Kip Keino baffled sportswriters. Nobody could figure out how he grinned his way to world records and gold medals while his opponents collapsed behind him. They blamed everything from upbringing, environment, natural talent and tribal rituals— unwilling to believe that he simply trained like a madman. 

He certainly benefited from his upbringing and environment: as a boy he herded goats for his abusive uncle. He spent all day scurrying over steep Kenyan hills beneath the hot, African sun. When his father finally allowed Kip to attend school he had to run there and back. He did all this barefoot, at altitude. His upbringing prepared his youthful legs and lungs for a career in aerobic endeavors.  

His training, however, sculpted him into a world-beater. He began running seriously after joining the police academy, where they had him mix distance runs and sprints three times a week. On his first trip abroad, he watched how his competition ran interval workouts. After his first Olympics, he spoke to Mal Whitfield— the legendary American runner— who taught him how to think, live and train like a champion. Keino cobbled together his own training that worked for him: he ran three times a day, with interval sessions three times a week. Then, each year, he’d hop on a plane and race like a maniac. 

In his first trip abroad he finished last in the Commonwealth Games (but set Kenyan records). In his first Olympics, in Tokyo, he finished fifth in the 5000m and failed to make the 1500m final. Three years after that he won a silver and a gold medal at the Olympics. The next year, he set a world record in the 3000m, the 5000m, and ran the second fastest mile of all time (the first black runner under four minutes). Then he won two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. At his next Olympics, in Mexico City, he collapsed in the 10,000m (from a gallbladder infection), won silver in the 5000m four days later, and won the 1500m in an Olympic record three days after that. Two years later he won double gold in the Commonwealth Games again. Two years after that, at the Munich Olympics, he won a gold medal in the steeplechase and silver medal in the 1500m.

He did most of this with a smile on his face. Reporters needed to find some reason, some explanation for his success. The first man to break four had done it between his shifts at a hospital. How could Keino, an uneducated African farmer, so dominate the distances of doctors? Keino would tell them, “There is nothing special about me. There will soon be many in Kenya as good as me.” 

While his harsh upbringing and environment laid the foundations for greatness, his intense training turned him into a world-beater, and his grinning wins inspired a legacy of Kenyan champions for decades to come.