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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Mental Strength?

From the Irish Times:
EUROPE IS on its knees and lamenting its glorious past. America keeps promising a better future but has yet to deliver. Japan and Australia are a spent force and several more once powerful nations have been broken as well. There is no denying it.

We’re practically all screwed and anyone who thinks better days are coming soon can forget it. Fear not the obvious – this is not another rage against the crisis in the world economy. This is rage against the crisis in world distance running.

Because we’re now in the midst of the worst depression of all, unless you live in Kenya, Ethiopia, or one of the other East African countries...
The author, Ian O'Riordan, cornered Paul Tergat at the Kenyan consulate in Ireland and asked him why the Africans dominate distance running. Tergat discounted all but the hard work he put in.

I call bullshit. I'm not one of those who believes the difference between the East Africans and everyone else is due entirely to inborn genetic talent or the altitude or a mystical combination of the two. They simply live in a time and place that is perfect for churning out huge numbers of top distance runners.

First of all, most of these runners do not come from a life of crushing poverty. They have just about everything they need (which is a far cry from everything they want). They do not suffer from malnutrition, lack of education, disease or neglect (with the exception of AIDS and its tendency to orphan children).

But they also do not come from an industrialized world, and that makes all the difference. For the most part, they grow up using their own two (unshod) feet for transport--mostly walking or biking, not running--and by the time they are teenagers their muscles, bones and connective tissue from the knees down are vastly stronger than that of nearly anyone who grew up in a paved world. This is how they can manage the workloads that Tergat speaks of. It's not that Westerners don't try, but we have to run for a decade before those workloads wouldn't cripple us (examples: German Fernandez, Dathan Ritzenhein) and we simply can't catch up until we're too old anyway.

This alone doesn't explain the full level of their dominance. There are plenty of other places in the world in which the residents have similar lifestyles. But few combine a fiercely independent culture that encourages individual sports, a high-altitude equitorial locale that is perfect for year-round training, generations of running role models, and a cost of living so low that a single $10,000 winner's check can pay your bills for a decade. East Africa does. So they end up getting nearly every talented person into the sport, who then get a good chance to develop, and that's why they kick everyone's ass.

It's just that simple. Westerners don't understand that our wealth is in many ways bad for us, so we look for some other reason.

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