Here is an excerpt from Alexander Wolff's excellent profile of the marathoner Alberto Salazar, in a recent Sports Illustrated:
Salazar ticks off the ironic circumstances that seem to cast the U.S. as a Third World country in distance running: "As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old who run 10 to 12 miles a day. . . The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American--and a lot of that's at altitude. They're motivated because running is a way out. Plus they don't have a lot of other sports for kids to be drawn into. Numbers are what this is all about. In Kenya there are maybe 100 runners who have hit 2:11 in the marathon--and in the U.S. maybe five. . . "
With those figures, coaches in Kenya can train their athletes to the outer limits of endurance--up to 150 miles a week--without worrying that their pool of talent will be meaningfully depleted. Even if four out of every five runners break down, the fifth will convert that training into performance...
We've always known that running is culturally important in Kenya, in a way it isn't anywhere else in the world. But these are staggering numbers. A million 10 to 17 year olds running 10 to 12 miles a day? I'm guessing the United States doesn't have more than 5,000 or so boys in that age bracket logging that kind of mileage. 70 miles a week is an enormous amount of running--even for an adult. I ran middle distance at a nationally competitive level as a teenager, and never got close to 70 miles a week.
I know this isn't going to put the genetic argument about Kenyan running dominance to rest. But maybe it should. It's a far more parsimonious explanation. No one ever claims that Canadians are genetically superior to everyone else when it comes to hockey, or that Dominicans have a genetic advantage when it comes to baseball. We all accept the fact that those two countries succeed at those sports because they draw their elite talent from a developmental pool that is simply larger--in relative and in some cases absolute terms--that other nations. Its a numbers game. If Kenya really has a million kids, doing that kind of mileage, then we scarcely need any other explanation for their success.
Here's the appropriate thought experiment. Imagine that every year 50 percent of all American 10 year old boys were shipped to Boulder Colorado, where they ran 50 to 70 miles a week at altitude for the next seven years. Would the United States regain control of international middle and long distance running?