Over the past two decades, it has become an increasingly well known fact that Kenyan athletes win long distance races all over the world. Many may wonder why these athletes, who quite interestingly all come from the same ethnic community in western Kenya, seem to dominate the top three positions in most races.
Elijah Lagat, one of Kenya's great athletes, sheds light on some of the factors that bring about this success. In 1992, Elijah, an extremely overweight 27-year-old, developed a heart condition and was told by a doctor that he would not live much longer unless he lost some weight and kept himself in good shape. So he began running every day for basic fitness. He took his running seriously and soon began running in local marathons and races. As his form continued to develop, he was provided with opportunities to run in 14 major international marathons in Europe and America. He was voted the Athlete of the Year in 1997, and was in the “top three” bracket of winners for eight of the 14 marathons. He won the gold medal in the 2003 Boston Marathon. He also won gold medals in the Prague and Berlin Marathons in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
According to Elijah, a number of factors have led to Kenyans having an edge over other athletes. “We do not have many of the modern technological advantages that athletes from other parts of the world enjoy. We don't have access to the latest sports shoes, or world-class running tracks to practise on. We simply make the most of what we have,” he says.
All the athletes come from a mountainous region in western Kenya. At high altitudes the air is much thinner (has a lower oxygen content) than at lower altitudes, so living and training in this area enables them to develop high lung capacity, which in turn helps them to run a lot further for a much longer period than most people. Also, running through the mountainous terrain helps them to develop a lot of muscle. This is definitely one of the major factors that has placed the Kenyans on the map.
But the greatest factor behind their success is their lifestyle. “You must be a very organised and disciplined person,” says Elijah. “When training for a major performance, you must be willing to get into a very rigorous program, which may entail going through your routine three times a day, regardless of whether you are tired or your muscles are aching. You must never break your own routine. The harder you train, the easier you will find the race. The discipline aspect simply cannot be overemphasised."
“Another major part of the athlete's lifestyle,” Elijah says, “is the food we eat. We eat a lot of ugali [a maize porridge] and vegetables, and drink a lot of milk. Meat is taken in relatively small quantities. The food we eat is meant merely to sustain our physical need for food, and not necessarily to be enjoyed. We avoid fatty foods like a plague. We also drink a lot of water every day, as this helps to keep our bodies in good shape. Just like a motor vehicle needs oil to keep all the mechanical parts running well, we humans need water, and plenty of it, if we are going to be running long distances."
“Our lifestyle doesn't allow for social indulgences such as drinking alcohol and smoking. When you drink alcoholic beverages, a lot of that alcohol finds its way into your bloodstream, and will inevitably slow you down. Not only do you become slower, but you will also tire a lot faster than you should. You would never last the full 42-kilometre run if you have alcohol in your system."
“Smoking as well will slow you down significantly. It puts a great deal of strain on your lungs. The one thing a good runner needs are perfect lungs, and smoking will take that away from you. You will find yourself gasping for air less than halfway through the course.”
Another interesting part of this athlete's lifestyle is his dependence on God. “Prayer is a major part of our success,” says Elijah. “Our verse of inspiration is 1 Corinthians 9:24, which says, ‘Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one received the prize? So run, that ye may obtain' " [KJV].
“We pray during our training programs, before, during and after our races. We believe that true success comes from God, and in order to win, one must be in tune with Him,” he says.