Overcoming Pain: The Secret of Kenyan Runners & What it Means for You

How could this possibly be? A single African tribe (the Kalenjin people) living in an area approximately the size of Massachusetts owns the running world. Seriously, check out the stats below.

Kenyan runner secret - overcoming pain
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WARNING: Parts of this post have information of a graphic nature. Reader discretion advised. (Seriously, I wouldn’t let your younger kids read this).

Stats

  • 5 American high school runners ever have broken the 4:00 mile.
  • One high school in the Kalenjin tribe had 4 breaking a 4:00 mile at the same time.
  • 17 American men in history have run ever a marathon under 2:10:00.
  • 32 Kalenjin men ran that fast in a single month recently.

But why?

How is it that this single tribe can dominate the world of running? And what does it mean for you?

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, genetics plays a role. The Kalenjin people have evolved over time to a certain build that helps them run quickly. There is no denying that. They are considerably better suited to running long distances than yours truly. That’s a fact. (If you’re curious about the genetic differences, listen to the audio version of this post above)

But the real thing that allows them to do this…

Their ability to overcome pain.

Many Americans are built with thin ankles and long, lanky legs, like the Kalenjin people. Just because they generally have a genetic advantage over me and an NFL lineman does not explain their dominance. What does is their mental toughness.

The initiation

At the age of fifteen, Kalenjin boys undergo their rite of passage. This is but a snapshot of what that looks like:

  • Crawl naked through a tunnel of African stinging nettles.
  • Beaten on the bony part of the ankle.
  • Knuckles squeezed together.
  • Formic acid from the stinging nettles wiped on his genitals.

That sounds awful, I know. But they are just getting started.

Next comes…

The circumcision.

On a fifteen year old boy. With a sharp stick.

This isn’t the circumcision you know from American hospitals. It’s essentially genital mutilation. The foreskin is cut, wrapped in a bow-like shape and pierced.

And the entire time…through the stinging nettles, the ankle beatings, the acid, the cutting, through it all…the boys must remain perfectly stoical.

Not a single movement. Not a sound.

They literally cake mud on the boy’s face and allow it to dry. If, during the beatings, crawling, or cutting, the mud cracks (meaning he flinched at all), it’s a signal for them to beat the boy worse. And the child is forever labeled a kebitet – a coward.

Pushing through the pain

After all that, with bloodied ankles, bruised knuckles, cut, exposed skin all over, and recently circumsized, you’d think they’d be sent home to rest. But no.

They run.

In the midst of the worst pain you can imagine, they are not allowed to walk. They are made to run. Fast.

With pain screaming through their bodies, they run, run, run, run, run. With every step they push through the pain. With every mile, they get stronger and faster.

In America, we’ve grown soft. Especially my generation.

But the Kalenjin embrace the pain. They use the pain.

We avoid the pain. We run from the pain. And when we do feel it, we escape the pain. We medicate the pain. We entertain it away.

It’s time to stop that.

Find your pain points physically.

Find your pain points emotionally.

Find your pain points in your career and your finances.

And embrace them. Use them.

That is the only way to success.

Question: How have you used pain to push you to success? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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  • Paige Gordon II

    Dang son! I’ve always thought I was pretty good at handling pain but that’s a whole other level!

  • That makes childbirth sound like a fun way to kill a few hours with the bonus of a beautiful prize at the end! Wow. Having said that, enduring that kind of physical pain (no meds with my son) has taught me that I truly can accomplish anything if I work hard and focus on the goal. When we run away from emotional pain and physical pain, we are running away from the opportunity to grow.

    • Haha. I’ve never heard childbirth described that way..that’s awesome

    • I so have to Tweet that line: “That makes childbirth sound like a fun way to kill a few hours…”

  • As much as I absolutely hated the job two years ago and as happy as I am that I’m not there–it is because of that job that I am now in a place where I really feel like I’m moving forward. I used the pain points caused by that horrible job to push me to a place where I am moving ahead and feeling like I’m closing in on my dreams!

    It’s easier to see that now than it was as I was going through it!

    • I remember a lot of whining involved ;0)

      • I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. You must have me confused with someone else…

    • Steve Pate

      would you agree to this, “to get out of a crappy job get off the pile feet first!”?;-)

  • Avoid, run, escape, medicate and entertain – welcome to the world of today. You’ve written about our general softness before, Matt, and I fully agree. However, after reading this, I might like being soft. Sigh.

    I might think about my pain points today and see if I have any breakthroughs. On the other hand, it might be too painful.

    • It might be…but the flip side is totally worth it.

      One of mine felt crippling. We’ll see what the results are.

  • Dude, this is crazy!

    I think painful situations have given me fortitude to keep going, to lean into friends and family, and to put my faith more deeply in God. Sometimes survival is success.

    • “Sometimes survival is success.” Love that!

    • Isn’t that true. I think God lets us experience pain so we don’t forget to connect with him. When things are going well, I find less need to reach out to Him.

  • Dang, I’m a wimp. That’s not the take away you were going for was it Matt?

  • Steve Pate

    Pain has tough me that I’m alive. It wakes me up, it tells me where I need to grow and I can’t top @lilykreitinger:disqus comment, that’s why I say, women are tougher than men.

    -my question how are these boys condition before this event? How do you not flinch? That’s it, no more shoes for me….! Great music, passion in the voice, and into the content.

    • I agree with both you and @lilykreitinger:disqus – women are tougher than men. They give birth for Pete’s sake.

  • Here

    The power of society expectations and role models is clear in this situation. Others had succeeded, they could. Others had failed, so they were warned. They probably spent years being prepared by their fathers, or even in just goofing off “hard” with the other boys in preparation. Many of us don’t have that close and supportive of a culture, or one that focused and clear-cut in expectations. Mentors, role models and such are pretty rare, and very few are that driven to guarantee your success.

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