Bernard Lagat and the Kenyan Custom of Courtesy

Great short interview with Bernard Lagat in Runner’s World.

Here’s what I liked.

Lagat doesn’t wrap his training in numbers and technology.

Like most East Africans, Lagat trusts his experience – he trains intuitively.

Bernard Lagat
Bernard Lagat. What makes the Kenyans so darn likeable? (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Erik Van Leeuwen, Wikimedia Commons)

Bob Kennedy described how he set out on a training run with a Kenyan elite. After the first half-mile, the Kenyan realized he was feeling poorly. Instead of plowing on, he called it a day.

It was a very un-American thing to do. Too often, we logic-addicted westerners draw up a beautifully, highly rational training schedule which we try to carry it out at all cost. Pushing through a planned run on a day when we’re feeling sub-par, we enter a zombieland of deeply depleted resources. The result is a week of tired runs that do little for our fitness and can even take us backward. Meanwhile, the smart (“lazy”) runner goes flying by, having recovered quickly.

America’s elites thrived when they were least obsessed with logic and numbers. In Marathon Man, Bill Rodgers describes how the East Coast runners in the 1970s were buddies, and how it set them apart from today’s top Americans.

Research shows that when people are motivated by a future reward, they work less creatively and achieve lower-quality results than if they work for the joy of the process. Rodgers loved to run in nature, doing endless loops around a lake near his home. He enjoyed his training; it wasn’t all focused on results.

Joe Henderson expounded on this when we ran 10 miles together during a marathon, 20 years ago. He described how the U.S. elites of the seventies were friends who trained together and shared their secrets. Joe said that when money became a motivator, it set the runners apart – they ran alone, were secretive, and grasped at methods that would yield short-term results at the expense of their long-term development.

Bill Rodgers
Bill Rodgers, Amsterdam Marathon 1977. Boston Billy knew the Kenyans’ secrets. He’s still every runner’s friend. (Click to enlarge.)

Bernard Lagat is an American citizen but trains like a Kenyan, with pure-dee-Kenyan attitudes. He even takes five weeks completely off running at the end of the fall season, as many Kenyans do.

I won’t quote Lagat. Go read the article. You’ll learn a lot about the African approach.

Lagat loves to run, doesn’t see it as a job, shares his methods, and is unassuming, natural, and pleasant to listen to.

There’s a lot to be learned from the Kenyans – and not just about running. We can learn from people like Edward Cheserek, the Oregon freshman who won the 5000 and 3000 at the NCAA Indoor Championships this weekend. In his post-race interview after the 3000, Cheserek showed huge class. He was poised, courteous, and modest – he deflected attention from his accomplishment. It was a mature, civilized performance. He seemed decades older than the other athletes in their interviews.

It reminded me of something Sir Kenneth Clark, the famous art historian, said at the end of his book, Civilisation.

I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.

How are Kenyans like Cheserek able to appear so likeable when they’re interviewed? Is it because, like other peoples from cultures that live close to the earth and close to their neighbors, they know the happiness of a self-restraint that opens room for others’ realities?

It’s a quality of the Navaho and many other indigenous peoples. Contrast the behavior of virtually all the other athletes at NCAAs who gave cringe-worthy interviews. The exceptions were notable (e.g., Oregon’s Phyllis Francis) and the difference was striking.

The joys of courteous, expansive behavior are blindingly obvious. After the NCAAs, I was left with the feeling: “I care a lot about Cheserek. I’ll be cheering for him. He’s a beautiful guy. And I don’t give a damn about the others – they’ve got enough self-regard and don’t need mine. Where were their parents when they were growing up?”

Okay, I lied – I’ll quote Bernard Lagat.

“I’m super excited.”

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