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East Africans dominated half-marathon last year

East Africans dominated half-marathon last year
East African runners have dominated the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, the men winning all the seven editions in the elite category and the women in six years since its inception in 2005.

Runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda have also been a force to reckon with in major international marathons in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London and New York City.

In Delhi it all started with Kenyan Philip Rugut, who won the inaugural race in 2005 to inspire the other east African runners.

So what is the secret their success, especially the runners from Ethiopia and Kenya? Hugh Jones, the race director of the Delhi Half Marathon, says the east African runners are natural athletes and they excel in long and middle distance running.

The Briton, who is also the race director of Mumbai Marathon, said that the altitude has a lot to do with their development as runners.

‘East African countries are 2,000-3,000 metres above sea level. So altitude plays a key role in their development. Living at a high altitude naturally increases the red blood cell [RBC] count. So when these athletes come down from a higher altitude to sea level they are obviously at an advantage,’ said Jones, winner of the prestigious London Marathon in 1982.

Tim Hutchings, a former British athlete turned commentator, concurs with Jones.

‘The altitude makes a huge difference. The air is thin at higher altitudes so there is less oxygen and their bodies adapt to operate with that. When they come down to sea level the athletes are super charged. It is like giving a car an extra cylinder,’ says Hutchings, who finished fourth in 5,000 metres in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Hutchings adds that it has also got to do with the culture.

‘The countries are underdeveloped and the kids have to walk miles to go to schools everyday. So long distance running is a way of life for them. Running is very much a part of their culture,’ said Hutchings.

The vast majority of Kenya’s brightest running stars hail from Eldoret, which is in the famous Rift Valley province in Western Kenya. Since Eldoret is at 7,000-8,000 feet above sea level, it has a fairly mild climate and allows for year-round running.

The Kalenjin tribe of Rift Valley has a running culture. Though Kalenjins represent just 12 per cent of Kenya’s population, they comprise about three-quarters of the nation’s elite runners and are also known as ‘the running tribe’.

Jones said now long distance running has become a lucrative profession for poor athletes from the east African region.

‘Running is also seen as an opportunity to earn a living there which is not the case in India or in Europe. Many have become stars and role models in their villages. Also the surfaces they run on are forgiving. They don’t run on concrete which can break a body down sooner or later. Their diet is good and genetically over the generations, the genes have refined themselves,’ said Jones.
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