Runners are goal-oriented by nature. It goes without saying that the pursuit of goals requires planning and a certain degree of control. It’s difficult to pursue the goal of, say, lowering your half-marathon PB if you don’t have a specific half-marathon event on your calendar and if it’s beyond your power to put one there.
The ongoing COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) outbreak has placed runners all over the world in a position where they are unable to do much planning and they have less control over their path forward in the sport than they are accustomed to. This semi-helpless situation is the source of a great deal of anxiety for many. As a runner myself, I am in the same situation, and not only that, but I’ve been quite sick (and yes, I’m about certain it’s COVID-19, though I’ve been unable to get tested) for the past three and a half weeks, hence even more helpless and unable to plan. To cope with my unhappy circumstances, I’ve been channeling my inner Kenyan, something I’ve done when dealing with setbacks and uncertainty ever since I spent time in Kenya five years ago, and I encourage all runners to give it a try—starting today.
During my time in Kenya I was profoundly struck, and ultimately quite humbled, by the easygoingness of the people. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that nothing ever rattles or worries a Kenyan. Throughout my two-week stay in the country, few things happened on time, just about everything that could have gone wrong did, and no one minded. I was most impressed by Francis, the driver who was hired to transport my group from place to pace. One night, on our way back to Nairobi from Iten, we hit a traffic jam caused by a tractor trailer and a bus that had gotten stuck side by side on a narrow bridge, creating an impassible barrier. Smiling his ever-present smile, Francis hopped out to join the scrum of men discussing possible solutions to the conundrum, a discussion that was remarkably devoid of acrimony. From my distant vantage, they might as well have been talking about the weather.
Eventually we made it to the other side of the bridge. But the next day, our van broke down in a remote area. Francis’s smile never faded as he went through a multi-hour process of trying and failing to get the vehicle repaired so we could complete our journey. Eventually, the leader of our group hired another driver and Francis was left behind to continue dealing with the situation, still smiling.
The rest of us had been back in Nairobi for 24 hours when we saw Francis again, looking like he’d just won the lottery. I asked him how his misadventures had ended and he proceeded to explain that he never was able to get the van fixed, or at least not properly, and he got home by driving 30 mph the whole way—the highest speed the vehicle could sustain without falling apart. I pictured myself in the situation he’d just endured, and what I pictured was a wild-eyed man pounding the steering wheel, barking four-letter words, and visibly shaking from an endogenous cortisol overdose.
Kenya’s runners share the broader culture’s laissez-faire attitude. This attitude is well captured in Tait Hearps’s and Matt Inglis Fox’s little book Eliud Kipchoge, which describes the authors’ experience inside an elite Kenyan running camp in the summer of 2017. The authors were shocked by how every run was loosely scheduled, few began at the originally scheduled time, and many were compromised by rain, poor roads, and other vagaries of the environment. And yet, they write, “None of this inconsistency and unpredictability appeared to perturb the athletes. They were habituated to it, and it appears not to be a part of the culture to be stressed or rushed in Kenya. Whenever they received bad news about new developments they never complained. They would pour another cup of chai, and keep chatting amongst themselves.”
Hearps and Fox go on to note, “This relaxed attitude and loose structure, although somewhat difficult to work with from our point of view, is quite refreshing once one adjusts to it.” I would add that, not only is the mellow Kenyan disposition refreshing for the openminded outsider, it’s also extremely healthy for and helpful to those who possess it. Their near-total immunity from anxiety enables the runners of Kenya to cope more gracefully with setbacks in training than most runners do, keeps them from wasting time and energy on vain efforts to control the uncontrollable, is a major reason they almost never choke in big races, and makes the whole athletic journey more enjoyable and less stressful.
When I left Kenya, I did so with the conscious intention of taking a piece of the country with me, on the inside. In moments when I catch myself slipping into a state of anxiety in response to some contretemps affecting my running, I make a conscious effort to call upon my inner Kenyan—to essentially do what Eliud Kipchoge would do in my place. Never have I needed this tool more than in the present COVID-19 crisis, not only because I’ve been stripped of my ability to plan out my running future but also because I actually have the virus (or something very much like it), and have been stripped of my ability to exercise, my fitness, and my health. It sucks, but after a brief initial pity party, I’ve been coping with a fair degree of poise, and I’ve done so simply by refusing to allow myself to worry about the future, as the people of Kenya seem to do instinctually.
As chance would have it, I’m currently reading the autobiography of Katherine Grainger, a legendary British rower. There’s a particular passage in the book that has supplied me with an additional tool to use in my effort to handle my present situation like a Kenyan, and I highly recommend you give it a try as well. Katherine herself learned this tool from Chris Shambrook, British Rowing’s team psychologist. In a meeting between Chris, Katherine, and her coxless pair crewmate Kath Bishop ahead of the 2003 World Championship final, Chris offered the rowers an image to use to keep their thoughts in the present moment during the race. Katherine writes, “Chris described having a trampoline at the finish line, turned on its side so that any thought that jumped to the finish or the outcome was immediately bounced back to the present moment we were in.”
I love this image, which an athlete can use whenever future-directed thoughts cause worry or frustration. So, the next time you catch yourself feeling anxious about the uncertainty of your immediate running future, do two things: Picture a tipped-over trampoline and ask yourself, “What would Eliud Kipchoge do?”