No one is born an Olympic gold medalist or world record holder. That level of excellence needs to be achieved, and there is a profound journey an athlete must take in order to reach such rarified air.
In the summer of 2011, National Geographic Young Explorer Andrew Arnold encountered this truth firsthand. While studying Anthropology and running track for Cornell University, he was given the opportunity to train and research in Kenya for little over 8 weeks. Like so many runners and track fans before him, Andrew believed the high altitude, the healthy food, and the endless red clay trails would hold the key to unlocking his athletic potential. What he discovered was far more motivating.
Every day, from the Nandi Hills to the Kerio River, he witnessed thousands of Kenyan athletes rise with the equatorial sun in hopes of chasing a dream. That dream was a life as a professional runner, fed by a desire to represent one's family, tribe and nation on the world's brightest stages. For some that meant competing in the Olympics; for others, it meant running marathons on the streets of Boston, Tokyo, Berlin, or London. But whatever the ends, the means were the same. These men and women of Kenya trained with a discipline and fervor unlike anything Andrew had ever experienced before.
The sunrise always signaled the start of their punishing ritual. Hundreds of groups gathered atop the edge of the Rift Valley's cliffs, a parade of men and women, old and young, elite and amateur, all dressed in the electric colors of Adidas and Nike kits. Silently they moved about one another in the fading darkness, some stretching, others jogging, but all wearing a calm expression on their face that betrayed the emotions rioting inside them.
Wordlessly, they began their task, darting down the dirt roads for the tempo, fartlek, or long-run planned that day. The pace was always modest at the onset, but like melting ice on a mountain peak transforms into a rushing river in the valleys below, the run likewise progressed into a tortuous affair. Attrition was severe. Hours would pass until only a tiny pack of athletes came bounding back into camp, leading a long-line of stragglers behind them. The survivors of the ritual always represented a fraction of the practitioners and served as a reminder that among the many that gathered each dawn, only a few would be able to realize their dreams.
Though the physical performance was astounding in its own right, what amazed Andrew was the faithfulness of the athletes. They truly believed that anyone of them could become the next marathon legend, world record holder, or Olympic champ. It was faith in spite of overwhelming odds. Few of these athletes had access to coaching, and even less had more than a middle-school education. The majority of the dream chasers were uneducated, unsponsored, and relatively unknown. They trained with gear handed down by sponsored athletes or donated by foreigners, sometimes running in the same pair of shoes for thousands of miles. They lived near the training camps in corrugated tin huts, and remained there for years at a time. There was no prize for such ascetic living, and no money to be had by this monastic discipline. There was only the promise and hope that the faithful would be rewarded with future glory.
Some would call this practice insane, but Andrew found it inspiring. Upon returning home, he became fascinated by the Kenyan distance running phenomenon, so much so that he earned a grant from the National Geographic Society to investigate it further. This Young Explorers grant will take him and his team back into the heart of Kenya’s western highlands, where they will observe, interview, photograph, and film the some of the world’s greatest athletes. For over six months, Andrew will train and live with Kenya's elite and amateur runners. In doing so he will gain a rare perspective of the Kenyan running culture, learning what drives these exceptional men and women to become the world's best. Blog posts, articles, pictures, and videos will be uploaded on a weekly basis and serve to highlight the journey these Kenyan men and women take in pursuit of their Olympic dreams.
Please join us in witnessing the greatest display of motivation found anywhere in the world. The story begins March 1st, 2016…
Photography courtesy of Kevin Thompson.