Why Do Kenyans Win The Marathons?

By Neenah Payne

Kenyans and Ethiopians swept the NYC Marathon this year for 1-2-3 in the men’s race and women’s race. Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya won $100,000 for his victory and another $10,000 for breaking 2:10 with a finish of 2:08:13. Kamworor won in 2017 and was on the medal podium in each of the four NYC Marathons he ran. Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei holds the world’s record in half marathons. In an historic debut in her first marathon, she became the youngest woman to win the New York City Marathon this century, with a finishing time of 2:22:38 — just 7 seconds from the record! In 2017, Jepkosgei broke four world records in a single event and was the first Kenyan to break six world records in six months.

This year a man and woman from Kenya won. Last year, a man from Ethiopia and a woman from Kenya won! Last year, Ethiopian men attained rare dominance with their third victory in the race’s history — in contrast with Kenya’s 14. Since they began entering the NYC, Boston, London, and Berlin marathons in the 1980s, it has been a foregone conclusion that Kenyans will take most of the top spots.

What’s special about Kenyan runners? This is an important question as these world-class runners are likely to get medals the summer Olympics in 2020. A number of researchers are trying to figure out the key to their success and what the rest of the world can learn from them.

There is a fascinating cluster of unusual factors in the winning formula for Kenyan runners.

Kenyan Tribe Provides World’s Top Distance Runners

“How One Kenyan Village Fuels The World’s Fastest Distance Runners” seen below explains that the Kalenjin tribe (which has 4.5 million members) in Kenya has dominated long-distance Olympic running.  It says the Kalejin are 0.6% of the world’s population, but make up 80-90% of dominant long-distance runners!

The video concludes that the Kalenjin diet fuels their bodies for long-distance running. They eat lots of vegetables, beans, rice, ugali (boiled corn meal) — and little meat. Most of the big marathons prepare ugali because it is a much healthier carbohydrate than other carbs. It has no preservatives or additives and makes the body strong. Kenyans say that without ugali, it’s not a meal. A top runner says she likes Kenyan meat because she knows it’s organic. The video shows the interviewer going to the market with a Kenyan family to buy a live chicken which they kill and pluck for dinner. Vegetables are grown on the family farm. They prepare a fermented milk.

Training at a high altitude, as Kenyan runners do, conditions the body differently. In addition, success breeds the expectation of success. The established stars coach and encourage top young runners. The video concludes there are many reasons the Kalenjin tribe produces such superior long-distance runners — a perfect combination of high elevation, climate, diet, a relaxed lifestyle, their land, families, genes — and discipline.  A Kenyan runner says that life goes by so fast in the US. In Kenya, she can relax on the farm with her mom and run.

The video provides a comprehensive understanding of the factors that fuel the success of Kenyan runners — specifically the Kalenjin tribe.  At 6am every day, 30 to 300 athletes run together. There is a huge sense of belonging and fun. The Kalenjin have healthy tribal lives that no city people in the world experience today.

The video “Is One African Tribe Producing the World’s Best Runners?” provides additional insight – but the videos don’t say what differentiates the Kalenjin from other tribal Kenyans or other Africans. Why have about five times more Kenyans won marathons than Ethiopians who are the second best long-distance runners? Why do both Kenyans and Ethiopians outperform runners from other African countries?

Still a mystery….

Importance of a Great Coach

“Born To Run: The Kenyan Secrets” credits much of the success of the Kenyan runners to Brother Colm O’Connell, the Irish priest at the legendary St. Patrick’s School in the town of Iten in the Rift Valley 8,000 feet above sea level. The school program was producing international athletes, but when Brother O’Connell arrived in 1976, he expanded the success of Kenyan runners. Coach O’Connell didn’t realize he had the best runners in the world until they started to compete internationally in 1983! It is a fascinating training video in which O’Connell discusses how to build focus and core strength.

When asked what Kenyan runners do differently, David said when they are young, they run barefoot to and from school because they can’t afford shoes. That gives them a good connection to the ground and strengthens their ankles. One of the Irish coaches also credits the success of the Kenyan athletes at Iten to the dirt track which is better than any in the world. In addition, the young athletes live in the same village with many world-class athletes with whom they can train!

Kenyan Runners Have Dominated Marathons Since 1988

Since 1988, Africans have won every Boston Marathon except four. Kenya won 21 times and Ethiopia six. Since 1997, Kenyans have won the NYC Marathon 13 times and Ethiopians three. Since 1999, Kenyans (15 wins) and Ethiopians (6 wins) have monopolized the Berlin Marathon. Since 2003, Kenyans (14 wins) and Ethiopians (3 wins) have owned the London Marathon.

In 1987, Ibrahim Hussein was the first Kenyan (and African) to win the New York City Marathon. In 1991, he was the first Kenyan (and African) to win the Boston Marathon – setting a world record. He won Boston again in 1991 and 1992. Hussein is from the Rift Valley as are Martin Lel who won the NYC Marathon in 2003 and 2007 and Geoffrey Kamworor who won the NYC Marathon in 2017 and 2019.

Hussein attended St. Patrick’s School in Iten. Coach O’Connell discusses his training style below in “Interview with Brother Colm O’Connell – ‘The Godfather of Kenyan Running.'”

Iten, home of champions says:

The genesis of the remarkable Iten success story, and the wider Kenyan distance running boom, can be traced to the day the avuncular Brother Colm arrived at St Patrick’s High School for Boys…in July 1976…. Brother Colm has been largely responsible for the relentless rise of Kenyan distance running, tapping into the vast wealth of natural talent from the Iten and Eldoret area that has passed through the doors of St Patrick’s.

The 2012 article adds:

His first success was Ibrahim Hussein, who won the New York City Marathon in 1987 and proceeded to notch a hat-trick of victories in the Boston Marathon. His first Olympic gold medal winner was Peter Rono, the surprise 1500m victor in Seoul in 1988. There is a tree dedicated to Rono in the grounds of St Pat’s, as there are to the other four Olympic champions, the 25 world champions produced by Brother Colm…..At the World Championships in Daegu last summer Kenya won 17 medals, all in endurance events. Ten of those medalists came through the system at St Pat’s.

It concludes:

So what, if anything, is the key—if not the secret—to all this still-burgeoning Kenyan success? Is it the altitude? Is it the work ethic? ‘All sorts of research has been done in order to isolate a specific reason,’ Brother Colm says. ‘All sorts of experiments have been done—into physiology, climate, altitude, diet, genetics —and nobody seems to have come up with a satisfactory conclusion. I think it’s part of the running culture in the area that has been created. It’s the fact that, when the sport became professional, so many athletes came back to this area to train here. So the kids could see their role models and successful athletes around the roads and pathways of Iten. And now you see that so many kids are running and coming up through the system. So I don’t think it’s one factor—in terms of diet or altitude or anything—because any of those factors you can find in other parts of the world.’

The article mentions British champions who went to Kenya to learn from the world’s best runners.

Kalenjin: The Kenyan Tribe That Wins Races

Train Hard, Win Easy: Running on the Periphery in Rural Kenya: The Last Shall Be First says:

These athletes are so dominant that Kenyan national races often prove more competitive than international invitationals….the most mind-boggling fact about Kenyan athletics is that one ethnic tribe encompasses 75% of its elite performers—the Kalenjin. This tribe hails ancestrally from the western Rift Valley and its overlooking highlands. In fact, one subdivision of the Kalenjin, the Nandi, wins the vast majority of Kenya’s Olympic and World Championship medals, not to mention most major half and full-marathon titles. Another sub-tribe of only 200,000, the Marakwet, statistically encompasses the remaining world-renowned Kalenjin athletes (a few are Keiyo, Masai, or Kipsigi).

It points out:

Before the 1960’s, Kenyan athletic dominance could never have been foreseen. In 1964. Wilson Kiprugut actually won the first Olympic medal ever for his country, claiming bronze in the men’s 800 meter in Tokyo. The great Kenyan running epoch was officially commenced in 1968 (Mexico City Summer Olympics) when Kiprugut won the silver in the same event, and Kipchoge Keino upset the favorite, American Jim Ryun (first high-school runner ever to break the 4:00 mile), to win gold in the 1500 meter run; he also returned a few days later to win Silver in the 5000 meter run. Within a few years Kalenjin runners were feverishly breaking world records; in an 81 day stretch in 1978, Henry Rono broke four world records (in the 10,000m, 5,000m, 3,000m steeplechase, and 3,000m flat races)….

Conditions changed drastically after 1980. Ibrahim Hussein ushered in the age of amazing Kenyan marathoners by prevailing at the Boston Marathon three times (1988, 1992, 1993—Kenyans have reigned supreme in Boston ever since)…. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Pauline Konga became the first Kenyan woman to medal (Silver Medal, 5000m), henceforth proving that Kenyan females had aptitude in long-distance running as well. Catherine Ndereba has since been unofficially recognized as the greatest women’s marathoner of all time (4-time Boston champion); Lornah Kiplagat joins her as maybe the greatest women’s road racer ever (world records in road 5K, 10 mile, 20K, and 21K/half marathon).

Athletes from the Rift Valley earn money from many different sources, namely from corporate sponsorships (especially Nike, Adidas, Puma, Reebok, and Aasics), race prizes (for top-finish performances and course/event records), homecountry rewards, and race entry incentives offered by acquisitive race managers. These financial bonuses are the predominant reason that the Kalenjin enter running as a profession…. Once an athlete gains an international name and to some degree becomes financially self-sufficient, he or she is able to reinvest into an already-impressive comparative advantage in athletics…

The Hussein Athletics Camp is situated one kilometer outside of central Kapsabet, secluded and off from the main road, yet very accessible to town. The camp was the brainchild of Ibrahim Hussein, who after winning three Boston Marathons and one New York Marathon, retired with pre-formed designs for how he would use his winnings. Hussein is quite the poster child for one whose unselfishness perfectly complements his sensibility in making spending decisions. This great runner, when I spoke with him in Nairobi, explained how he was determined to give back to the great sport which had made him both famous and prosperous—in a homegrown Kenyan way. He has orchestrated the building of the Amedo Center in downtown Eldoret and has become the chairman of the Athletics Kenya North Rift.“

 “Perfect Storm” Fuels Kenyan Running Success

The documentary “Born To Run: The Kenyan Secrets” adds that all of Kenya’s success stories come from poor rural areas and farms because they see running as a way out of poverty and to help their families. The video credits much of Kenya’s success to the training of Brother O’Connell’s soft style which encourages self confidence. The coach seeks to discover what the athlete has to offer rather than imposing a program on anyone. He is a very flexible coach who inspires, guides, and supports. The training regime is designed to keep athletes physically and emotionally relaxed, mentally focused, and strong in their core.

The video says there is no one explanation for the success of Kenyan runners. Rather, it is due to a “Perfect Storm” including high altitude, hard work, the motivation to escape poverty, a healthy diet, positive altitude, a healthy environment, a strong sense of tribal community, the example and support of world-class runners, relentless but flexible training, and self-confidence.

The NYC Marathon, the world’s largest, began in 1970 with just 127 participants. The course record for men is held by Geoffrey Mutai (2:05.05 in 2011) from the Kalenjin tribe and by Margaret Okaya (2:22:31 in 2003). Along with the Boston Marathon, it is among the pre-eminent long-distance annual running events in the United States and is one of the World Marathon Majors. Winning the NYC Marathon is a huge stepping stone toward the Olympics.

The video “Mutai Wins Boston Marathon in Record 2:03:02” says when Mutai won the 2011 Boston Marathon, it was the fastest anyone had ever run the 26.2 mile distance. He was the 19th Kenyan winner in 21 years! However, it was not sanctioned as a record because there was a roaring tailwind and the Boston Marathon is a straight-line course. The IAAF’s rules state that marathon records must be run on a looped course. Yet, by winning in Boston and later in New York, Mutai felt he erased any doubts about his talents. “Although it was not recognized, I’m happy to be at that level” he said.

Wikipedia says that American men won every NYC Marathon from its inception in 1970 until 1982. They set six course records and one world record. After the first Kenyan ran in 1987, Americans have won only once (with an Eritrean-born American) and Africans have won 23 times – setting two course records. Of those winners, 15 were from Kenya and three were from Ethiopia.

Geoffrey Mutai: Kenyan Marathon Man!

“Kenyan Runner ‘Geoffrey Mutai’ Sets New Record Time For NYC Marathon” says that after Mutai broke the world record with 2:03:02 at the Boston Marathon in 2011, he set a record for the NYC Marathon with 2:05:05. More than 47,000 runners participated and the NYC Marathon gets bigger every year. Over 53,000 ran in 2019. It now brings in more than $340 million.

Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai successfully defends New York City marathon title says that in 2013

The Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai won the New York City Marathon, successfully defending his title, while his compatriot Priscah Jeptoo triumphed in the women’s race….Mutai, 32, controlled the race to record a time of 2hr 8min 24sec, with Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia second in 2:9:16 and the South African Lusapho April (2:9:45) third.

Ed Caesar, author of the article “Running with marathon man Geoffrey Mutai” says British GQ sent him to Rift Valley in Kenya “to try and keep up with the Kenyan supermen who turn distance running into a fine art and make marathons seem mystical.” Caesar says: “I’d wanted to understand why one tribe of Kenyans, the Kalenjin, were so much better than their compatriots. How could it be that the Kalenjins, a group of five million who account for only 0.07 per cent of the world’s population, win almost all major marathons?… Kalenjin dominance in distance running boiled down to a winning combination of nature and nurture.”

Caesar is the author of Two Hours: The Quest To Run The Impossible Marathon.

Amazon says:

Ed Caesar takes us into the world of elite marathoners: some of the greatest runners on earth. Through the stories of these rich characters, like Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai, around whom the narrative is built, Caesar traces the history of the marathon as well as the science, physiology, and psychology involved in running so fast for so long. And he shows us why this most democratic of races retains its brutal, enthralling appeal—and why we are drawn to test ourselves to the limit.

Mutai said about the quest for the 2-hour marathon, “I see maybe it would not take too much more time, maybe after three years or one year, the record will be broken again. Even if it is not me, the other generation is coming.”

Eliud Kipchoge: The Greatest Marathoner!

The Greatest Ever – 2:01:39 – Eliud Kipchoge Crushes World Record to Win 2018 Berlin Marathon says:

In an astonishing performance at the 2018 BMW Berlin Marathon, Kipchoge took marathoning into a new stratosphere by clocking 2:01:39 – the first man ever under 2:02, and a full 78 seconds faster than Dennis Kimetto’s four-year-old world record. It was a performance so far superior to anything we’ve seen before that comparing it to another marathon feels inadequate.

This was Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in basketball, Usain Bolt’s 9.58 in the 100-meter dash. Kipchoge’s splits – 1:01:06 for the first half, a ridiculous 1:00:33 for his second half – sound made up. But they were real, and they were spectacular. Derek Clayton lowered the world record from 2:12:00 to 2:09:36 in 1967. The men’s marathon world record hadn’t been lowered by more than a minute in a single race since 1969 when Clayton lowered his 2:09:37 WR down to 2:08:34.

The article discusses Kipchoge’s unparalleled success:

While Kipchoge’s time represents a massive breakthrough in the marathon, the fact is that the 33-year-old Kenyan has been on a completely different level from his peers for several years now. Berlin was his 10th victory in 11 marathon starts (and his ninth straight), an unparalleled run of marathon success in the modern era. During that time, it was quite clear that Kipchoge was capable of improving upon Kimetto’s 2:02:57 world record, but until today, the stars never aligned for him.

It concludes:

Now he has run his greatest marathon of all….This record will stand for a long, long time (unless Kipchoge breaks it)….No one has ever run anything close to 2:01:39 — Kimetto is the only other man under 2:03, and he’s still 78 seconds behind. Kipchoge’s extended run of dominance in the marathon was the best evidence that he’s the greatest we’ve ever seen at the distance, and now he has the personal best to back it up. We don’t toss this analogy around lightly, but Kipchoge really is the Usain Bolt of marathoning….Kipchoge’s 2:01:39 looks to be the same — an incredible mark by a transcendent athlete….in order for the record to fall, you’re going to need another transcendent talent like Kipchoge (the greatest marathoner in history by some margin) and great conditions on the day. The chances of those two things coming together anytime soon are small. The 1500m world record is 20 years old; the 5,000 record 14 years old, and the 10,000 record is 13 years old. Now that Kipchoge has had his say, it would not be surprising to see the marathon world record reach a similar age.

Is A Two-Hour Marathon Possible?

Eliud Kipchoge is a Kenyan marathon world record holder with a time of 2:01:39 set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. His run broke the previous world record by 1 minute and 18 seconds. On his marathon debut, Kipchoge won the 2013 Hamburg Marathon in a course record time. His first victory at a World Marathon Major came at the Chicago Marathon in 2014, and he became series champion for 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. He won the London Marathon a record four times and won the Olympic marathon in 2016. His only loss in a marathon was a second place behind Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich at the 2013 Berlin Marathon where Kipsang broke the world record.

Amazon says about Eliud Kipchoge – History’s fastest marathoner: An insight into the Kenyan life that shapes legends:

Some would claim that the two-hour marathon is an inevitable progression of the sport of athletics, akin to the once impenetrable barrier of the four-minute mile. However, many would argue that this is a much more formidable obstacle, one that is at odds with human physiology.

This was the case, until in May 2017, Nike staged the Breaking2 project in Monza, Italy. Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya came so close to achieving just that. What many regarded as a moon shot, the combination of Eliud’s extraordinary talent, strength and mental fortitude, with Nike’s technology and their legion of exercise scientists, came so close to culminating in an achievement that so many regarded as futuristic, if not impossible. Although not ratified by the IAAF as an official world record, Eliud’s magnificent run opened many people’s eyes to the imminent possibility, if not the inevitability, of a sub-two-hour marathon.

Amazon says about Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth:

Finn’s incredible journey to the elite training camps of Kenya will captivate and inspire you, as he ventures to uncover the secrets of the fastest people on earth.…Finn traveled to a small, chaotic town in the Rift Valley province of Kenya—a mecca for long-distance runners, thanks to its high altitude, endless paths, and some of the top training schools in the world. There Finn would run side by side with Olympic champions, young hopefuls, and barefoot schoolchildren….Finn would learn invaluable lessons about running—and about life.

Countdown To The Two-Hour Marathon

Wikipedia shows the world marathon records below from 1974. It suggests that the 2-hour marathon may be run in Berlin by a Kenyan or Ethiopian — wearing Nike shoes! Perhaps by 2022!

Wikipedia shows the NYC Marathon course record below since its inception. Except in in 1971 and 1979, the record dropped by about 2 minutes every 8-10 years. So, the 2-minute marathon may be run in NYC before 2030 – and will be by a Kenyan or Ethiopian. The NYC course is more difficult than the Berlin one because it is hilly.

The October video Nike “Vaporfly” sneakers investigated for boosting athletic performance discusses the controversy about Nike Vaporfly shoes.

The article “Nike’s magic running shoes ignite debate“says: “In the last 13 months alone, male runners have recorded the 5 fastest marathon times ever — all while wearing a version of the “Vaporfly.'”

Elite Marathoners Weigh in on the Nike Vaporfly Debate asks: “Is it really tenable that some runners should be allowed to compete in a shoe that confers a proven four or five percent improvement in running economy, when other athletes, for reasons of contractual obligation, don’t have access to similar technology?” The IAAF will rule on the controversy this year in time for the 2020 Olympics.

Run The Kenyan Way

Amazon says about Train Hard, Win Easy: The Kenyan Way:

A Track & Field News book division best seller. Everyone wants to know how the Kenyans do it and Toby Tanser furnishes the answers. An endlessly fascinating and entertaining book, with many training profiles of top runners, such as Tergat, Loroupe, et al. ‘You have done a lot for Kenya with this book. People can see now for themselves what we do’ Paul Tergat. ‘This is the only book which tells really how it is in Kenya. I have read other articles about Kenya but none tell the truth like this book’ Joseph Kariuki.

Amazon says about the 2008 book More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way:

Kenya has produced the greatest concentration of world-class runners, and fellow athletes have long been intrigued by their remarkable success. Toby Tanser has devoted much of his professional career living and training among Kenyan runners in order to better understand the unique status of East African athletes. In More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way, the author builds upon the success of his acclaimed Train Hard, Win Easy, the first book to provide insights into the Kenyan “magic” that so many runners and coaches had sought.

Instead of special foods or secret techniques, Tanser found that Kenyan runners simply trained incredibly hard, much harder than anyone had realized. By adopting their training regime—which includes three workouts a day—and following their example, runners, whether novices or champions, are able to improve both their performance and enjoyment in running. For those training for a marathon or any other distance race, this book is both practical and inspirational.

Divided into four parts, the book begins with a description of running in Kenya, the landscape, the physical conditions, and the people; the second part concentrates on details of Kenyan training camps, training methods, and their typical training diet; the third profiles individual runners and coaches from the past and present, with each explaining their approach to running so that readers can gain further insight into their methods. The book ends with a discussion on how the reader can adapt Kenyan training practices for their own running requirements. More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way is essential reading for runners of all levels and experience.


Top image: Runner’s World/YouTube

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