This may sound crazy but Kenyan runners might be so darn good because of their requisite adult circumcision practice (and no, it's not because they are a few ounces lighter or encounter less wind resistance after the procedure). It has a lot more to do with the 'brutal' initiation ceremony into adulthood most boys endure, resulting in an indomitable tolerance to suffering. Many Kenyans who live in Kalenjin country (a tribe of 2.7 million) are primed from a very young age to withstand vast amounts of pain. As children, they practice for it by cutting and burning themselves. There is immense social pressure for boys at the age of 13 to go through a deeply scarring and painful ceremony in order to be branded 'brave' and marriage worthy. The boys who opt out or are not 'strong' enough to endure the pain are labeled kebitet — cowards — and stigmatized by the entire community. If you thought your Bar Mitzvah was hard, take a gander at this little ritual:
- Crawl buck naked through a tunnel of African stinging nettles (much worse than the ones found in your backyard) - causes severe pain, rashes, blisters and scars.
- Accept a beating on the bony parts of the ankles and knuckles with hard sticks - while remaining still and quiet.
- Have the formic acid from the stinging nettles rubbed judiciously on the genitals.
- And if that is not enough, be circumcised without anesthesia or pain reliever of any kind - with not a scalpel or knife but instead a sharp stick! And by the way don't make a peep.
One might argue this obscene toughness helps them become better runners. Running a marathon under two and a half hours is not pleasant and takes extreme physical and mental fortitude. It hurts, plain and simple. The Kelenjin of Kenya have been around for thousands of years and the boys who passed this test into adulthood were more likely to be married and have children. With each succeeding generation the lineage of those most able to cope with ridiculous amount of pain grew stronger. The 'weak ones' were simply selected out. Darwin would be proud, survival of the fittest and toughest indeed.
Combine this innate ability to deal with suffering, the typical body structure of a Kenyan (thin ankles/calves with a medium to light stature), add in higher altitude training, a drive to escape rampant poverty and the canonization of the sport via the local idols it creates and viola!, you get one fantastic endurance athlete. These runners prove there is little need for gel bars, $200 sneakers, computer aided training devices, heart rate monitors and so on. A confluence of cultural and genetic factors result in creating the best long distance runners the world has ever seen.
To learn more about this tribe listen to NPR Radiolab story here: Cut and Run