“They can because they think they can.”
Why are Kenyan runners faster than the rest of us?
There have been seventeen American men in history who have run a sub 2h10min marathon, yet in October 2011, there were thirty-two men in a small area within Kenya who did it. This tribe, the Kalenjin, are the running people, the fastest men on Earth… But why? Sure, they have bodies made for the sport (long thin limbs), and a social pressure to be the best (for the honor as well as the attractive runners salary), but Radiolab has suggested another compelling argument as to why these men can outrun the rest.
In 1968 the Olympics were held in Mexico City, one of the highest elevated arenas, which makes for an extra challenge for the runners. Kip, a Kenyan runner, was racing in three different events (the 1,500m, 5,000m, and 10,000m), a feat that is unheard of today. Two laps away from winning the 10,000m, he collapsed, only to be diagnosed with a gallbladder infection. Sent to bed by his doctor, it was evident he could no longer race. Even so, he snuck out and raced the 5,000m, taking despite being extremely ill. This didn’t stop him from competing in the 1,500m the next day either, a race he won while grimacing and stumbling in pain. This man ran a race (multiple races actually) with one of the most painful conditions possible, but interestingly enough, this was probably only the second most painful run of his life.
The best athletes live on the edge of pain, and the best runners have to learn to push through it. For the Kalenjin, it is the ability to withstand pain which makes them a man. Between the tender ags of thirteen and seventeen, Kalenjin boys are put through one of the most grueling coming-of-age ceremonies known to man. After crawling through African stinging needles and enduring painful beatings, these boys are circumcised. The foreskin of the penis is cut with a sharp stick, then tied in a bow. One side is pierced, and the head of the penis is pushed through the opening. And as if that isn’t horrific enough, they must endure this all without the slightly movement. They have dried mud caked on their face, and if even the slightest bit crumbles, the men around them start violently beating them with sticks. Worst them that, if they fail at surviving this procedure stoically, they are deemed a coward, a position which makes it impossible for them to find a wife and reproduce. After they leave the hut where the circumcision takes place, they must leave at a run… the most painful run of their lives.
The women in this tribe also undergo a similar test of stoicism (female gentian mutilation), as a weak women could give birth to a weak son (a women who doesn’t prove stoic would also be cast out). For centuries this tribe has been allowing only the most pain tolerant men and women to reproduce, creating in the process runners who can run through pain unlike the rest of the world.