What’s in a game: How you, me, and a Kenyan runner see pain

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On Sunday Sept. 15, Kenyan runner Geoffrey Kamworor shattered the half-marathon world record in 58:01. He ranks among a long list of Kenyan runners who dominate the sport.

According to one NPR report, 17 men in American history have ever run a sub 2:10 marathon, while 32 runners from the small Kalenjin tribe in Kenya did it in October 2011. 

For years, scientists attempted to uncover the secret of Kenyan runners’ success, attributing it to physiological advantages, diet, lifestyle, or perhaps socio-economic pressures. Yet none of their answers seemed satisfying in light of the high concentration of elite runners hailing from minority tribes, such as the Kalenjin tribe.

Then, journalist John Manners discovered something truly distinctive of these people: their society’s view of pain. 

Manners noted that in order to be considered a full member of society in some Kenyan tribes, such as the Kalenjin, young men must undergo an excruciating initiation ritual. Kalenjin boys, for example, undergo a ritual that includes being beaten, crawling through African stinging nettles, and circumcision with a stick, according to an NPR report. 

In the traditional Kalenjin ritual, not only must the young man undergo this painful procedure in order to be considered a man in his society, he must do so unflinchingly. If dry mud on his face cracks during the circumcision, he is labeled an outcast and is not allowed a wife. 

This brutal initiation suggests that elements of Kenyan culture exalt pain and celebrate perseverance, something reinforced from generation to generation, elevating a strong sense of mental toughness as a virtue. Raised in a society where pain is glorified and even sought after (boys will often hurt themselves to prepare for their initiation, according to a WNYC podcast), it is less surprising that these tribes excel in running, a sport which is all about pushing through pain. 

The way in which Kenyan society views pain challenges our own society: it is overwhelmingly clear that Western culture, as a whole, will do everything it can to avoid pain and effort. We travel from air-conditioned building to building, our groceries are delivered to our door and some of us have only read summaries of our Iliad reading. If life becomes too painful to live, some use alcohol and drugs to numb themselves.

Try as we might to avoid pain, we will quickly discover, to our disappointment, that pain is unavoidable in the human condition. And although Kenyan culture perhaps over-glorifies one’s ability to push through pain, I think that their rituals reveal something that Western culture, at large, glosses over: the edifying nature of perseverance through pain.

Unlike the Kalenjin, I do not suggest that we define manhood or womanhood by one’s ability to withstand the pain of an initiation ritual. On the contrary, there is something beautiful in the fragility of our humanity, and our weakness invites us to recognize that we are not self-sufficient beings. And I think that there are opportunities to learn the virtue of perseverance beyond initiation rituals. 

But Western culture, as a whole, needs to come to a greater appreciation of the edifying nature of suffering. The view of pain found in Kenyan culture teaches us that pain is an opportunity for perseverance, and thus is even an opportunity for grace (I think we find here the intersection of our topic and the redemptive nature of our faith). Rather than being a burden on our human experience, pain has the potential to elevate it. If nothing else, the Kenyan runner invites us to recognize pain as exactly what it is and to keep running. 

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