What to learn from the greatest concentration of elite athletic talent

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Have you ever watched a marathon in the last couple of decades? They almost always are won by the same group.

I lived in Boston and observed the phenomenon repeat year after year at the Boston Marathon, the world’s most prestigious race. I’ve run five marathons in the past decade across the globe. No matter where I’ve gone, that’s me above in South Korea, a few individuals that comprise a small sub-set of the world’s population lead the pack.

Kenyan men have earned the largest share of major honors in international track and field, since the mid 1960s, at distances from 800 meters to the marathon. Almost all Kenyan champions come from one sub-group of one tribe. There are 42 tribes that comprise the Kenyan population. The Kalenjin tribe has a population of 4.9 million individuals. They are located in the Great Rift Valley. The Nandi subgroup, estimated to be less than 1 million (0.0001% world’s population), produces many of the world’s greatest distance running champions.

It is the greatest concentration of elite athletic talent for any sport, ever!

How does such a small group of people dominate one sport? Simple, it’s like a tornado: a few mundane ingredients mix together creating a lollapolooza or leaping emergent effect. This is the same effect I believe is present with fantastic business organizational cultures.

What Makes the Perfect Distance Runner?

Outstanding performance in long distance running requires primarily an optimal combination of high capacity for aerobic energy output, a high fractional utilization of VO2max during competition and good running economy. You also need extremely high pain tolerance. The Kalenjins naturally find themselves with all. The mundane ingredients below mix together to make a potent brew:

Environment

Long distance running favors those who can carry large amounts of oxygen in the blood. The more haemoglobin in the blood, or red blood cells, the more oxygen available for aerobic activities like long distance running. High altitudes induce hypoxia, an oxygen deficiency to the tissues, naturally increasing haemoglobin within the blood.

So if you live at high altitudes and go to a lower altitude, you have a natural edge. You have more haemaglobin in your blood. Reverse the equation and you are at a natural disadvantage.

Where do the Nandi live and train? 6,900 to 8,900 ft. above sea level. Naturally they will have a higher haemoglobin content than those living and training at lower altitudes.

It also helps that the Kalenjin economic background is poor for most. Kalenjins often don’t have the money for cars and lead an active lifestyle. The ticket to gaining wealth for families is sports, specifically running as it is the idolized sport in the area.

Genetics & Environment

Workouts-Diet-Plans-for-Ectomorph-Mesomorph-and-Endomorph-Body-Types

Long distance running favors individuals with an ectomorphic body type. You could think of this as the skinny kid gene, above the the left. But even better for distance running is a skinny body frame with slender legs. Not only is there less mass to move with less weight closer to the foot, less energy to expend, perfect running mechanics are natural.

The Kalenjins are thought to originate from a hot, dry climate at low altitude. Only fairly recently have they moved to the higher elevations. In biology, Allen’s rule states that any animal living in such conditions will have long appendages to regulate heat. The Kalenjins have long legs with extremely thin calf muscles and ankles.

A study between Kalenjin elite runners and untrained boys along with the same Danish counterparts described this phenomenon as one differentiatior. While nearly everything between the two groups were the same, one differentiator was running mechanics. The Kalenjin’s, both elite and untrained, have superior running economy compared with their Danish counterparts. The scientists inferred that it was due to the Kalenjin’s slender legs, thin calf muscles and ankles.

Culture & Pain Tolerance

Pain tolerance is essential for long distance races. They say a marathon is a 20 mile warm up followed by a 6 mile race because at the 20 mile marker is when runners normally hit the “wall” physically. In other words, the body fatigues once the glycogen stores are depleted. It’s extremely hard to maintain your pace when your legs feel like cement bricks. Mentally one must overcome the pain and persevere.

The Kalenjins have a universal culture of pain tolerance. There is a rite of passage or initiation into adulthood that all must go through. First, they have to crawl naked through stinging nettles. Then they get beaten on the bony part of their ankle. It is all followed by extremely painful circumcision for men or genital mutilation for women. This podcast described the pressures from the passage:

“Mud is caked on the face. Then the mud is allowed to dry. If a crack appears in the mud, your cheek may twitch, your forehead may crinkle, if that happens, then everyone around you will immediately know to start beating you with large sticks. The worst part though is not just the beating. Its that after that moment if you don’t make it through the ceremony, you get labeled as a kebbytet, or coward, and can’t be a part of society. In the olden days you didn’t have access to the economic opportunities to afford what is called the “bride price” which is what you need to get a wife.”

Elly Kipgogei, a 19 year old, described that he wanted to do the circumcision the cowardly way, in a hospital. He didn’t want to do it the traditional way with a sharp stick. His family said he would shame them if he did and wouldn’t be a full man. The cultural pressure was too much and Kipgogei acquiesced.

Elly Kipgogei also described the seclusion during the ceremony. He was forced to stay in a hut for a few weeks, and told that if he was to leave he couldn’t walk, only run. Running through the pain is a common feature of the initiation and Kipgogei would learn that he had a natural ability to run. He’d later be a successful runner on his high schools track team.

Conclusion

All of these ingredients above are found piecemeal in populations elsewhere in the world. For example, there are many groups of people living at high altitudes, but they aren’t dominant long distance runners. It is the confluence of all the boring ingredients that make Kalenjin’s the most dominant long distance runners in the world.

The same thing is true in business. Mundane ingredients such as strong leadership, proper incentives, the right environment and internal culture often produce tremendous results when all are mixed together. However, those ingredients are often just found piecemeal throughout business landscape. Rarely do you find the whole package. Southwest Airlines, Nucor, Les Schwab Tires, Costco, Zappos and other quality companies have proven that the whole package produces phenomenal results for years.


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Resources
Cut And Run

Why are Kenyan runners superior?

The harsh, lonely lives of Kenya’s astonishingly gifted runners

Understanding Kalenjin initiation rites