Many years ago, I taught English to kids in Kenya who couldn’t afford to pay for school. Each morning, skinny children packed the wooden benches of my informal classroom, their bare feet covered with red dust from the road. I took the job seriously, determined to give parents updates on their progress.
“Where do you live?” I asked one little boy.
“Not far,” he said, pointing to a distant mountain.
The next day, I set off. I walked an hour, until I was sure I was lost.
“Don’t worry. It’s not far,” people told me. “It’s just over there.”
Forty minutes later, I arrived, exhausted.
I think of that epic hike every time the Boston Marathon comes around. A Kenyan man has won the marathon every year for all but two of the last 22 years. Kenyan women have won nine of the last 13.
Their dominance has prompted a flurry of scientific studies into why Kenyans run so well. Some say it’s their diet. Others say it’s the high altitude. Still others insist it’s a genetic gift of lean bodies and wiry legs. But those theories fail to account for perhaps the most important factors: the marathoner’s brain, and his or her concept of distance itself.
In that Kenyan town, nobody ran anywhere if they could help it, even though it was the home of Cosmas Ndeti, a three-time Boston Marathon winner. But most everybody, especially children, walked long distances routinely without complaint, and shared the perception that a few miles — even five or 10 miles — wasn’t really all that far.
Perceptions matter. Experiments by Samuele Marcora, director of research at the Centre for Sports Studies at the University of Kent, suggest our physical limits are set not by our bodies but by our brains. Fatigue sets in when our anterior cingulate cortex sends a message to our muscles that the physical challenge we are undertaking is too daunting to complete. When a runner collapses in exhaustion, it’s rarely because the muscles ran out of oxygen or fuel. It’s because the anterior cingulate cortex has decided that the cost of exertion is not worth the benefit. But if the brain believes that the distance is manageable enough — and the mission important enough — we push ourselves to the max.
Scientists are still trying to understand just how the brain calibrates our physical limits. But Diane Van Deren, a Colorado woman, provides a powerful anecdote: To cure epilepsy, she had a piece of her brain removed. She lost her sense of distance. Her anterior cortex stopped telling her muscles to feel tired. Today, at 52, she is one of the greatest ultramarathon runners in the world.
The rest of us have to find other ways to stop our brains from telling our legs to quit. According to Matt Fitzgerald, author of the guide “Brain Training for Runners,” rigorous workouts build our minds as much as our muscles, shifting our concept of what is physically possible. Starting young makes a difference.
Many Kenyan runners endured physical challenges as kids, walking long distances to collect water and firewood, sometimes without a meal at the end of the day. They also have greater reason to push themselves than American and European runners: The Boston Marathon’s $150,000 first place prize is more than many Kenyans earn in a lifetime. Each Kenyan victory inspires young runners back home, who train with the knowledge that winning is possible.
That sense of the possible — and that willingness to endure extreme challenges without complaint — were the traits I admired most in my young students in Kenya.
Those traits bode well for that country’s future. The same mental toughness it takes to win a marathon is required to climb to the top of other fields. Endurance training as a runner helped Kenyan high school student Nephat Maritim push his physical limits to study for his national exams, sleeping only a few hours each night. He earned such a high score that, with the help of the nonprofit Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project, he is now a freshman at Harvard.
“When you know that this is your only way out of poverty, you rise to the occasion,” he says.
In marathons, as in life, the ability to go the distance is so often all in our minds.
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @fstockman.