Poverty Prevails: Financial Instability Might Actually Help Kenyans be Better Distance Runners

Geoffrey Mutuai Wins Boston Marathon Prize Purse

Geoffrey Mutai won the 2011 Boston Marathon. A prize purse that is now up to $150K for the winner.

Ask any professional American distance runner, if it is better to work to pay the bills and run on the side, or rely on running to pay the bills, and I can guarantee that there is no guarantee what his or her answer will be. For example, my college coach, Paul Pilkington talks about experiencing both. He tells us stories of working full-time, and competing as a professional distance runner. He also tells us about having a family of five to support with running as his only employment. Although he has never told me, flat-out, which he believes to be the better route for a professional distance runner, I get the sense from talking to him about it, that he believes that having the extra motivation of supporting a family with prize money and bonuses did wonders for his athletic career. He worked as a history teacher, and when he talks about running, he likes to refer to the general who landed on territory he planned on conquering, once all of the General’s soldiers were off the ships, he sent the ships home, indicating they are either going to conquer or die.

However, you get the other side of things too. American Marathoner Tyler McCandless talks in an article on his website about how competitive Marathoning has become very tactical, and many runners run extremely conservatively in order to achieve financial benefits. He talks about the importance of forgetting about trying to place and bring home a paycheck, and actually trying to win. McCandless has had an extremely progressive 2013, and I believe he may be one of the Marathoners to watch. By this logic (important to note that I am not claiming this to be Tyler McCandless’ opinion,) having a secure job that pays the bills would, in theory, free you to run how you want, when you want, and not have to worry about starving. However, this balance of pursuing Olympic dreams and paying the bills often leaves runners in a sort of play-it-safe-limbo no matter which route they choose.

There are articles and debates to be had about this issue, and the truth of it is it is probably different for everyone. However, this article is not about this issue. This article is purely about the financial issue in running, and its pertinence across nationalities. My point here is that American Distance Runners make this choice, and for some of them, going all in on running is the right choice, but for some it is not.

I want to illustrate that point, because for Kenyan distance runners, there is no choice. The Average income in Kenya is around $1,700 per year. Kenyans don’t have the option of trying to place themselves on a varying economic scale. They have a choice between being in the top 1%, or being very poor. Before, we get too sentimental (not to downplay the poverty in Kenya, it is a real issue,) I and many others believe this is part of what makes them so good as distance runners.

At some point in time, Kenyans realized that there is this sport that they just happen to be better than most of the world at. The people who are really good at this sport make money. In some cases, they make more money in 2 hours than an average Kenyan will make in their entire life. Thus, every Kenyan who hoped to have more than extreme poverty saw this sport as a way, possibly the only way, to do that. Since the sport is so highly regarded as an escape from poverty, many Kenyans give it a go. Any high school coach will tell you, the more kids you get out, the better shot you have at being good. It is a numbers game, there is bound to be talent in some kids, it’s just a matter of discovering it.

Thus in Kenya the most talented runners are discovered, and even the less talented runners grow up training and racing alongside them. If you were to ask Kobe Bryant’s high school teammates about him, I bet that they would tell you that he made them better. There is a similar effect in running.

Not only does the financial disaster in Kenya contribute to a high desire to run, it also allows for a freedom in professional running. If a Kenyan gets good enough to be able to get into a situation where he or she can compete in some races outside of Kenya that is it, that is his or her shot. Some say they want it more, or they are mentally tougher. I don’t think that Kenyans want to be great runners any more than Americans do, but they do want the money more. The money means more to them. The Kenyan mindset going into a race is different than the American mindset. To a Kenyan, whose fallback plan is poverty and oppression the thought process is, “I am going to go for the win in the race and that will change my life, even if I don’t win, and I fade to one of the money spots, that will go a long way.” That only has to work out for them one time, and then they are free, they can continue to run, or not, but they are free from that weight of worrying about poverty. That is not how most Americans approach a race, and certainly not the ones who may have an outside shot at winning or being the top American, but are, in general, mid-tier professionals. For Americans it’s all about the long-term approach. It’s all about progression and building. In general, Americans do have longer careers than Kenyans. However, Americans, in general, AREN’T winning major marathons.

As I have said before, there are, in my opinion all kinds of contributing factors to Kenyan success. I have even touched on some of them here, and I will continue to article my thoughts about the other factors. However, if your option were be a great runner, or raise your family in extreme poverty and harsh conditions, taking a shot would be a no brainer.


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