I particularly like the fact that Peter doesn't jump to conclusions about why there are so many individuals with such high levels of ability in Kenya. Throughout my running career when the topic of Kenyan runners comes up, people trip over themselves to attribute more and more of their success to their genetics. Peter doesn't do this. He discusses a number of potential causes, and concludes with his own opinions, but he does so in a very measured way.
The possible reasons for Kenyan success that he's identified include:
"I’ve read that the Kenyan diet is they key to their success. I’ve read that it’s the altitude, and I’ve read that it’s because they lie down and sleep in the grass everyday between runs. I’ve read that it’s because they do so much mileage, that it’s because they run twice a day every day, or even that it’s because they run thrice a day everyday. A rowing coach I met in Colorado told me it was because they sprinted all their runs. He was certain that they didn’t do high volume. I’ve read that it’s because they are poor and desperate and view running as a way out of poverty. I’ve read that it’s drugs. I’ve read that it’s genetics, and that the rest of us should just forget about beating them.
"I don’t know if any of this is true. Distance running is a greatly understudied activity."
First of all, Peter reads a lot. Second, I think there are two things that need to be remembered when discussing the relative success of one country over another in a sport like distance running. First, the factors that make one individual great and the factors that cause a country to have numerous great runners are related but different. Second, neither will ever be captured in one "smoking gun" reason. Translation: it's not just genetics.
The fact that there are so many strong runners in Kenya means that the conditions for generating great runners are present. But separating the causes is an incredibly difficult task. A whole field of statistics, econometrics, has been created to attempt to answer these semi-answerable questions, and it only succeeds as much as it fails.
Genetics must play a role. If it's part of a person's experience--and I think we can agree that genetics most certainly is--then it will play some role. As the Science of Sport guys write:
"There is a growing body of evidence that a good deal of the East African advantage comes from this neuromuscular advantage, their ability to maximize the energy returns of what is called the stretch-shortening cycle. For example, it's been shown that African runners have a higher level of what is called preactivation than Caucasian runners. What this means is that their muscle is active BEFORE the foot hits the ground, and that this stores energy that can be used on push off. I am sure that this advantage is one of the key reasons they are dominant."
They may be right. They don't link to any source, so I can't say I've read the research. (A Google search on preactivation led me to words like Ooplasts and Blastomere!) But even this can't account for much more than a small fraction of the reason why Kenyans are so much better en masse than athletes from other countries (save maybe Ethiopia). I prefer Peter's conclusion:
"I’m a betting man, and I bet altitude has a lot to do with Kenyan success. I bet poverty is a powerful motivator, I think their diet helps, and the type of training they do should be studied and replicated further. But I also think that being the best in the world at something means that everybody else is not as good, and I’m not certain that the Kenyan dominance can be easily distilled and copied."
This is where the distinction between success on a group level and success on an individual level is important. Can America replicate Kenya's success in distance running? Probably not, because America is so different culturally, socially, environmentally, demographically, spiritually, educationally, etc. But can any one American replicate the success of any particular Kenyan? Absolutely!
The factors that make up success for an individual are different from those that are necessary to create group success. Talent will play its role, but so will passion, work ethic, discipline, focus, opportunity, etc. That is why Peter's line that "the rest of us should just forget about beating them" is so disappointing to read. Many people think this way, yet at the individual level, their best runners are no different from our best. It's only at the 100th or 1,000th place that the gap is really visible.
So if you are a young runner aspiring to beat the Kenyans someday, don't get sucked into the notion that "Kenyans are genetically superior and out of your league". They aren't. The average Kenyan may be a better runner than the average American. But you're not trying to be average!