August 6, 2008

Running tribes of Kenya and Mexico

When I was a kid, you heard more about the Tarahumara Indian runners of Copper Canyon in Mexico than you heard about the Kalenjin of Kenya. The Tarahumara were supposed to be the great runners of the world, able to run a hundred miles without stopping. But Tarahumara runners have only competed once in the Olympics, with indifferent success, while the Kalenjin have consistently won medals.

Here's an article comparing the two groups. The sports-obsessed British colonial administrators tried to get the young Kalenjin men to redirect their excess energy from cattle-rustling to track, while Mexico wasn't terribly interested in track, and the Uto-Aztecan-speaking Tarahumara didn't want anything to do with Mexicans, anyway.

The author argues that the Tarahumara's strong suit is distances farther than the 26 miles of the marathon. In contrast, by my calculations, the Kalenjin's best distance is about 3000 meters, which is why Kenyans really aren't that all-conquering at the marathon, a distance at which there are a wide variety of winners. (Here's my 1997 chart showing the best running race distances for different groups.)

In 1993, a 55-year-old Tarahumara showed up at the high-altitude 100 mile ultramarathon in Leadville, Colorado and won, running in sandals made from old tires. But since then they haven't really shown much interest in running professionally outside their canyons.

In this decade, an American named Micah True has organized an annual ultramarathon trail run deep in Copper Canyon. Organizers award as prizes 30,000 pounds of corn and $6,000 cash. In 2007, the top American ultramarathoner, Scott Jurek, participated, winning in a time of 6 hours and 32 minutes. But Arnulfo, a Tarahumara finished second in 6 hours and 50 minutes. In 2008, Americans won the top two spots, and local Indians the next eight.

So, it's hard to figure out just how good as runners the Tarahumara really are. There are only about 50,000 of them, so there isn't a big enough sample size for there to be many running prodigies. And they are sometimes malnourished (eating mostly corn), they chain-smoke, and they regularly get falling down drunk. A common estimate is that 100 days per year are devoted to either heavy drinking or recovering from benders. (Like the Japanese, they're emotionally reticent except when they've had a snootfull.) So, they're pretty darn good, but it's hard to get a precise sense of how good.

It's now theorized that their running style (very short strides, landing on the ball off the foot rather than the heel, as is necessary with a long stride) helps them avoid injuries while running on rugged trails. And their running in crummy sandals instead of cushioned supershoes means that their foot muscles don't atrophy, so they don't get the many injuries suffered by American runners.

Indeed, it occurs to me that there might be a hint of an explanation here for one of the more curious trends in sports history. Americans used to be outstanding distance runners. In the 1960s, three American high school boys, Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, and Tom Danielson, running in low-tech shoes broke the four minute barrier for the mile, but it was 32 years before it happened again (Alan Webb). In 1972, Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon, which opened the door to the famous running fad of the 1970s. Soon, everybody was running. The Nike Corporation began selling enormous numbers of ever more technologically advanced running shoes.

Yet, as the quantity of American distance runners exploder, the quality declined. Could it have been the shoes? American runners had the best shoes money could buy, but they kept getting injured. One theory is that the more your feet are cushioned and stabilized, the weaker their muscles get, and the more likely you are to get hurt.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

14 comments:

halfbreed said...

That's interesting about the Tarahumara, I'd always wondered why they hadn't mde any sort of impact on distance running. As far as the Africans go, you shouldn't restrict yourself to the Kalenjin when discussing abnormal talent. Much of East Africa produces great runners. The Ethiopans have certainly had more than their share, including legendary marathon runner Abebe Bikila, current world record holder in the 5000 and 10,000, Kenenisa Bekele, and perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie. Tanzania has had a few world class runners (remember Filbert Bayi, who broke Jim Ryun's world record in the mile?), and the Mozambique produced Maria Mutola, who has dominated the 800 for much of the past decade. Kenyans in the Rift Valley live at altitude, which is something of an advantage, and as you point out, the Kenyans have a long, deep tradition in running. Also, you're right that the event they dominate the most completely is the 3000 meter (steeplechase), but they're pretty good at other distances, too: the current WR at 800 meters is still held by Wilson Kipketer, and Paul Tergat recently held the marathon record. The most surprising thing about African runners is how the Arabs fare so well at middle distance events. Nouredine Morceli and Hicham el Guerrouj both look far more European than sub-Saharan African, but they are the best milers of the past two decades. Said Aouita of Morocco (who looked as if he had a tad more sub-Saharan admixture) wasn't bad either. The last "sweet spot" for those of European descent seems to be 800 meters, which is a bit long for those of West African descent and on the short side for those from East Africa. But other than that, they really should have two separate sets of races, one for those with African lineage, one for everyone else.

Peter said...

Ultramarathons don't get anywhere near the public recognition of marathons, so in that sense it's not surprising that the Tarahumara are not widely known.

Lucius Vorenus said...

Steve Sailer: In the 1960s, three American high school boys, Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, and Tom Danielson, running in low-tech shoes broke the four minute barrier for the mile, but it was 32 years before it happened again (Alan Webb).

Okay, weird irony here - the last article I was looking before I came over here to iSteve was from a link that KJL posted at The Corner to the Kansas primary results from last night:

Live updates: State primary election results
cjonline.com

And I noticed that Jim Ryun lost in his comeback bid for his House seat.

Are there any Kansans on iSteve who know the particulars of this race - was Ryun's loss immigration/border wall related?

eric said...

You would think the Bushmen of Botswana would be the ideal long-distance runners, since, like the Kalenjin and Tarahumara, they engage in 'persistance hunting', whereby they basically keep running after something until the prey is too tired to continue. Bushmen are only 3% of Botswana though.

August said...

There's a barefoot running movement now. One company makes what looks like a glove for your foot, another makes a shoe with an extremely thin sole made of kevlar.

They believe modern footwear has weakened the foot and destroyed the natural running stride.

PatrickH said...

Interesting guess. I used to follow track in the seventies and eighties, and the decline in US distance running, especially at the high school level, was already well in evidence. Some, including Marty Liquori, argued that the decline could be traced to the adoption of high-volume, relatively slow-paced steady distance training, often on roads, instead of the extremely brutal interval training on the track used by earlier stars like Liquori and Ryun. Combine this with the shoe theory and you might get: high tech shoes cushion feet, very long distance running exacerbates the distortions caused by the shoes, slow-pace running making matters worse still (contrary to popular belief, slow-paced running is actually very hard on the knees and feet). I dunno if this is right, but the decline was already so pronounced in the seventies that everyone noticed it even then. And that was the era when high-volume training and high-tech shoes made their appearance.

Concerned said...

"One theory is that the more your feet are cushioned and stabilized, the weaker their muscles get, and the more likely you are to get hurt."

Who says this? It sounds intuitively true but I'd like to see some science.

Anonymous said...

This subject is mentioned in the book "God's Middle Finger" by Richard Grant. He writes about his trip through Northern Mexico and he talks about the Indian runners in detail. If you type in the title of the book doing a youtube search you will find a video advertising the book. It is a very well written book.

Bill said...


Yet, as the quantity of American distance runners exploder, the quality declined. Could it have been the shoes? American runners had the best shoes money could buy, but they kept getting injured. One theory is that the more your feet are cushioned and stabilized, the weaker their muscles get, and the more likely you are to get hurt.

-S. Sailer


I think it may be the case. When I trained in martial arts I had to do so barefoot, and after getting past the first few weeks of sore, bloody feet, I started to feel a literal strength in my feet that I'd never known could exist. It felt as though I was gripping the ground as I walked.

People don't realize that cushioned, comfortable shoes are a very recent development.

michael farris said...

"the Bushmen of Botswana would be the ideal long-distance runners, since, like the Kalenjin and Tarahumara, they engage in 'persistance hunting', whereby they basically keep running after something until the prey is too tired to continue."

Some years ago I read an analysis of how they can do that (an article on the evolution of bipedalism) and while it's above what you or I could probably do it's not as hard as some people think.

caveat (I have no idea if the following is true, but it's what I remember reading)

The key is that humans can adjust speed more effeciently than antelopes or horses.
For quadruped ruminants, running works a lot like gears in a car, they can maintain a given speed for a long time very efficiently but changing speeds costs them a lot of energy, the secret is to make the animal change speeds as often as possible which wears it out much more quickly until the persistent human can finally catch up and dispatch it.
If the animals maintained a given speed until they're so far away the humans have no chance they wouldn't be susceptible, but they slow down as soon as they perceive the distance between them and the predator is 'safe' and then have to speed up again when the predator approaches again (big cats and the like have stamina issues too and won't chase the same animal for more than a few minutes at a time)

halfbreed said...

Patrickh -- You're completely right about high volume training. Recently in both running and swimming there's been a trend back towards specificity of training. If you're trying to run a mile in four minutes, endless miles at six minute pace will not get the job done. In swimming in particular, there was a trend during the Seventies and Eighties to train even sprinters with endless garbage yardage, which actually slowed them down. What's even worse is that as kids get serious about their sports earlier and earlier, you see more and more overuse injuries at increasingly younger ages. The local swim team where I live believes in overdistance training, and it's become fairly apparent to me that a lot of yards between the ages of 11 and 16 stunts the kids' growth....BTW, Ryun's 3:55.1 on a dirt track was clearly a better run than Webb's 3:53 on a Tartan (or Mondo) track.

Anonymous said...

Bill, I had the same experience with martial arts strengthening my feet. Even though my feet are completely flat, after 1.5 years of karate I could run without injury and without orthotics for the first time. I ran a lot in the Army and never had trouble, except a tad bit in Airborne school.

non de guerre said...

So thats how I came down with plantar fascitis. Those damn Nikes I've been wearing for years!

Dam said...

I first learned of the Tarahumara runners around 1995. Frequently I get in conversations about when and what nation will produce the first sub-2 hour marathon. Looking at the progression of Marathon World Record times I estimate the it'll happen in 2035. But, my guess is that it will be a runner os Tarahumara descent. The Tarahumara may not be appearing in world-class events right now, but look at how quickly eastern Africans got there. In the early 1970s they were essentially unheard of. Twenty years later they were commanding world-class distace running. So, once the Tarahumara figure out their diets and lifesytles...and training techniques...they may quickly come to the forefront of world class distance running.