UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Watch almost any women’s distance running competition today and you will likely see a Kenyan near the front of the pack. Kenyan women won three of the six major international marathons in 2023, as well as 29 Olympic medals since Pauline Konga became the first woman runner to medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Former professional runner Michelle Sikes, assistant professor of kinesiology, of African studies and of history at Penn State, lived and trained with these women in Kenya for several months. While there, she spoke with the trailblazing athletes who set the course for the country’s current generation of women runners.
Sikes detailed what she learned in her new book, “Kenya’s Running Women: A History,” in which she examines how Kenya’s women runners overcame challenges to become some of the fastest distance runners in the world today.
Penn State News spoke with Sikes about her book and its implications for understanding sport and women’s roles in society.
Q: You lived and trained in Kenya while conducting your research for this book. What’s a typical day like training in Kenya?
Sikes: You wake up around 6 a.m. and do your first run of the day, typically in a large group. You gather at a meeting point in the village, the sun is just coming up, and you’ll shuffle off down the road, not at a fast pace, just to get your legs moving and get some mileage under your feet.
Then there’s a second run at 10 a.m. That’s the key workout of the day. It could be a Fartlek — varying your pacing or difficulty during the run — a steady run or intervals. Then some people return for a third run around 4 p.m. The length of the training sessions depends on your event. If you’re a marathoner, you could be out there a long time. If you’re a track athlete like me, it’s a shorter distance. It varies based on your needs.
Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?
Sikes: I have been a runner for most of my life. I was an athlete in high school and in my senior year of college won the NCAA Division I championship in the 5,000 meters. In graduate school, I wanted to study the societal aspects of sport and how sport can be a lens to understand society and people. With running being my particular passion, I also always wanted to go to Kenya. I pursued my doctoral degree at Oxford University, where they have a vibrant African Studies Centre, and from there, it was easier to go to Kenya because the United Kingdom has deep ties to the African continent due to the legacy of colonial rule.
I was interested in understanding the journeys of the first generation of female athletes from Kenya, the pathbreakers, the ones who were the first to compete at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, the first to leave the country and the continent. There’s some documentation on the topic, but there’s a need for more work on the history of African sport and in particular women and the obstacles they managed to overcome.
This book sheds light on a culture and a community that is regarded as the fastest in the world. It helps us to understand how sport can change ideas about identity and community, in particular women and women’s place in society.
Q: Can you walk us through the main themes of the book?
Sikes: The title, “Kenya’s Running Women: A History,” really sums it up. It takes us chronologically through the 20th century and the state of women’s running from the colonial era, the 1920s and ‘30s when organized sport starts to take root in Kenya, to the professionalization of running in the late ‘80s and ‘90s when we see the first large-scale presence of Kenyan women competing internationally.
By the time Kenya gains independence in 1963, we have Kenyan men representing the nation at major events and competitions, but we don’t have any women traveling outside the country. It’s not until the mid- to late ‘60s that for the first time Kenya’s running women make their debut at the Commonwealth Games, the East African Athletics Championships and the 1986 Mexico City Olympic Games. The latter was the Olympics where the Kenyan men made their enormously successful debut as world record beaters — they won gold, silver and bronze across all the major distance events and shocked the world — but I would argue that the three women representing Kenya for the first time in track and field events should have received more attention even though they didn’t make the finals. They were there, and that’s exciting.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the men continued to gain attention, win medals and set records. We didn’t see much on the women’s side, and the number of women able to compete at the international level remained fairly low. We see the first large-scale presence of Kenyan women competing internationally in the late 1980s and the ‘90s. That comes, I argue, with the sport shedding its amateur rules, when running becomes an acceptable and legitimate profession. Women were able to race for money and earn a living. New opportunities opened to them during this era.
So, in the book I explore the tension between men’s and women’s running and look at the obstacles and challenges that prevented the women from emerging at the same pace as the men. I also look at the strategies that the women who did succeed used and what allowed them to get to that point.
Q: What were some of the obstacles that the women had to overcome?
Sikes: All Kenyan runners were challenged by the environment in terms of scarcity of resources when it comes to fast tracks and opportunities to record the times needed to race at major international events. When it rained, the dirt tracks that they used could become heavy, making it difficult to record fast times. This hindered the women more than the men, because the men had the opportunity to come to the United States and compete as student athletes. Certain universities around the U.S. recruited them, and once here, they did very well.
The women, on the other hand, were affected because Title IX had yet to be enforced, so there wasn’t the equivalent number of scholarships available for women — American or international — as there were for men. So, the women remained in Kenya and competed in domestic competitions, but there weren’t that many competitions and the weather was an obstacle.
There’s also the altitude issue. Kenya’s main races take place at altitude where you can’t run as fast. You need to be at sea level to record quick times.
And there were cultural issues. When push came to shove, resources in a family were more likely to go towards educating a son rather than a daughter. Once women got married, it was a challenge to maintain an athletic career when there are expectations that come with being a wife and a mother.
Q: How did they overcome these challenges?
Sikes: In many ways, they followed the mold that the men had established before them. If a young girl demonstrated talent and was able to continue her interest in running, she first had to have the resources in her family to go to primary and secondary school.
There were opportunities for women in the major institutions in Kenya, which stemmed from the massive legacy of sport left by the British in the form of schools and institutions that promoted sport and competition. Both the military and police reserved spots for women, and there were parastatal institutions like the post and telecommunications. Athletics could be a criterion for employment in these state and government positions. These entities would send teams to competitions in Kenya, and they wanted the best athletes. This environment gave women a protected space where they could earn a living wage while being coached in running. Once Title IX became more enforced in the U.S., scholarships started to open up for women, and Kenyan women were able to leverage these opportunities, travel outside Kenya, earn college degrees and really be at the cutting edge of education and sport.
Q: What do you hope this book accomplishes?
Sikes: I hope that the trailblazing women whom I interviewed live on in this book. And I hope that readers come away realizing that sport is a great way to understand society more broadly.