Karen's Reviews > Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn
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Jul 04, 12

bookshelves: bechdel_test_no, 2012

Finn uproots his (extremely supportive) wife and kids from their home in England and moves to Kenya to...well, it's not totally clear. He wants to see if he can run better, even starting in midlife. And at least nominally, he wants to learn what makes Kenyans such good runners. So he goes to live in Kenya for a few months, and runs with some Kenyans.

And that's more or less my issue with the book, insofar as I have an issue. It isn't that Finn doesn't acknowledge his privilege. He does, sort of. He seems full of admiration for the Kenyans he trains with and befriends. Most are from poor rural backgrounds, and he sees the hardship and privation they endure. There may not be much that he, as an individual, can do about that. But it's a little weird to read a book that dwells in the middle of this kind of inequity and poverty, without ever questioning the larger structures behind it. Finn's not interested in those things, or at least not writing about them here. This is a book about running. But really, can you write a book about how hardship makes good runners, without questioning at least a little the systems that perpetuate the hardship?

So this is complicated. I was interested in Finn's story, in the way that runners are forever interested in the minutiae of running. A non-runner would probably die of boredom--or not pick this book up in the first place. It is what it says on the tin. But over the course of the whole book I started to feel like the book's point of view was so narrow, its focus so unrelentingly on Finn and his situation--his training, his family, his experiences, even his car and meals and muscle twinges--that it read more like a diary than anything else.

I just finished reading The Blue Sweater, which is Jacqueline Novogratz's story of struggling to establish microfinance operations in developing countries. I think Novogratz is kind of a standout case, but her take on people living in poverty is just so different from Finn's. Finn, in describing the home of a house-proud Kenyan runner, points out the shabbiness and odd placement of the furniture. He's too experienced a journalist to pass comment, but this is what he sees, and what he chooses to report.

Novogratz never once describes the people she works with in any way that undermines them, or points out the gap between their material ambitions and the things we take for granted in the West. Over and over, she comments on people's appearances, clothes, personal mannerisms--and everything she says feels sincerely appreciative. She's not a Pollyanna--she reports being robbed, and in one horrible incident almost abducted--but she seems simply to have a talent for seeing people in their own terms, instead of applying her own. I don't get the impression Finn shares that talent. And since he's imposed himself on these people's lives for his own sake, and for relatively trivial reasons, it all feels just a bit icky to me.

It's especially strange that after the final marathon race at Lewa, the event the whole book builds up to, the focus closes in on Finn's own (difficult) race experience and pretty much forgoes everything else. There's no more philosophizing about the Kenyan "secret" to running--which is a pretty thin thread in the book to start with. It's just a journal of Finn's marathon. Followed by a startlingly abrupt ending, in which his Kenyan running partners all leave in a van, and he muses that he may never see any of them again.

Oh, there's an epilogue. It's Finn triumphantly setting a PR at the NYC marathon. So I guess we know what the book was really about, after all.


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