The Power of One: Exclusive Interview With Toby Tanser

You have a lot of celebrity power behind Shoe 4 Africa. You have big names like Anthony Edwards and Natalie Portman supporting the cause. Do these people help you in a lot of ways?

It helps and it doesn’t help. For instance, I often get an email from people saying, “Hey, why are you out looking for money when you have those kind of people involved? What is our $10 going to do?” The actual fact of the matter is that having a celebrity endorse a charity doesn’t necessarily mean they open a checkbook. They aren’t the answer to all your financial problems. I mean, Anthony [Edwards] was very generous in giving us an episode of ER. But for instance, Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s great. He gives us products to give out for the floods in Kibera, but I think he gave us around $2,000. And so it’s good and bad. But Shoe 4 Africa is not really a celebrity organization. My thought and my belief is that the actual running community would come together and that was the thought behind a $10 brick. There are 30 million people in America who call themselves runners. If a fraction of all those people gave money, we could do something about not having this children’s hospital. Small donations really can make a big impact.

Your charity work is done primarily in Kenya and Tanzania but not in Ethiopia. Why is that? And do you have any plans to expand to other parts of Africa besides East Africa?

My goal is actually to go from one country to one country to one country. I actually did an event in Morocco in 2006. Ethiopia is a natural place to expand, because I have a lot of friends who are Ethiopian runners. The Ethiopian government is not so happy about people bringing new shoes into the country. It’s basically illegal. They don’t want second-hand things. Second-hand markets create the dependency on the West for charitable aid. It doesn’t promote industry as such. How I get around that with Shoe 4 Africa is that I actually don’t give out shoes — I make the women run for them to get something back. There are a lot of charities that will take over shipments of clothes and that doesn’t really help the local community, because it just teaches the local community to wait for the next shipment. But should I get the funding, I would very much like to expand into other African countries.

You’ve been around a lot of East African runners. As a coach, what are a few lessons you’ve learned from them that you try to impart on your athletes?

One of the biggest things that (the) East Africans (have) taught me was the fact that a bad day is just a bad day. When I coach Western athletes and somebody runs badly in the group, they go home to the Internet and research. Then, they come back to me and say, “Maybe I have an iron deficiency, or maybe I have something else going on.” And I tell them, “You had a bad run. You’ve had good runs, too. Just accept that you had a bad run and don’t think about it too much.” And it becomes this nagging thing on their minds. We are all looking for something when we have a bad run. So the lesson is not to over-think, not to over-analyze, to not look for what doesn’t need to be discovered. Africans are very philosophical in just accepting life as it goes. We are all looking for why we have a bad run or why you didn’t feel so good. Your mind begins to get doubts. And when you push, those doubts lead to excuses. Another lesson is distraction. I’ve found that African runners are extremely good at being able to focus completely on running — even the well-established runners. I remember Moses Tanui. I was training with him in 1996 for the Boston Marathon. He was 20 minutes away from his wife, but for three months he never went to see his wife, because if he went home, he would have to attend social events and would have people knocking on the door. And so he said, “Why not just be in the field training hard when I don’t need to think about these things?” Because in their world, if you have money and you live in Africa, somebody will come to your door saying, “Hey do you want to buy this? I live down the road. Will you stop by?” And the next thing you know, your mind is wandering away from training. It is easier running in Africa, because there are fewer distractions. I try to tell my athletes when you are doing hard training for a specific event, try to put as much of life’s complications away. Try to keep things as simple as possible.

You could say the Internet could be to blame for both issues you brought up. People rush to the Internet to find out why they had a bad day and the Internet can be one giant distraction. So do you think the Internet contributes to less-than-stellar performances for Western runners?

Definitely. We have come to such a stage of development with our lives that it is impossible to go back. We look for that. At a young age, we need distraction. One of the things I hear from people when they come back from Africa is, “Wow. I saw a guy sitting under a tree doing nothing. Ten hours later, he was still there doing nothing.” That is not an uncommon thing to see in rural Kenya. And if you asked the guy, he would probably say, “I was just there with my thoughts.” I sympathize with a Western runner, because concentrating for hours on nothing is not what we are the best at. We are programmed in a different way. We are programmed that if we are doing nothing, we should be doing something.

Do you think that Western programming is going to make things harder for Western distance runners to catch up with East Africa?

I think so, because look at trends. Look at countries that were good at running at certain points, like Ireland. The runners there were good during the times when their people suffered more. You look at the state of British running. In the 1980s it was really, really very good. This was during a state of economic decline in the nation and there wasn’t that much financial support. Now, for instance, you look at the 2012 Olympics, the British Federation has been pouring more money thinking that is going to solve the problem. But for me, it’s not. It’s about creating that hardship. I remember being very impressed when I read about China’s coach, Ma Junren, who said, “Don’t give me the kids who excel in sports; give me the kids who have suffered hardships.” The more hardships we have suffered, the easier it is to become a better runner, I think. Our life is getting easier with the Internet bringing food to our doorsteps. Machines and computers are getting more and more efficient at doing things. That trend is going to accelerate much faster in the West than in Africa. Africa is like going back 40 years.

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