Why Don't East African Runners Dominate on the Trails?
By -- Brandon Mader, MS
One day a discussion surfaces in a major ultra-running group online, with a provocative question at the center: If African distance runners jumped into trail racing, would they dominate the world elites in a similar fashion to their track and road prowess?
After several months of pondering this question on my own runs I believe I’ve drilled into the heart of the matter and would like to share my view. The question is far more complex than it first appears. To do it justice I will try to address the components individually. Could the Africans dominate? What would it look like if they did enter ultra races? Finally, would they ever actually make the leap?
Running is an “athletic element.” Much like natures primary elements are not divisible into smaller compounds, running doesn’t break down into any smaller parts. It’s simply the body performing an inherent function. However it is often a constituent ingredient for many of humanity’s favorite activities. Basketball is a “sport,” a compound mixture of running, jumping, throwing, and other base functions.
Within the sport of running we find a few specialties just as the element Oxygen can be dissected at the atomic level into protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. However none of these subatomic particles mean much to us when broken apart. Sure - you can separate the marathon from the 200m but what is one without the other? They provide scope and contrast to each other. They lend depth to running, but each is still just running.
The Mountain-Ultra-Trail (MUT) sub-specialties of running have their roots in our longest history on this Earth. Cover ground. Cover any and all ground between you and your destination. The oft-documented persistence hunting methods of African tribes are the perfect example of MUT. However MUT did not stand on its own as a division of competition until very recently.
So, could African runners dominate MUT races if they wanted to? Of course! They’re the most naturally gifted runners on this planet. The excessively fine filter of ten thousand years of natural selection at 7000 feet of altitude has left the people of the Upper Rift Valley with locomotive talent to spare. From the 800 meters up to the marathon we see Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda performing insane feats of endurance and speed. It would be deeply narcissistic to believe the East Africans would somehow be middled against the mountain and ultra-running Europeans, North Americans, and South Americans.
What would it look like if African runners entered MUT races? Let’s do a little thought experiment here. Clear your mind, close your eyes, and imagine as vividly as possible this scenario: You’ve spent the last two years training for 100 mile ultra runs. You’ve logged thousands of miles and piled up hundreds of thousands of feet of elevation gain in the process. You’re very strong, and very fit, and your breath would hardly disturb a blade of grass thanks to your low resting heart rate and high oxygen delivery efficiency... Go run the local holiday 1-mile at 100% effort.
What happened, how did it go? You probably started fast and easy. All the strength in your legs from the many hills you’ve climbed lending power to your stride as you surge forward. The extra available oxygen in your bloodstream carries you through the first 400 meters and you start thinking “This isn’t so bad!” Then something happens. Your heart rate steadily climbs over the first 3 minutes of activity as all that spare oxygen is pulled out of the blood.
The muscles firing much faster and harder than normal are drinking in the O2 desperate to maintain the output they’ve grown accustomed to. After 1000 meters your legs feel like sandbags. Your breathing is like breathing through a straw despite the massive, full-chest heaves. Your eyes widen as you strain to keep up the effort. “How could this be?? I feel like I’m running up the Golden Staircase at Pike’s Peak?! This course is perfectly flat!” You scream between your ears. One mile should NOT be this difficult. But it is. You slow down considerably over the final 400m and cross the line feeling closer to death than fish out of water.
Making your way through the final chute you think “It’s a road race. I’m not supposed to do well, road running is dumb, nobody here is enjoying themselves. Trail running is much better and I’m never doing this again!” What really happened is that you put yourself in a situation fully opposite of what your body was trained to do. In fact, many runners around you were having fun. Lots of fun. Because they trained for this.
And now you’re just about to stop reading my article because you’re thinking “WELL I’M NOT AN ELITE AFRICAN RUNNER SO WHAT’S THE POINT HERE?” Glad you asked.
The recent achievement (no matter how glorious or dubious, depending on your purview) of Eliud Kipchoge in the marathon is a curious case study. He trained exclusively for this attempt for several years. Every single thing he did all-day-every-day for years, revolved around the single goal of being the first human to run under 2 hours in the marathon. If you were to have dropped him into the marathon recently contested as the IAAF World Mountain Running Championships in Argentina, would his fate be much different than yours in the above 1-mile scenario? Would Kipchoge easily dispose of the great Jim Wamsley to claim the world title?
The course featured more than 7000 feet of elevation gain, and loss, over 42 kilometers featuring mud, scree, rocks, roots, snow, and ice. It featured extended stretches of greater than 20% grade both on uphill and downhill. As is often the case in MUT running, the weather swung widely during the event as well, from a cool morning to warm and humid mid-day with glaring sun.
Kipchoge has superior speed and we could presume he has the edge in oxygen carrying efficiency. Although, mountain runner Matt Carpenter has a higher recorded VO2max than world 5000 meter record holder Kenesia Bekele. Wamsley has the edge in climbing and descent. Why? Muscular development to the task.
In our thought experiment earlier your muscles were trained for repeated, sub-maximal contractions. Two hundred thousand repeats of the same action at 50-70% of maximum effort. Running a hard 1-mile required only 1000 or so contractions but they’re all at 90-100% of maximum effort. Wamsley has developed his muscles to the task of climbing and descending mountains. He regularly incorporates muscle groups not required in road running. Groups that would be “dead weight” to Kipchoge.
Put Kipchoge on a mountain slope, and that dead weight becomes the vital knife edge separating a strong finish from a DNF. Studies have shown your body mechanics change significantly when the slope meets or exceeds 10%1,2. Kipchoge has trained exclusively to produce work in the forward, horizontal direction. Wamsley by virtue of his MUT training is trained to produce work in a variety of directions well above and below the horizontal.
Long story short, Wamsley is the more efficient mountain-running machine. I’d be willing to bet that efficiency makes up for any fitness gap between the two runners and we probably end up with a very exciting and entertaining race.
Obviously this brings us to the flip side of the coin - what would happen if Kipchoge spent the next two years training for MUT and brought his Kenyan teammates with him?
You already know, don’t you?
One of the best indicators of an elite trail runner during their early careers is the 5000 meters and the 3000m steeplechase. The 5000 meters is the purest test of oxygen carrying capacity and efficiency, or the “lactate threshold.” High level trail running often forces you over this threshold. Think about the burn you feel at the top of a long, steep climb. The 3000m steeplechase tests stamina and coordination, with bursts of exertion while maintaining a hard race effort.
African runners dominate both of these events on the world track stage. It stands to reason if they took the time to train properly for trail running they should be consistent world leaders.
What about ultra running? Ethiopia doesn’t run the 100 mile! Recall the Tarahumara Indian tribes of Mexico who gained fame as the super-human running tribe. Their physical and environmental gifts, in many ways, mirror those of the African peoples. Again we’re left with simple hubris to believe the Africans couldn’t compete in longer distance as well.
Speed kills, at every distance. If you’re best 5000 meter pace is 4:20 per mile (as is for many Ethiopians and Kenyans), then running 7:00 per mile is quite pedestrian. It’s leisurely.
An even 7 minutes per mile for 100 miles is 11 hours and 40 minutes, not far off Zach Bitter’s recent world record 11 hours and 19 minutes run earlier this year. The difference between running the 5000 meters and the 100M is a matter of a few biological traits, and race-specific training.
The most important factor in running a 100-mile is bone and connective tissue density. You must have the structural integrity to handle the workload of completing the distance. Each stride of a runner at 7-minute pace loads the legs with three times their actual body weight3. A bone fracture, tendonopathy, or ligament strain robs the body of its structural integrity and the system as a whole breaks down like a house with a shoddy foundation.
Next is a low predisposition to cramping. Over the course of 170,000 steps involving hundreds of muscle contractions each, there are ample opportunities for a failed neuromuscular signal. Contrary to popular wisdom, muscle cramping in endurance activity is far more complicated than the adage of consuming electrolytes.
Propelling a human 100 miles on flat ground requires an immense amount of energy. For the average “fast” runner, the energy expenditure of running 100 miles is 4 billion joules. If this were delivered in a single swing of a baseball bat, it would be enough to launch the baseball into low-Earth orbit where our GPS satellites reside. The machine gets quite hungry.
Feeding a runner in the course of 100 miles introduces many complex problems but it all boils down to this: to run 100 miles you must be capable of consuming a large quantity of food and water while running, without incurring significant gastro-intestinal (GI) distress or failure. Anyone who has run an ultramarathon can visualize the many colorful ways in which GI distress may occur. The immune system is heavily taxed during an ultramarathon as well. In combination with depleted energy stores this leads to extreme fatigue and the “zombie runner” syndrome. At this point the race is only completed by sheer resolve and paying close attention to the task for up to 30 hours or more.
Despite the complex matrix of the genetic lottery and the nature/nurture tilt of a persons resolve and attention span, we know these things are a lot easier to come by than a sub-5 minute mile. According to UltraSignup4, the worlds largest online registrar of ultrarunning events, 65% of people who start a 100-mile race will finish the journey. It’s clear that within a large group of Kenyan or Ethiopian runners many will have the traits to avoid musculo-skeletal issues during the race, eat and drink sufficiently well to keep themselves performing at a high level, and maintain their focus throughout the duration of the run.
It is safe to say that African runners have all the necessary traits to be excellent MUT runners. Given their dominance in other running specialties we should expect them to dominate ultra and mountain running in the same way they dominate the road and track. Why, then, don’t we see Kenyans at Leadville, or the Ethiopian National Team on the podium with Spain and the United States at the World Mountain Running Championships? Because they just are not interested.
Someone who really enjoys watching American football is unlikely to be a rabid fan of futbol. A fan of tennis is probably not setting an alarm for the start of the NASCAR race. In the African nations along the Rift Valley, running is their national pastime and a cornerstone of their national identity. Race winnings from major track and road races are the life-changing outlet from poverty that face many of the region’s inhabitants.
Jamaica is well known for their sprinting prowess. While there are some genetic reasons this tiny nation of 2.9 million people continues to crank out world elites, their ability to identify those athletes hinges on sprinting as their national hallmark. Every child there grows up dreaming of winning the Gold Medal in the 100 meters. In all probability a larger nation like China or India should be equally competitive but the structure just isn’t there to steer young people toward sprinting.
For Kenya or Ethiopia to expand into MUT running would require a shift in their cultural mindset. It would require a seismic expansion of their national identity. Children of the Rift Valley grow up dreaming of setting the world record in the marathon, not the 100k.
I’ll put it another way: What is the likelihood Madrid or Berlin lobby to get a professional Major League Baseball team? The Paris Towers. The London Guardsmen. The Helsinki Alpines playing the New York Yankees on a Wednesday night.
The successes of the Jamaican bobsled team in 1988 was an inspiration to the world, but it did not change the culture of the nation in the way Frank Shorter’s win in 1972 launched the marathon running boom in the United States. Much to the credit of Kenya and Ethiopia they are content to continue their dominance in the running disciplines they hold most dear. Their governing sport federations are not on a mission to win every race out there. And that’s a great thing. Humility in sports is under-appreciated.
In all likelihood there are humans already on this Earth capable of running 100 miles in under 10 hours. But the world is a tricky place full of complex situations and life choices. Maybe one day, some gifted person will discover running, then ultrarunning, and go after this next, “impossible” barrier. Budhia Singh comes immediately to mind as an example of what could be possible.
If the African nations’ federations decided tomorrow to put funding towards building their best possible MUT teams we would see them on podiums worldwide. After a few short years of trail-specific training and adaptation the wins would come, and inspire a new generation of Ethiopian and Kenyan MUT runners. These young athletes would grow into the sport and come to run stride-for-stride with all the top finishes we see today.
At the elite level, athletes are separated by the narrowest of margins. A track runner will never dominate the trail world unless they commit to being a trail runner. But a nation full of the best damn track runners in the world is certainly capable of producing dominant trail runners. It’s only a matter of motivation and up until now the runners of the upper Rift Valley have been content to dream of track and road success. It’s unlikely they turn their nations eyes toward MUT running but you never know. It only takes one spark to ignite a forest fire.
(1) Slider, Amy; Besier, Thor; Delp, Scott. Predicting the Metabolic Cost of Incline Walking from Muscle Activity and Walking Mechanics. J Biomech. 2012 Jun 26; 45(10); 1842-1849.
(2) Pickle, N; Grabowski, A; Auyang, A; Silverman, A. The Functional Roles of Muscles During Sloped Walking. J Biomech. 2016 Oct 3; 49(14); 3244-4251.
(3) ChiroHealth Chiropractic Sports & Rehabilitation. Running Injuries. https://www.chirohealthsolutions.net/storage/app/media/cropped_images/Running_injury_Report.pdf Pearland, TX
(4) http://www.ultrasignup.com, 2019.