Sunday, November 18, 2007

Safe Routes to Marathon Dominance

From the blog of Malcolm Gladwell comes this quote from an interview with marathon runner Alberto Salazar:

Salazar ticks off the ironic circumstances that seem to cast the U.S. as a Third World country in distance running: "As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old who run 10 to 12 miles a day. That's how they get to and from school. The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American -- and a lot of that's at altitude."

Kenya believe it? Salazar's claim is fascinating, which means it needs to be double-checked. I found confirmation in another Sports Illustrated article, this one by Tom Layden. After a week-long trip to Kenya, he writes:

After many years of hearing that Kenyan children develop early aerobic capacity by running to school, I found this myth to be ... pretty much true. To be fair, I saw more small children walking than running, but I also saw dozens and dozens of slender boys and girls, wearing school uniforms, running lightly along the endless rural red-clay highways of western Kenya. They moved beautifully through thin air, as if running was a natural act, which it can be.

Some people have questioned the relevance of this to marathon running. "Race realist" Steve Sailer writes, "Joe Sang, a Kenyan researcher, asked 20 international runners if they ran to school as kids and 14 said no." I'm not an expert in sports or evolutionary biology, so I'm going to steer clear of that debate.

There are plenty of other reasons why it's good to have forty percent of your school-age population running (and most of the rest walking) 5-6 miles a day. Even if they're not going to become the next Paul Tergat, they're still going to be in pretty good shape. Also, every kid or two running is one less car polluting the streets and running the kids over.

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