The fastest marathon in history was held in Berlin on September 28, 2014. Its winner, Dennis Kimetto, finished 42 kilometers and 195 meters in 2:02:57. Dennis is Kenyan but he was not the only Kenyan among the first ten finishers: the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth finishers were as well. It is no coincidence that one year prior, the first five runners to cross the finish line were also Dennis’ compatriots.
When we talk about medium and long distance running, we think of Kenya. Its runners consistently take the highest positions at the podium. What is interesting to consider is that we could be more specific with regard to their place of birth, we could consider that a high percentage of them come from a tiny region within Kenya.
Located at an elevation of 2,000 meters, in the western plateaus of Kenya, there is an area called “Eldoret”, the home of the Kalenjin people, a tribe native to the Rift Valley. Barely four and a half million people, they are less than 10% of the total population of Kenya, and only 0.08% of the total world population; however it is the town with the highest concentration of athletic talent ever known.
A few examples in order to better understand the magnitude of their achievements: 17 American runners have finished a marathon in less than two hours and ten minutes in history, 32 runners from Kalenjin finished in under that time in October of 2011. Five American runners have succeeded in running a mile in under four minutes when in High School. In Kalenjin, in one out of ten high schools there are four or more runners that have achieved the same feat.
Looking at the statistics we can confirm that Kalenjin has the most successful athletes ever seen in any part of the world. What is the reason? How can we explain the success of this town?
Many theories exist, from the altitude at which they live (very high above 2,000 meters), and the way in which they process oxygen, to their diet rich in starch, the habit of running long distances as children, which is an average of ten kilometers per day to go back and forth to school. The issue with all of these explanations is that they are generic; they are not specific to the Kalenjin people. In many other parts of the world children must run long distances to get to school. There are other towns at elevated areas with little oxygen, yet the same explosion of athletic success does not occur.
There are more specific explanations that could explain the success of Kalenjin: anthropomorphic ones, the Kalenjin people have very long legs, in addition to extremely thin ankles and waists. This makes their legs act like pendulums that propel them forward using less energy.
Regardless of the reason that explains the anomaly of the Kalenjin people, the sports world is looking to find and capture the secret to success of a small farming town in order to copy, imitate, and replicate their athletic achievements.
The small tribe of Designers
Now is the time for designers. Design is perceived as the catalyst of change in the company. Designers are those who shape the future of much-admired organizations such as Apple or Samsung. “Service Design” influences public and private organizations and inspires them to create new policies, acting as the ears of their citizens. Lately, large consulting firms and banks around the world are approaching design studios in order to attract talent.
Without judging the aforementioned, we can say that designers are trendy. Just like the Kalenjin runners, they are a small group that is creating a global impact…even on the cover of Harvard Business Review. Now the challenge is to create more and more designers, to replicate their methodologies. It is time to dissect and multiply. Some days, although not every day, I like to think that I am a designer of interaction. If I were asked about the qualities that a good designer should have, I could give a fairly complete list.
An interaction designer must have the ability to structure and organize content in a solid and logical navigation system. It is important that the designer is good with texts, creating them, and making text meaningful to the user. If we talk about process, a designer must be capable of testing and iterating their proposals, which should respond to user feedback. This means good research skills are essential.
The proposed solutions must be very interactive, which is why we create animated flows and transitions. We cannot forget about the visual part, we must understand and be able to handle fonts, colors, or Gestalt laws. Additionally, it seems simple to fill our list with absurd qualities, but it is important to know how to say NO. We must weigh our decisions regarding our project carefully. And of course, we cannot forget about what is most important- not us, not our client- we are not the end user of the product. We must focus on the user for whom we are designing.
As in the case of the Kalenjin runners, the list of abilities helps us to understand certain achievements as a profession, but it does not explain the influence, or the concentration of talent that we see today surrounding design and designers.
The race that changed everything
Prior to 1968 the athletic world was very different from what we know today. At that time, white runners dominated each and every race. The Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968 changed everything in less than 1,500 meters. The starting gun sounded a new era of Kalenjin domination that was tough to believe.
In those 1,500 meters, Jim Ryum, the 23 year old American champion and world record holder faced off against the unknown Kenyan runner Kipchoge ‘Kip’ Keino, who balanced his love of sports with his job as a police officer in his small hometown.
Kip was registered to run the 10,000, 5,000, and 1,500 meter races. Between qualifying races and possible finals, he had to run six Olympic races in eight days, something that no professional would do today. Even then, it was fairly unusual, especially for someone who was not sufficiently prepared, as was the case for Kip.
His first race was 10,000 meters. With two laps to go, Kip was in the lead. Close to finishing the lap, he collapsed outside the track. The doctor diagnosed him with a gallbladder infection, which is extremely painful, especially when taking deep breaths or performing any type of physical activity. There was no way that Kip could run, his treatment was absolute rest, and his Olympic dreams had ended. Even so, Kip ran the 5,000 meter race, earning himself a silver medal.
After the race, the doctor ordered Kip immediately to bed, and warned him that he seriously risked death if he did not rest completely. Kip stayed in bed the three days following, and a few hours before the big race he got up and exclaimed:
“If I have to die may it be on the track”
At the beginning of the 1,500 meter race, Kip is trailing, the last of the group. At the end of the first lap Kip is third, rounding the second he is in the lead, but nothing is set in stone yet. Jim Ryum is known for his “last nick”, everyone is looking at Kip’s face, wrought with pain. Everyone is thinking that it isn’t possible to keep this up this frenzied pace with his medical problems. The last lap starts and it seems that the crowd was right, Jim Ryun start to move ahead while Kip continues making strange movements that reflect the intense pain shooting through his body. With gritted teeth and obvious signs of pain, Kip keeps up his pace, winning the 1,500 meter race and establishing a new world record.
For the Kalenjin people, pain is something very different from the pain that we know. It is through suffering that a child is accepted into the tribe. The circumcision ritual that signifies the entrance into the world of adults is an atrocious ceremony full of violence. Kalenjin children even prepare themselves for it by burning and scarring themselves. This tribe of warring farmers has increased their resistance to pain as one of their fundamental pillars. Mental strength is what defines a Kalenjin warrior.
The secret of a great runner is their increased resistance to pressure and pain tolerance. Professional sports mean living with injuries, with overtraining, with suffering. Any runner knows the WALL at kilometer 30. Running 42 kilometers under two and a half hours is agony. The best athletes are those that expand their pain barriers and are lucky enough to avoid serious injury in the process.
Current success in design comes from a greater ability to try to resist pressure from designers. The profiles of new, talented designers who are in demand are incredibly complex in terms of knowledge and abilities. I previously wrote a list of minimum requirements for interaction designers, our mission nowadays for a project is much greater.
Now, more than ever, we need to know our client and their context, and research what they need, since we no longer work alone and we need to transmit our discoveries to the rest of the company. We are constantly working with more technical and complex companies, therefore we must understand, even as a client of their business, that if we do not contribute to creating benefits, our role does not make sense.
These benefits are often found in decimal points; therefore we are constantly looking for data and analyses in order to find the best products. Our world is one that is changing technologically, which means we must understand the details in order to adjust our proposals and developments. Interfaces are now social; we don’t just create communication systems one by one, machine to person. Now we understand the psychology in order to adjust to group dynamics and their relationship with systems. We integrate ourselves with new methodologies, such as “Agile” that depend greatly on time, therefore the integration between design and development is critical. And we could continue ad infinitum.
It is not that design is trendy; it is that designers, those who make an effort, gritting their teeth and supporting the pressure of increasingly complex projects, have made it possible to break the “status quo” in the design world.
This idea of sacrifice and conquering new frontiers started to take shape when I attended the REBASE conference in Dublin. It is truly inspiring to see and hear designers who work hard and better themselves, solely for the sake of taking pride in their work. I think that each project is an act of philosophy, that with each design we offer the best of ourselves. It is not about being the best, but about lacing up our sneakers, going out for a run, suffering, and enjoying it.
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
Thank you to Rebase
Thanks to the Rebase organization (@fs_filipek, @iamsmoloney, @patcusack, @geoffreykeating, @cloudsteph), everything went perfectly. Given ating, @cloudsteph), todo funcionó a la perfección. En lo personal y de my personal and particular interests, the seminars such as those given by Claire Rowland and Workshops in which the “Internet of the Things” was the main topic: Design for a Connected World with Ciarán Harris, Paul Donnan & Sheena Bouchier were particularly engaging. Thank you to all of the speakers for your inspiring seminars.
- Emmet Connolly
- Kara Pecknold
- Sarah Drummond
- Henry Poskitt
- Lynsey Thornton
- Goran Peuc
- Gerry McGovern
- Cennydd Bowles
- Elizabeth McGuane
- Kate O’Daly
Was great to meet and talk with great professionals and better people like
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