Sport from the Side-lines is a mini-series from Mitch Marshall, speaking to those who bring unique perspectives about sport into the limelight, without being elite sportspeople themselves. While they share Mitch’s love for sport, it is their insight into sports’ broader lessons about society, culture and the essence of being human that make them so fascinating.
Adharanand Finn is an award-winning sports writer, most famously of Running with the Kenyans. The book tells the story of life in Iten, Kenya’s self-proclaimed “home of champions”. The town is located along the Elgeyo escarpment, over 2000 meters above sea level. In a nation renowned for athletic success, Iten has retained its reputation as a veritable production line of talent.
Adharanand is something of a personal hero to me. Unravelling epic tales of endurance alongside heartfelt personal experiences, his works offer a fantastic purview of running cultures around the world, from Japan’s marathon relay races to the obsessions and excesses of ultra-runners. He told me that he often waits a couple of days after an experience to write about it.
“In my head I was still a serious runner”
So, who am I not to take his advice? Here I am, two days after the Zoom call, attempting to fashion a coherent whole from the many topics we spent over an hour chatting about. Let’s start with a bit of background.
Adharanand Finn had been a keen runner in his school days – a long-haired vegetarian at a state comprehensive who nearly, but never quite, made the national cross-country team. Then came university, where Finn ran but dropped down the rankings rapidly as the university lifestyle got hold of him, as it does so many of us. A career in the media followed, eventually taking him to ITV and the Guardian working as a news editor, a path which left little space for running. By his 30s, Finn told me, he was borderline obese. He was, to borrow fellow runner-writer Richard Askwith’s saying, the perfect image of a city-dwelling, sybaritic yuppie.
“In my head I was still a serious runner”, Finn says, but in an ironic foreshadowing of a future life, a trip to Japan meant he saw an Ekiden. These “crazy long-distance relay races are some of the most popular sporting events in the country”, drawing huge viewership figures and sponsorship deals which facilitate the existence of “professional company teams”. But they are also prevalent at all levels of Japanese society, like some sort of marathon version of Europe’s mass participation parkrun events. To the Japanese running community, Ekiden “means so much”. Was he not tempted, as a runner, to join in? Maybe, Finn says but points out that he was too hungover to join in. And so another race narrowly passed him by.
Alongside working for the Guardian, Adharanand was also a freelance writer and, in another serendipitous twist of fate, he noticed that the magazine Runners’ World did race reports. This gave Finn his chance, one which it sounds like even he knew might be his last to properly engage again with his childhood passion: “I’m 35, better get back to it pretty quickly” he told himself.
And he hasn’t looked back since. He has now published a trilogy of books on running, disparate in theme but unified by a personal touch which makes the works hang together as a testament to him, in his words, becoming “a runner again”. The final work is on the Rise of the Ultra-Runners, and culminates in Finn completing races covering over a hundred miles, bringing on not just physical cramps but hallucinations too. His accounts of finishing these races, the most gruelling of which take him to the ”depths of the abyss”, include being overcome with such peaks of emotion that he’s left “crying, tears running down my face”. Where, exactly, does one go after that?
Well, without revealing too much, Finn is persistently lobbying his agent and publishers to allow him to pursue a story about a now-deceased runner he first heard about on a running trip abroad. This story is one of startlingly under-reported athletic triumphs and how running intersects with the darker sides of society, too. Finn’s ability to combine superhuman athletic performance with a common human touch is integral to his writing, and unique outlook on running. Our discussions of the commercialisation of running, for example, show how Finn is much more than just an eloquent writer who happens to be a darned good runner. He also has an acute eye for the socio-cultural in a sport which can often seem deeply individual.
I ask why running doesn’t attract the same mass-market TV consumption as sports like football, or even cycling, might. In a typically lateral way, Finn answers with an analogy about Uruguayan football. While English fans might pay to watch Brighton and Chelsea play out a drab stalemate on Sky TV, the chances of them watching a Uruguayan league match where nobody knows the players is never going to happen. Sport has to mean more than what’s happening on the pitch or the course.
When companies in the West have imitated the Ekiden format, or tried to create new running competitions and allegiances through brands such as the NN running team, headed up by marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge for instance, Finn notes that it has been ”just a bit of fun”. Fundamentally, athletes still keep events like the London Marathon or the Olympics as their primary focus. Until new forms of running competition develops “so much history” like Ekiden has, then its appeal will fail to surpass that of a pre-season friendly or “Liverpool playing Liverpool reserves”.
““If the next book I write is a running book that’s all I’m ever going to write about”
All this is what makes the spectacle of the Ekiden races which Adharanand experienced in Japan during his research for his second book, The Way of the Runner, so intriguing. In a country where, Finn tells me, physical newspaper sales continue to reach a million copies a day for some papers, and where those newspapers often sponsor the teams involved in the Ekiden relays, rather like the early days of cycling in Europe, there is a real sense that sport has become “soap opera”. Much like Premier League footballers, the star Ekiden runners are subject to rumour about their form or potential moves to other outfits. Add to this the shows of extreme emotion which characterise Japanese running culture – a culture otherwise typified by restraint – and it can be seen why Ekiden as a product means much more to Japanese audiences than the average European marathon race does to populations there.
Returning to Finn’s personal experiences writing his books, how does that experience as the vegetarian kid on a council estate prepare you for life in Kenya and Japan, or hunkering down for the night in an ultra-running legend’s front room? Well, Finn “has always been comfortable” as something of an outsider, which helps. Having moved around a lot in his life, reckoning his total membership of different running clubs at 15, Finn knows not to upset the “boss man” in a new environment.
“I was always a bit irked they never gave me a Kenyan name”
From reading his books, you get a great sense that Finn successfully ingratiates himself with runners across the world without becoming a hindrance, which is important given that many of the runners, as he himself notes, are far faster than him. This was particularly true in Kenya; still, even after extended periods spend on training retreats with local runners in Iten, he “was always a bit irked that they never gave me a Kenyan name” especially when fellow Brit Tom Payn was awarded the effortlessly cool moniker kiprop.
Then, more succinctly than I could, Adharanand summed up the genius of his writing. Writing about running could be rather monotonous: as Finn says, to some running is simply a series of “left, right, left, right, left, right”. Yet in his books the running frequently takes a back seat to the experience of being, often only briefly, in entirely new surrounding, the emotional experience of recovering from a mammoth mental and physical effort, or the fortunes of friends made along the way. He says that he has “a lot more to give as a writer”, and is keen not to be pigeon-holed. On this theme, he notes that “if the next book I write is a running book that’s all I’m ever going to write about”. However, the investigative and writing prowess which he could apply to almost any topic still seem particularly well-suited to the personal, emotional but also at times incredibly communal experience of running.
For all that the amazing runners Adharanand Finn meets could be seen from the outside as automatons, the joy of Finn’s writing is this: that he makes these people, and his own experiences, into models of humanity. And that is something we can all fall in love with, no matter if we love running.
Thanks to Adharanand for speaking to me and for being so generous with his time and with his thoughts, which were too extensive to fully cajole into an article.