Robert Cheruiyot recalls the anguish of growing up in a broken home, forced to live with a string of relatives in Kenya's highlands.
The only constant was poverty and the memory is not lost on him as he pounds a running course as few runners can.
"It made me think a lot about my future then, and it is still a powerful driving force," said Cheruiyot, who last Monday won his third Boston Marathon title in five attempts.
Cheruiyot is among the many East Africans to have thrived since road racing began awarding prize money in the 1980s.
The 28-year-old runner attributes the supremacy to a fiery hunger for success in the highlands of Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia.
Scientists and road racing experts say there may be other critical forces, including genetic and environmental factors and the lure of money as marathons evolved from amateur to professional events.
A 2000 study of Kenyan, South African and Scandinavian endurance runners showed that the Kenyans' long, slender legs could give them an advantage. The research by the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center in Denmark indicates Kenyans may need less energy to move their less dense legs.
East Africans also spent years running long distances to and from schools when they were children, unlike counterparts from richer countries, Cheruiyot said.
"I used to run for about 25 minutes when going to school in the morning and on the way back home in the afternoon," he said, describing his experience of growing up in Kenya's Rift Valley Province.
Great Rift Valley
The bulk of Kenya's and Ethiopia's top athletes come from rural highland areas on the Great Rift Valley, a massive depression running from southeastern Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.
Growing up and playing in areas where supplies of oxygen become thinner with rising altitude helped many East African runners prepare for endurance events, said Patrick Lynch, who helps recruit top runners for the Boston Marathon.
Amby Burfoot, the US winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, compared East African runners to "the little economy cars that can go 50 miles on a gallon [80km on 3.8 liters] of gasoline -- they can run more miles, and faster."
Runners from East Africa hold 116 of the top 396 men's marathon results of all time, with Kenya's Paul Tergat holding the world marathon record of 2 hours, 4 minutes, 55 seconds. East Africans have also recorded seven of the top 10 results.
Kenyan men have won in Boston 15 times in the last 17 years and East Africans have won the New York City Marathon seven times since 1997. East African men also won the London Marathon four times during that period.
East African distance runners first made their mark when Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila set a world record while running barefoot at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
People in the US learned more about of the East Africans during the 1968 Olympics when the uncoached Kipchoge Keino of Kenya won the 1,500m, beating Jim Ryun by 20m -- then the largest margin of victory ever in the event.
East Africans became increasingly prominent in European, Asian and US marathon circuits, but their mastery was established in the 1980s after prize money was introduced.
The financial incentives galvanized shoe companies and athletic managers set up training camps in Kenyan highlands, encouraging talented runners to take advantage of prize money and appearance fees.
Success comes at such a steep physical price for endurance runners that many elite marathoners compete only twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall.
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