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The following story was printed in the May/June 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine, and it won the highly prestigious Min Editorial & Design Award for best Opinion/Commentary (Editorial Print), beating out Sports Illustrated and Travel+Leisure, among others, in the process.
Consider, if you will, the following illustration of deductive reasoning:
Great runners often make very good triathletes.
Kenya is a nation that produces lots of great runners.
Therefore Kenya ought to be able to produce some very good triathletes.
Many of us have thought through this three-step logical sequence in the privacy of our minds. Some of us have gone a step further and played a little parlor game with fellow triathletes, of predicting what would happen if one or more Kenyan runners added swimming and cycling to their training and entered a major triathlon competition. One triathlete has gone even further and carried out this experiment.
In 1998, Kevin Schwieger, a triathlete and Presbyterian minister in Ohio, started a triathlete development program in Kenya. Born and raised by missionary parents in that country, Schwieger retained a passion for all things Kenyan that got mixed with his passion for triathlon as an adult.
“I began to think, boy, Kenyans have dominated the sport of distance running,” he recalled. “It just makes sense that they would also be good at triathlon, which is also an endurance event.”
A frequent visitor to Kenya for missionary work, including sports-related projects, Schwieger organized a triathlon camp in the capital city of Nairobi with a view toward grooming some Kenyan athletes for the debut Olympic Triathlon in 2000 and establishing a national system of triathlete development that would eventually make Kenya a global powerhouse in the sport.
Schwieger began to see how naïve his ambition was on the first day of the first camp, when exactly one boy showed up. Schwieger was able to round up more attendees by advertising free lunches, which goes over well in a nation with rampant poverty, only to discover that none of them knew how to swim.
“There are very few opportunities to even get in a body of water in Kenya,” Schwieger said. “There’s just a handful of swimming pools in the whole country.”
One of those pools existed at the private school where the camp was held. Two of the young men who proved brave enough to enter it were Silvester Daudi and Titus Mutinda.
“These guys had literally never been in water up to their waists before,” Schwieger said. “The first time they jumped in the pool they were so fearful that water was going to go in their ears and up their noses. They literally just kind of fell down in the water. It was like teaching a toddler to swim.”
To their credit, Daudi, then 22, and Mutinda, 34, persevered, eventually learning to swim with competence, if not with much speed. They also learned how to ride bikes without falling over, and were able to transfer some of their running ability to two wheels.
Running itself, of course, was not a problem. While Daudi and Mutinda were nothing special by Kenyan standards, they were both exceptional by triathlon standards. Daudi was capable of running marathons in the low 2:30s, and Mutinda was even faster.
In 2002, Schwieger brought the two men to the United States to continue training and to compete in some triathlons. They gained valuable experience in a series of short-course events in Ohio and then traveled to Madison, Wis., for the inaugural Ironman Wisconsin. This was to be their grand coming-out party, the shocking debut that would make the world stand up and take notice.
It didn’t quite work out that day. Daudi finished 442nd, in 11:43:47. Mutinda (whose name appears as Titus Nzwili in the results) was almost 40 minutes back, in 774th position.
“They spent several hours looking forward to the run,” Schwieger summarized.
But they did not even run especially well. Mutinda ran a 3:23:36 marathon, 37th best in the race, while Daudi managed a solid but unexceptional 3:16:35, which was bettered by 16 others.
Both men were pretty much done with triathlon after that. Considering where they started, they achieved quite a lot. However, they fell far short of achieving enough to unleash the great Kenyan invasion of triathlon in the way that Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s surprise victory in the 1960 Olympic Marathon opened the floodgates for the East African takeover of distance running.
Running Bodies vs. Triathlon Bodies
The reason Mutinda and Daudi did not set the triathlon world on fire is that running ability does not translate into triathlon performance as readily as Schwieger might have assumed. While swimming, cycling and running are all endurance activities with a fundamental similarity in their demands on the cardiorespiratory system, they are rather different on other levels. For example, on the level of body structure, swimmers benefit from a certain amount of upper-body mass and strength, cyclists from lower-body mass and strength, and runners from whole-body skinniness.
Obviously, these characteristics are to some degree mutually contradictory.
Therefore, an athlete whose body is ideally structured for freestyle swimming is not ideally structured for cycling or running. By the same token, the perfect cycling body is not the perfect swimming or running body and the ideal running physique is not the ideal swimming or cycling physique. The best triathletes are those whose bodies blend the ideals for the three sports. Such hybrids are typically smaller than the best swimmers, less powerful and thigh-heavy than the best cyclists, and bigger than the best runners. For example, a 1991 study at San Diego State University reported that a group of high-level female triathletes were, on average, shorter than Olympic swimmers and heavier than Olympic runners. (Cyclists were not included in the study.)
Mutinda and Daudi had classic runners’ bodies. As such they lacked the upper-body strength to swim well and the thigh power to really excel on the bike. But what’s interesting is that these Kenyans did not even run with great success at Ironman Wisconsin, which suggests that the physiological demands of running on fresh legs and running off the bike are sufficiently different that the best pure runners cannot even be expected to become the best triathlon runners.
A small body of scientific research has taken the first step toward explaining why some triathletes run better off the bike than others. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, measured muscle recruitment and movement patterns in a group of triathletes while they ran on fresh legs and also after a bike ride. They found that running movement patterns were altered after cycling in roughly half of the athletes, and that these alterations were associated with reduced running economy. A second study by the same researchers found that economy-spoiling changes in running form were much less common in a group of elite triathletes, but still evident.
These findings suggest that something in the physiology or neuromuscular wiring of certain athletes allows them to run better off the bike than others. While we don’t yet know what that attribute is, real-world evidence suggests that it is distinct from the attributes that underlie pure running ability. Very few truly world-class runners have ever given triathlon a serious go, but those who have tried have not only been out-swum by better swimmers and outridden by better cyclists, they’ve also been outrun by inferior runners.
Consider the case of Greg Whiteley, one of the best pure runners ever to become a triathlete. Whiteley recorded personal best times of 3:55 for the mile, 7:49 for 3000 meters, and 13:24 for 5000 meters before switching to triathlon in 1996 with hopes of qualifying for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team in that sport. A pretty good swimmer and cyclist, Whiteley assumed that his huge advantage over the top American pros in running would more than make up for his relatively small disadvantages in swimming and cycling.
Not so. For example, in the 1999 Memphis in May Triathlon, Whiteley managed only the second-fastest 10K run split. Outrunning him by 15 seconds in that race was Jamey Yon, whose best pure 5K time was more than two minutes (or 16 percent) slower than Whiteley’s best. And at longer distances Whiteley’s running was even less of a strength. At Ironman Canada, also in 1999, Whiteley recorded just the seventh-fastest run split (3:09:59), losing time to athletes he could have destroyed in a straight marathon.
The Myth of Genetic Superiority
It is obvious that many Kenyans have an excellent body type for running. Scott Douglas wrote in a Slate.com article about a training trip to Kenya: “Under the heavy clothing, I can make out ideal frames for distance running—short torsos, high waists, narrow hips, inverted-teardrop thighs, nearly nonexistent calves. As I plod around in a T-shirt and shorts, I feel less like the 132-pound runner that I am than a fleshy, squat 40-year-old with cankles getting in a few miles before work.”
Such observations are backed up by science. While it is often considered taboo to discuss population-based differences in anatomy, measurements have been taken and it’s simply a demonstrated fact that Kenyans are generally more ectomorphic than most populations.
However, as we have seen, the ideal running body is not the ideal swimming, cycling or triathlon body, so the idea that Kenyans have special innate potential to excel in triathlon simply because they have natural running ability is naïve and false. But the naïveté of this notion may go even deeper than the mistaken assumption that a good body for running is a good body for triathlon.
The reasons for Kenyan dominance in distance running have been hotly discussed for decades. A sizable fraction of those who have an opinion on the matter believe that Kenyans have a genetic advantage over Caucasians and other “races” (scare quotes are used because Kenyan is not a race) with respect to running. But this too is false. Leading experts on the genetics of athletic performance say there is no support for the idea that Kenyans are better runners from birth.
Among these experts is Stephen Roth, Ph.D., director of the functional genomics laboratory at the University of Maryland. According to Roth, the idea that Kenyans have genetic advantages as runners is based on very shallow assumptions about the relationships between genes, race and athletic performance.
Perhaps the most egregious assumption is that there is one set of perfect genes for running performance, of which the average Kenyan has more. In fact, says Roth, the evidence suggests that the genetic underpinnings of running performance are so complex that it’s possible to have enough natural talent to be a great runner with all kinds of different gene combinations.
“We’ve found a handful of genes that contribute to performance-related traits, but they explain a very small amount of the variability that we see,” Roth said.
This means that having some of the known “running genes” is no guarantee of great running ability, while not having them is no guarantee of poor running ability, and it also suggests that there are many, many more as-yet-unknown genes that influence running performance.
“So in all likelihood,” Roth said, “whatever genetic combination might contribute to Mr. Smith’s marathon performance might be a completely different combination than what’s contributing to Mr. Jones’ marathon performance, even though they’re equally excellent athletes.”
It is true that in some populations, including that of Kenya’s Kalenjin tribe in the Rift Valley that produces most of the country’s top runners, particular favorable running traits may be common. But that signifies little, as no single genetic trait is indispensable to high-level running. For example, a few studies comparing Caucasian and Kenyan runners have noted that Kenyan runners tend to be more economical. They also tend to have smaller calf circumferences, an anthropometric difference that could partly account for their better running economy. Some have interpreted this dubious connecting of the dots as proof that Caucasian runners are at a hopeless genetic disadvantage in relation to Kenyans, but that’s a bunch of baloney. It is no more necessary to have “Kenyan calves” to be a great runner than it is necessary to be a certain height.
According to Roth, there are literally trillions of different possible bodies that have the potential to reach the highest level of running, and they’re not all Kenyan.
Another bad assumption hidden in the idea that Kenyan running dominance is genetically based is that Kenyans have certain genes favorable to running that are completely absent in other populations. Not so.
“Any genetic advantage found in Kenya or in Africa will be found across the world,” Roth said. “The proportion in which that genetic advantage is found could be different. Clearly we have these different ‘races’ that are distinguishable in part based on their genetic background. So the unique combination of these gene variants that are found in Kenya may very well be a combination that you don’t find elsewhere around the world. But the idea that there’s a unique handful of genetic mutations that are found nowhere else in the world is incorrect.”
Because all of the genes that are favorable to running performance exist in every population, odds are that, at any given time, the most genetically gifted runner in the United States (or any other large population) is just as naturally talented as the most genetically gifted Kenyan. Our best are as good as their best. Now, as Roth suggests, it is possible, although unproven, that certain genes or combinations of genes favorable to running performance may be more common in Kenya than elsewhere. But this does not mean their best runners have an advantage over ours. It just means they may have more runners of the highest talent level than we do.
The Sociology of Sporting Dominance
If genes do not explain Kenyan dominance in running, then what does?
You can’t explain any phenomenon satisfactorily without looking at it as an example of a type. For example, you can’t explain why the French Revolution occurred without understanding how social revolutions occur generally. And you can’t explain why Kenyans dominate distance running without understanding why individual nations dominate individual sports generally.
Canada has a tradition of global dominance in ice hockey. Do they have better skating and stick handling genes there? Cuba rules Olympic boxing. Is there superior punching DNA on that island? Hungary has been a water polo powerhouse for decades. Are they blessed with exceptional water-treading genes in that country?
A survey of nations that have traditions of global dominance in certain sports reveals one causal factor that is always present and has nothing to do with the genetic makeup of the country’s inhabits: an intense passion for that sport. You will never find a country that achieves dominance in a major global sport without massive participation in the sport throughout the country, worship of the sport’s best domestic athletes, and the inculcation of a sense of the tremendous value of achievement in the sport in every young participant.
Kenya’s passion for running equals Canada’s passion for hockey, Cuba’s love of boxing and Hungary’s mania for water polo. Kenya’s best runners are national heroes. The dream of growing up to become a great runner is as widespread among Kenyan boys and girls as the dream of becoming the next Lebron James is among American children. It’s probably even more widespread because in Kenya, a poor country, there are few competing dreams.
“They know if they become good runners, it’s a way to help their families and help themselves get a better lifestyle,” said Swedish professional triathlete Lisa Norden, who has completed a couple of run training camps in Kenya. “It’s a ticket out. So they’re very motivated to run.”
Not only does running matter more to Kenyan runners than it does to American runners (you can’t manufacture desperation), but there are also far more runners.
“Out of 100 people in the United States, how many of them are going to take up distance running?” asked Roth. “It’s just not valued in our culture. Maybe you get one. Is that one going to carry the best gene combination of all the 100 people? In Kenya, maybe 40 [out of 100] people take up the sport, because it is such a culturally dominant force. Then your odds skyrocket.”
There is no great passion for triathlon, or its swimming and cycling components, in Kenya.
“Triathlon isn’t very well known,” Norden said. “You go there and you have to explain what a triathlon is.”
The factors that conspire to cultivate a national passion for a given sport can include geography, climate, culture, economics, natural resources, history and pure chance. Long winters and the accessibility of ice are certainly factors in Canada’s passion for hockey. Similar factors may also prevent a certain sport from becoming popular in a given country.
The barriers preventing triathlon from taking off in Kenya are gigantic. During her most recent training stint in Kenya, Norden observed that Kenyan women warned her of evil spirits in the water. That’s a pretty big barrier to swimming. Norden also observed that the members of Kenya’s one cycling team rode cheap steel bikes because, she says, “If they were given nice bikes, they would sell them and say sod off to their cycling careers.” That’s a pretty big barrier to cycling, to say nothing of the lack of paved roads and the notorious recklessness of Kenyan drivers.
“I think you’d almost have to bring some Kenyans out of Kenya to make them good,” Norden said. “To train there all the time for triathlon would be quite difficult.”
Well, that’s been tried, too.
While the goal of transforming Kenya into a triathlon powerhouse may be utterly hopeless, the effort to take the sport to Kenya might still be worthwhile. There’s more to triathlon than winning, after all.
Take Mutinda, one of the two triathletes Schwieger brought to the United States in 2002. When Schwieger first met Mutinda four years earlier, he was destitute.
“Titus would get up in the morning and spend $2 or $3 to buy a couple of pairs of pants and then stand on a corner and try to sell them, and then take that profit and buy some bread on the way home for the family. Then start all over the next day,” Schwieger said.
“After his experience here he began to get a little confidence,” Schwieger said. “He’s been able to buy a house and start a little business. His wife does sewing and clothing repair and they have a little store in their house. So that’s been a huge success story. That’s really what I was hoping for.”