation with some of the marathon group about the relatively sad state of American marathoning, and what it's like to be good in absolute terms, but still a nobody in Kenyan running.

 This group could do some serious damage at your local Turkey Trot.

Then I went to the bus station to catch my ride to Maralal.

Which looks to be an eye-opener of a different sort.

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