"Whenever black people are really, really good at shit—historically, for some reason, white people want to find some sort of magic bullet to explain away some advantage. It's bullshit. The Kalenjin people have this sense of being really present. They're not a complacent people. They make do with what they have. It's the sense of an ideal climate, elevation, struggle, being able to be present, and knowing how to endure—I think those are all things that weave into the Kenyans having an advantage. And for Jake and Zane, they bought into the system of living there, adopting struggle, adopting that making-do lifestyle, and being present—basically adopting that Kenyan attitude toward living—that's when the altitude and all that other shit evens out. And when they were able to run amongst the Kenyans."
- Sal Masekela, host of VICE World of Sports and Jake and Zane.
Kenyan Marathoners by The Numbers
Total Population of Kenya: 45,010,056
Long distance champions that are Kenyan in major competitions since the late 1980s: 70-80 percent
Population of Kalenjin people: 4,967,328
Percentage of long distance champions that are Kalenjin: 75 percent
Percentage that Kalenjin make out of the World population: 0.06 percent
Number of Robertson twins that have trained in Kenya: 2
Sport and Society
It's hard to parse out exactly what it is about Kenya that makes it ideal for long distance running conditions. You could point to the fact that the majority of top runners train in elevations of upwards of 8,000 feet, calibrating their blood-oxygen levels to demand more from their bodies. You could say that it's the lifestyle: the diet of ugali (a legendary corn mixture), the early-to-bed, hard-working lifestyle, and the ability to persevere through harsh conditions. Some point to the fact that time is handled differently there. There are few watches or clocks in the majority of rural Kenya, causing runners to train not for time and personal records, so much as beating out the other runners they're racing with. And some, yes, point to genetics.
But regardless if there's a "secret" or not, Kenyans are indisputably good—so much so, that they claim eight of the top 10 marathon world record times in the men's division, only bowing out twice to geographic neighbors Ethiopia, and claiming four of the top 10 in the women's division.
One of the more fabled incidents of Kenyan perseverance is that of Hyvon Ngetich. The 29-year-old was nearing the finish line of the Austin Marathon in February 2015, when her body collapsed, leaving her on all fours to cross the finish line. She was offered help and a wheelchair by medical staff, but refused the help. She crawled to the finish line on her hands and knees with two-tenths of a mile to go, and still took third place.
It is that very legendary culture and those conditions that caused the Robertson twins, Jake and Zane, to leave their team sport-obsessed country of New Zealand to train with the best runners in the world—on their path to becoming the fastest non-East African marathoners in the world.
Catching Up With...
We had a chat with producers Tad Munnings and Michael Del Monte about what it was like to spend time with the Robertson twins, as they got to know Jake and Zane's unique status as fully-immersed outsiders in the village of Iten for the past 10 years. They had a bit of experience in the field, as Tad spent a couple of years growing up in East Africa and Michael has a background in elite long distance running. They were working on their film Transcend, about a former Boston marathon champion, Wesley Korir, who was in the process of running for politics in Kenya, when they met Jake and Zane and decided they had to tell their story separately. That's when they connected with VICE.
How would you describe Jake and Zane to someone who doesn't know them? And what's the deal with their style?
Michael: In one way, they're complete clowns. They went there [Iten, Kenya] when they were 17, and so in some ways, they haven't grown up. They're still kids. They're kind of wild at heart. They're rambunctious, a little bit like maniacs. On the other level, they're totally dedicated. They're not out partying. They don't stay out after 10. They don't drink. They're totally committed to their craft. They have the illusion of being these funny guys who don't take anything seriously—they're these ballers; they put on this show, these wannabe gangster types. But once it's time to run, you'll never see guys more committed, and more serious about what they're doing.
Tad: They kinda started as sneakerheads, but it's kind of been Africanized a little bit. Jake spends more time in Kenya, so he tends to be a little more toned down. He just kind of keeps it oldschool. He likes basketball—that's his style. Zane lives in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia. So he's much more influenced by a very flashy sort of African-style culture, which is kind of like silk shirts and outrageous blazers. I would say they like to make a statement as much as possible.
If you met those guys and they weren't serious runners, you'd think whatever—they're just guys goofing around. But the fact that they are the fastest non-East Africans on the planet, it's pretty darn impressive. When you're doing that, then all that other behavior to me becomes fascinating. What is that? Is that their way of managing the seriousness and the pressure of who they are? Is that their way of letting loose, and kind of being something? I think the whole thing takes on a different life because of how committed they are and what they're doing.
M: It's pretty boring, pretty monotonous, in a sense. It depends on the season, but sometimes they'll run twice a day, sometimes three times a day. And they're usually up pretty early—around 5am, 5:30am. And they'll have their tea or coffee—usually on an empty stomach. If they're doing three a day, they'll just wake up and go run in the dark, come back and have their tea and coffee until about 10am, when they usually do their main session. It could be a track workout with a big group; it could be an interval workout on the road, or a long run. They'll burn 2,000 calories in that session, and they'll be out for two hours. They'll come back and hardly eat much—either eat beans or rice. Very little meat. They have like 10 ingredients that they choose from, and then they just rest. In the evenings, another light session. At night, it's dinner, relax, and they're shut down by 8:30pm, 9pm, and they're sleeping. If that's what you love to do, there's no greater place on earth.
The other thing that's important about distance running is that it's such an integers-based sport. It's not like basketball season, where there's a lot of subjectivity to how they feel and how they're performing. They have mileage goals they have to hit. They have to run 100 miles a week, so it's all based on this routine where you're trying to measure up. But you're trying to weigh yourself with these integers from year to year, based on how you feel, and the group you're running with. In a way, it can be very stressful if you're not hitting these goals. These individual sports are massive mind games. You almost have to trick yourself—you almost have to become something. I think part of that humorous personality is who they are, but it's also a way to not be a runner for a bit.
T: You see that about people pushing their limits. You see that it doesn't come easy. You see Jake struggling to run—you think, ok, whatever. But to him, if you don't run, you're nothing, so every day is a mounting level of stress increase. It's interesting to see when those guys kind of fly off the handle—at one level, it seems immature, but at another level, it seems like, wow, that's how tightly wound you are.
M: In terms of the mindsets, they've certainly acclimatized to the pain and the suffering, unlike a lot of the North Americans. At the same time, when you're not born there, they'll never fully have that true, true desperation that you see from a lot of these guys when it comes to finishing a race. And I think they're learning it. Jake and Zane are starting to kick. But when you see the Kenyans and the Ethiopians, they're running like it's their only hope. But they do go to race a lot in North America, they read all the running forums, so they still do listen to the Nike groups, and the big groups in America. They learn a little more about nutrition and they bring some of that. And they learn about recovery, whereas the Kenyan form of recovery is to sit under a tree for four hours, and have a Coke.
T: The one thing they have learned is that when you grown up in Africa, you don't have a watch, and you're not doing laps at a track. All you're doing is running. And If you're in front at the end, it means you're faster than the other guys. They only run to win—there's no second place. They don't run to finish; they run to win the race. At the beginning, Jake and Zane didn't have that opportunity—they couldn't compete. There was no winning. But in the last couple of years, Zane, every race he goes to, he's running to win. There's no interest in finishing third—it's not going to be impressive to him. I think he's adopted that. That's not always a great strategy, long term, but man, it's exciting to watch. Knowing that when the guy's on the starting line, he's playing for keeps.
T: According to the Kenyans that live in Iten, they're not visitors. They've earned the right to run, and I think all of their value comes from the training. They don't drop in for six weeks a year. They live every day like the Kenyans, so I think they very much earned their respect.
M: And that's only in Iten—when they go to Elderat, only a few people know them. It really is a small world—this small town in the piece. They've done it in the Kenyan's minds. At first they were visitors, and then they were kind of guests, and then they were family.
T: What makes them so fascinating is that they're a lens into a different world. They'll never be Africans. It alludes very strongly to what Michael says: there are really no rich runners in Africa. Once you have money, you don't run because running's too hard. So in a way, all these runners have struggled. And so Jake and Zane are never going to beat that, exactly. They've adopted that, and they've been genuine in it. They eat the food; they live the life; they wash in a bucket shower; they shit in a hole; they do all the things that these guys do, and I think part of that's no mistake. It's: 'I don't want that special treatment. I'm going to do it just like they do it.' And I think that's taken years, but they have that respect, but they also have other opportunities, and let's not pretend that they don't.