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At the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, Kipchoge Keino overcame a gall bladder infection to win gold in the 1500 meter race. Since then, one particular group of Kenyans - the Kalenjin - has produced an astonishing number of great long-distance runners. Gregory Warner - NPR's East Africa correspondent - takes Jad and Robert down a rabbit hole of theories about what exactly is going on in Kalenjin country.  

David Epstein and John Manners help Greg untangle a web of potential factors - from something in the cornmeal to simple economics. And, after talking to a young Kalenjin runner named Elly Kipgogei, Greg discovers a somewhat disturbing explanation for Kalenjin running prowess that actually makes him want to get on the treadmill and push himself just a little harder. 

 

Check out a video of Kipchoge Keino's 1968 Olympic 1500m run:

Guests:

David Epstein, Mr. John Manners and Gregory Warner

Comments [3]

Pete Johnson from New York

Referring to the Kenyans, whose world-class runners may owe some of their success to unusually high pain tolerance as a result of enduring painful rituals over generations, I am reminded of parallels elsewhere- the Huns, for example. Some of the most feared warriors of Antiquity, the Huns were said to have routinely self-mutilated in order to teach their bodies to better endure pain. Barbaric? Certainly... yet at the same time, would this practice have actually given Hun warriors a mental or genetic edge later in ignoring pain on the battlefield?

Mar. 31 2015 02:55 AM
Autumn from Virginia

I can tell you that the cultural courage mentioned in reference to circumcision and FGM is, like running to school or living at altitude, also not unique to the Kalenjin. I'd imagine every ethnicity from Kenya to Brazil that practiced initiation rites has at least historically placed value on strength and stoicism, even to the extent of denying adult status to those who fail. Religious rites done to indicate adherence are one thing, but rites meant to prove someone a worthy adult involve tests of bravery, and those can be found across the globe.

Given high altitude is an environmental stressor like any other that humans have adapted to, I'd think genetics had a lot to do with it. I read about them in reference to high altitude adaptations a few years ago and it seems that they have a uniquely efficient one compared with other high altitude groups in the Andes and Alps that allows them to maintain high oxygen saturation. Seems like a distinct advantage.

Mar. 30 2015 12:06 PM
Mary-Ellen Pon from United States

What is wrong with you people? What portion of your listeners do you think actually enjoyed hearing about 13 year-old boys having their foreskin cut and tied into a bow? There was no need for that type of graphic detail. Just sickening.

Mar. 29 2015 02:09 PM

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