The Boston Marathon and the Fascinating History of Kenyan Runners in Books

Elizabeth Demers

Kenyan superstar Hellen Obiri will line up at the start of the Boston Marathon with 60 other elite female runners from around the globe on April 15, 2024. As the winner of last year’s Boston and New York Marathons, Obiri is the favorite even though she is not one of the record-breaking 11 women in the race who have already clocked sub-2:20 finishes. has the breakdown of all the elites in the field, with their times. These are heady days for running fans, and the Boston Marathon promises to be one of the most exciting race days ever.

As if this weren’t exciting enough, a week later, 10 sub-2:18 women will line up at the start of the London marathon. These include world record holder, Ethiopian Tigst Assefa, who set a new world record in Berlin in 2023, in 2:11:53. The London marathon is the most-watched race in the world, according to, and will feature 6 Ethiopians; 9 runners from the USA, GBR, and France; and 5 runners from Kenya, including the incredible former world record holder, Brigid Kosgei. I’ll be there in London, too, trucking along in the slipstream, hoping to pick up my sixth star, craning my neck from the back start corrals to get a glimpse of these astoundingly talented women as they fly by.

Kenyan and Ethiopian runners dominate headlines for their incredible performances in the marathon majors. Assefa holds the course (and world) record in Berlin; Margaret Okayo (KEN) holds the NYC record; Buzunesh Deba (ETH) has Boston; and Kosgei—did I mention she’s incredible?—holds the records for Chicago and Tokyo. As of this writing, Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 record of 2:15 in London still stands. But after next week—anything could happen.

As dominant as they are, the East African runners comprise less than half of Boston’s elite women’s field. Of the 61 runners lining up in Hopkinton, only 8 are from Kenya; 11 are from Ethiopia, and one is from Eritrea. Almost half of the field is comprised of Americans—28—while the rest of the contenders on Patriots’ Day are from a smattering of other countries, most notably places that were once part of the British empire. London’s field skews even more toward the former British empire. This colonial connection turns out to be important to the story of the rise of global track and field, particularly in Kenya.

While most explanations about why the Kenyans are so good at long-distance running focus on external factors like altitude, genetics, and a lifetime habit of running, Michelle Sikes’s new book, Kenya’s Running Women: A History, focuses on the historical and social factors that led to the development of Kenya’s international running superstars. According to Sikes, herself a track and field standout, British colonial officials relied on concepts of “muscular Christianity” to promote their vision of manliness through sport. Centered on athletics, these British administrators developed colonial (later national) amateur governing bodies to focus young men’s energy on the playing fields rather than on cattle raiding or other masculine rites of passage into adulthood. These programs, geared toward boys and young men, were located in schools and supported by the educational infrastructure. Since women were often not able to attend schools past the primary level, their opportunities to participate in formal competition were limited. Add this to a colonial culture that prioritized male experience and development, and Kenyan women and girls faced a difficult road. Yet, they persisted.

From the Diana Monks controversy in the mid-1960s, where the white Kenyan athlete was banned from international competition for missing a meet, to today’s international role models, Kenyan women have had to make their way. They used professional opportunities as employees of the army, post office, and prison departments, which offered training for elite male and female athletes. They challenged cultural mores of what it meant to be female, sometimes delaying marriage and motherhood to pursue the careers that would allow them to compete. And when successful, they helped rewrite gendered concepts of patronage, using their wealth to enrich their families and communities and inspire a new generation of runners. As Sikes writes, “Enough Kenyan women have emerged as international running stars to suggest that real and positive change for women is happening. This is not to say that gender equality in the sport has been fully realized or that entrenched ideas about the incompatibility of athletics, marriage, and motherhood has been erased. . . . [Yet], families and communities have increasingly come to regard women as athletes in their own right, widely respected for their many accomplishments (127-28).”

Elizabeth Demers Marathon
Elizabeth Demers

It’s probable that over the next two weeks, one of today’s generation of Kenya’s running women will break down those barriers even further, maybe by smashing a course or world record. This running fan will tune in. I can’t wait to see what happens!

–Elizabeth Demers is the Director of the MSU Press. A longtime runner, her Personal Best (PB) is a BQ of 3:53:21 at the 2012 Detroit International Marathon. She is going for her sixth star in London on April 21st.

Image Credit: 2012 IAAF World Indoor by Mardetanha3268.JPG