Kenyan Distance Domination Offers Lessons for Runners and South Africa
Kenyan domination of distance running was a major feature of the 2011 season, and particularly in the marathon where they own the top 24 performances and 28 of the top 30 rankings with only Brazil’s Marilson dos Santos and Ethiopian Bakana Daba destroying the streak.
Patrick Makau, Wilson Kiprotich, Emmanuel Mutai, Geoffrey Mutai and Levy Omari, the winners of Berlin, Frankfurt, London, New York, and runner up in Frankfurt respectively, have the top five performances on 2011 ranging from the world record 2:03:38 to 2:05:16 and are clear contenders for the Kenyan team in London.
Were the 2012 London Olympic marathon an open event the pundits would probably open a book as to where the first non-Kenyan would finish and its unlikely to be in the top ten.
Entry to the Olympic marathon is restricted to three runners per country, although the occasional wild card for a current world champion or record holder can push that up. Other countries can be thankful that the three-runner rule applies, as it may be the only opportunity for someone to slip through should something for a Kenyan on race day.
But how has Kenya got to the point of such domination of the marathon, and other distance events?
Scientists have for years speculated as to the magical ‘ingredient’ that has produced so many excellent athletes from a very small area of Kenya near the rift valley.
Although genetic make up, such as bone density, calf muscle strength, the length of upper leg, altitude, and a host of other attributes no doubt contribute it is highly unlikely that this fully accounts for this extent of domination.
Ten of the years sub 27 minute 10,000m performances belong to Kenyans, who also have the majority of the sub one-hour 21km and top the 3000m Steeplechase. 2011 saw a record 183 marathon performances under 2 hours 10 minutes
This makes it increasingly difficult to get invited to middle and long distance events and encourages runners to move up to the marathon at younger ages.
In my opinion it is what I would call ‘peer promotion’ that is responsible for the Kenyan ascendency. This is different from peer pressure that can also negatively affect performances
All runners know that with sufficient need / desire / drive it is possible to achieve higher intensity.
With leading Kenyans gravitating towards the two or three training camps locations the depth of talent is such that only seconds separate the abilities within training groups. Groups are structured based on performance times and progression is only possible when the next performance level is achieved so progression is like climbing a ladder with closely spaced and achievable rungs. The more athletes and groups the easier it becomes to climb which increases the systems sustainability year on year.
It’s an ideal situation as the groups evolve not to compete against each other, but to assist each other to the next level. Each progression is so small that every runner knows that it is perfectly possible to achieve the next level.
Professor Tim Noakes identified the Central Governor (CG) as the mechanism that largely determines our performance in any given race. The CG analyses all the level of competition, past training, current beliefs, and psychological and physiological conditions to determine our perception of finish time and pacing schedule. Unless there is an unforeseen situation, when the gun goes the runner simply lives out the CG’s plan. Ironically kilometre splits and other feedback in the race tends to reinforce the outcome.
The impact of intermediate feedback can be seen by the faster times runners often achieve when racing a time trial without a watch.
Confidence and self-belief play a massive role in race performance, and this probably underpins the Kenyan distance domination.
When you are only ever two strides adrift from your training partner, who then runs a 2:04 marathon, or sets a new World Record, there is every reason to believe you are equally capable. The ‘Thermostat’ that self governs your expectation and performance beliefs is reset.
Another Kenyan attribute is their desire to work together to ensure that the strongest runner on the day wins the race. They know that by helping each other they improve their own individual performance.
By comparison South Africans, even in world championship teams, place greater importance to being the first South African than their time or the team outcome.
A simplification of the Kenyan’s winning environment would include:
- Good physiological and environmental foundation and above average genes.
- The motivation and life changing effects of being a top runner
- Large closely matched training groups providing realistic progression
- A positive attitude fostering assistance, positive competitive pressure.
There is little that other countries could not offer; however it is unlikely that the Kenyan domination will fade. Depth of numbers and performance not only ensure there is someone ready to take the crown, but also there is a constant influx of younger runners keen to edge their way up the training groups.
The Jamaican sprint school confirms the hypothesis exists. Vast numbers are involved in the highly competitive School Relays that provide the base for similar training groups in sprint to 400m distances. The Jamaican impact on these distances has flourished over the past eight years with Usain Bolt an inspirational leader.
This is not a new phenomenon but it is the numbers that give the two examples longevity.
In the 1990’s Santa Monica Track club achieved similar domination in the sprints and high hurdles with Carl Lewis at the fore.
It was a fact that if you ‘won’ the Tuesday night start practice then you were the World’s fastest athlete out of the blocks! In those days a world champion or Olympic medalist would fill all eight lanes. The problem was that there was no influx of youngsters to provide sustainability.
South Africa who, based on the performances of Zet Sinqe, Willie Mtolo, Matthews Temane and the like, were expected to impact in distance events on its return to international competition, now needs a rethink if its true potential is to be achieved:
- Focus on rewarding 5000m, 10000m, Cross Country, 10km performances.
- Restricted the number of marathon performances with bigger rewards and deeper prize money in a few events. (Club events for Comrades, Two oceans qualification and social runners)
- Discourage and move away from rewarding young runners in Comrades and Two Oceans.
- Create training areas at altitude, particularly those close to sea levels (such as the Drakensburg) where environmental benefits can be harnessed to their best effect.
- Initiate large national and provincial training groups.
- Promote a team ethos encouraging and rewarding team performance over rewards for the first South African, which encourages under-performance.
The lessons of Kenya, Santa Monica and Jamaica are obvious and if South Africa starts now the talent could make significant impact in Brazil Olympics 2016.
Top 5 (legal) Performances of 2011:
1 Patrick Makau Berlin 2:03:38 (WR), 2 Wilson Kiprotich Frankfurt 2:03:42, 3 Emmanuel Mutai London 2:04:40, 4 Geoffrey Mutai New York 2:05:05, 5 Levy Omari Frankfurt (2nd) 2:05:16.