Running Tales

Kigali Marathon 2018

The titled marathon happened on the 20th day of May. Based on the info queued up for offloading on this paper, the actual run may take like 20% of the word count here. So in case you are pressed for time, you may take a by-pass to the relevant sub section. For the time-rich ones, here goes the meat and bone version…

The Going: Nairobi to Kigali

Kigali is one of the marathons I’ve done for next to nothing in terms of travel and accommodation preps. This was courtesy of some great souls over at a running outfit by the name of Medal hunters, an energetic pack of runners of whom the general idea in my mind is like this; Sentinels’ noses are always up in the air, on the ground, everywhere. They sniff out a run, run should have medals, howl howl, pack gathers, hunts down Medals, victory howlulation, pack disbands, next Medal sniffed, repeat. Wolf pack incarnate. A good number of medal hungry Swaras moonlight over there to benefit from the medal sightings and hunting.

We travelled by bus. 17th May, the travel date. 5pm, the time bus left. 24hrs, the expected trip duration. Kigali, the name of the destination in case you skipped the title up there.

The bussers were: Four runners of the Swara species (five if you include this one), many Hunters, and naturally the bus had an overwhelming minority of regular travelers.

Nairobi>>Nakuru>>Kisumu>>Busia. Border business. Into land of Wakanda >>Kampala. Between Nairobi and Kampala the bus windows were heavily tinted, could hardly see anything outside, or maybe that’s because it was nighttime. Daylight met us at Kampala. Kampala >>Mbarara. After Kampala they removed the tint, or night. Either way outside was now visible, and it was like watching a Banana documentary. Bananas here, bananas there, bananas everywhere interspersed with endless swamps.

Mbarara>>Kabale>> Katuna Border. The landscape from Mbarara to the Rwandan border could give Otora a fever. What with the tasty, scenic, mostly clean shaven rolling hills…of course Otora would turn them into torture chambers, and you Swaras would love him for it.

Into Rwanda. Suddenly the driver loses it and drives on the wrong side of the road. Soon enough I realize it’s an epidemic, all drivers, everywhere in Rwanda, same ailment, drive on the wrong side of the road. We hope they get well. Here in Kenya we, of course, drive on the right side of the road, which is left. Left is right, right is wrong, something like that.

So yeah into Rwanda. The hills! Every crazed, hill-seeking, pain-loving, runner’s dream. at one point we were sandwiched deep in the bosom of two tall proud hills and I couldn’t help thinking what would happen if they suddenly got an irresistible urge to hug (shudder), well that didn’t happen and that’s why, in a little more than 24hrs since boarding in Nairobi, we got to get to Kigali unburied.

Kigali

Most of the bus runners were staying in the same hotel, we were to be joined by a second group of runners who were travelling by bird.

We’re well aware that this is not a travelogue, but just a lil more patience, we will get to the run. So in the company of two hunters I had a little preview of what Kigali has to offer under blanket of night, you shall

be spared of the details (before you get imaginative the said details are rated GE). As tired and responsible citizens, mostly tired, we were back in the hotel soon after midnight.

Next day was spent visiting the somber Genocide Memorial. What strikes you is that man can turn against man in such cold-bloodedness, that we can allow ourselves to be used as weapons against neighbors, ‘friends’, kin, people who have done absolutely nothing against us, that we also do not learn from history. Going through the memorial is hardly a touristic exercise, the gory of it all will grip you, the sadness too real, evidence in form of the bony remains of victims, their clothes, photos all there for your eyes…by the time you get to the end you realize only too well that you can’t even get close to understanding how the people who got through it, who saw their families murdered, who lost their relatives en total, you cannot begin to understand their pain. With the sobering experience that the memorial was, we’ll skip the other happenings of the day.

Life has to go on… so evening comes, the general rule is that after evening, night follows, so night followed. With night came a plan to again see another little bit of dark Kigali, this time with a Swara and her friend, an almost-Swara. We boarded boda bodas, had some round about rides, ended at a scene of nightlife in downtown. Everything was normal until we spotted some supersized mattresses being taken into the club (we were seated at the terrace), as expected, we had all kinds of imaginations what they were for; were they for revelers to take a nap when tired? Did the nightclub later turn into a communal dormitory? Etc. etc. Doors to the club were closed soon after the mattress sighting… to short the story, the said mattresses were for sound proofing, lining the insides of the club. Maybe to conform to the city’s noise regulations?

Marathon day

About the marathon: Kigali marathon is special, half marathon begins before full marathon, full marathon is double loop of the half marathon, organizers are allergic to flat sections, they therefore had the city turned hilly to satisfy their sadistic genes. For good measure, they also have the marathon start at 8 am just to make sure runners experience the glare of the fully awake tropical sun.

About this person: My legs had been resisting lately, but I’m still the boss of them. So I had registered for full marathon, and had hauled myself all the way to Kigali, and may have picked the medal infection from the hunters in the bus, so I stopped flirting with thoughts to downgrade to half-marathon or less, maybe I should just complete the marathon. Key to me finishing the run would be shoes, I needed comfortable, roomy shoes, airy also, and how do you get airy? By having the foot ‘outside’. Therefore the shoes had to be sandaly, and I had sandals. I would run in them.

About the run: It went well (we already know about the hills and sun), spotting familiar faces on the out and back sections. At some point I was busy overtaking a Swara, Lyma is her name, she seemed to like my ‘shoes’, she offered to trade, mine for hers, I declined the barter. I met her later on an out-and-back section, I had already done 22kms. This time she offered more forcefully, I relented and the exchange of running shoes for cool sandals happened. And I ran in her colorful shoes and she flippy flopped in my sandaly ones.

Three Swaras did very well for themselves in the full marathon. Elvis (who arrived in Kigali that morning, also he had his shirt on), Bond (the Tom one, not James), and the top finisher Swara, K.W., we’ll not use her name, (you’ll soon know why) she came in as the 6th female, a position attracting a cool 800,000 RWF prize money. Now you know see why we can’t use her name, not with such truckloads of cash, also not

with the lot of you with manager and coach ambitions. Many Swaras also did very well in the half marathon.

Season’s greetings (a mis-title but in my head it sounds just right for this section)

Congratulations to the full marathon finishers, the two loops needed grace. To the half marathoners too, you ended up running 24 kms instead of the prescribed 21.0975, you then very stoically and graciously took the accidental excess distance as a post-race cool down, any grunts or grumbles was because society expects it, and why disappoint society?

End of congratulations. Start of thanks. To the faithful ‘followers’ (they’d rather not be called stalkers)…to the faithful followers back home who kept refreshing their Strava and Garmin apps, waiting to ‘kudos’ and write congratulatory messages to those with exceptional times, or, for us with lackluster times, give condolences messages like ‘great effort considering the hills’. Thank you, our souls have found peace.

Wrap it up

Marathon done. Everyone happy (not sure about this). Evening. Bus stage. Same route back. 25hrs later. Nairobi. End

Running Tales

Berlin Marathon 2017; Breaking the Sound Barrier

Yours Truly in BerlinThe Journey to Berlin started in 2016 as a journey to London. I balloted for the 2017 London Marathon, held my breath, was rejected, exhaled, and balloted for Berlin in the next breath. On 30th Nov 2016 I got the all-important email. I was in!

The Months Before

Berlin Marathon is a special race. Touted as the fastest World Record (WR) eligible course, it is the World Record (WR) and Personal Best (PB) destination of choice for elite runners and regular folks as well. I too was keen to make Berlin worth its while, sub 3 was my goal, a project my mind neatly christened ‘breaking the sound barrier’.

With a PB of 3.04, I needed to knock off 5 minutes; not too hard, not too easy. In 2016, had transformed into a decent running machine, training back to back for three marathons; Kilimanjaro Marathon in February, Victoria Falls Marathon in July, and Stanchart Nairobi Marathon in October, dropping PBs by 10 minutes each time. But I was flat lining. To improve my shape would mean digging much deeper. I had lots of time; 10 months, or so I thought.

And so as 10 months whittled away, I put in some good long runs, deferred those essential but painful speed works, picked up a knee injury 3 months to race day, dropped the knee injury a month to race day and immediately embarked on the fool’s errand of making up for lost mileage. I figured I could as well be in top mental shape if I couldn’t be in 100% physical shape, and so when three weeks to race day I registered my highest weekly mileage of 137km, my mental preparedness was up in the clouds.

And We Have a Quorum

Swaras at BerlinAs the battle for miles raged, life was going on in the sidelines. Avani rounded up the Berlin bound Swaras into a WhatsApp fold which ended up holding what proved to be a first rate group; Avani Patel, Barbara Napoli, Felicita Kagwanja, Rebecca Mbithi, Anthony Mwai, Edward Mungai, and the default head of mission El Patron…. oh, in the group was an external observer, Shem; who’d occasionally cough or throw in a thumb lest we overlooked his presence.

The group morphed into a resource center on race matters, everyone throwing in valuable info; and I’ll allow myself to single out Barbara and Avani, the two took a solemn oath to make the rest of us look extremely lazy; between them digging up and sharing accommodation options, flight options, setting up several rendezvous; a ‘compare notes’ lunch in Nairobi, a touch base at the expo, hosting a pasta dinner on marathon eve… the list goes on.

Where We Hit the Expo and Breakfast Run

Blink blink and 10 months is 2 days to D-day. I landed in Berlin, found myself at the business end of a looong queue snaking into the expo. I’m soon at the entrance, frantically searching for my predictably forgotten entry pass… thank heavens for good souls, marathon officials facilitate a pass. I collect the bib and other goodies, meet a few swaras at a Barbara meet point, we hear Patron had some unfortunate flight glitch, fortunately he still made it to the marathon.

World Majors FinishersAnd then as I sweep the expo, I happen on this wall; it has a list of many names. Turns out it’s the 6 star finishers; humans who’ve run the six marathons making up the Abbott World Marathon Majors- Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo. My interest is instantly piqued and I carefully browse the list. I know what I’m looking for; there, James Waliaula, our decorated six star General sits solidly on the wall of Fame. Against the names are the participants’ countries. I browse the countries; nope, no other Kenyan, and so James blazes the trail as the pioneer Kenyan 6 star finisher. I pick out SA and Zimbabwe as the other African countries represented on the wall.

The Majors fever seems to be doing rounds in the Swara ranks, some going for the six stars, others just to experience a major or two. Jack Ndegwa gets to be a 4 star in November and could well be the second Swara (Kenyan?) on the wall. Of the Berliners, Barbara, Avani, Felicita, and Edward are already multi-starred. Mwai, who seems to train very easy, is on his way too.

Berlin marathon 2017Berlin has the traditional Generali Breakfast run on marathon eve; a 6km run ending inside the historic Olympiastadion that hosted the infamous 1936 Olympics. I don my Kenya jacket and join the estimated 11,000 odd runners. As I leisurely jog, lost in the marathon spirit, someone falls in stride alongside me speaking Swahili. Meet Rose, a Kenyan living in the United States. She’s running Berlin the second time back to back. She’s going for 11 marathons this year, and is on her 8th! She’ll hit Chicago in two weeks; she’s odd, like most of you runners are. Felicita pulls up and we make a Kenyan trio at the electric finish inside the stadium.

Day ends with a Swara pasta dinner and by the time I get back to base, the Garmin on my wrist says my restless legs have covered 23kms, nothing a solid 9 hr sleep couldn’t make right.

Day-D

Marathon is to start at 9.30. At 8.00 am I leave base, train station, meet nice Mozambican gentleman, hop onto train. Nice Mozambican has stories; he’s been in Germany for 32yrs, somewhere between how frequently he visits native Mozambique and how best to live in Germany, he tells me “if you were to live in Germany” he says,” you’re better off getting a local girlfriend, trust him”. Pity I couldn’t pick his brains further on the matter, pity I have zero opinion on the matter, and sub-zero intention of living in Europe…

You don’t want to hear my personal race details but allow me to bore you with a paragraph or two.

Finally, time of reckoning is here. Based on my interrupted training schedule, I have shaky confidence in my endurance. My plan is simple; go out at a blistering pace of 4.00min/km for the first 21km, and then let the race unfold. I presumed I could handle that pace given that I’d averaged a 4.11/km pace at muddy Mwea half marathon in July, and my shape had slightly improved since then.

Gun goes off, my 4.00 pace holds for a massive 2km, then it laughs in my face; too fast, I slow down to a more humanly pace. Nothing much to report until around 20k when the mid-race demons strike, the 3.00 hr pacers glide past with their many disciples in tow (the so called bus). From then on, my main occupation turns to keeping the 3.00 hr bus in sight, surging once in a while as they threatened to open too wide a gap. We get to 36 km and miraculously my body undergoes a revival. I somehow pull a 3:52 min 36th km and with the pacers back in sight check my speed. Body now feels fresh; with renewed confidence I cruise the last 5K, proudest moment being able to pull a 3.29 minute last km, very fast by my standards, to decisively break the sound barrier. 2.58.27 is the official chip time.

Trust the entire Swara team to do very well for themselves and it was good vibes all round.

My main takeout for the run is on the watch, final Garmin data shows a distance 43.22 km (strava compares at 42.9km) – a result of weaving in and out of the crowds and mostly running on the outside. With that distance, the Garmin average pace is 4:08 /km. The 4.08 ish pace fooled me until the 3hr pacers flew past, then I smelt trouble. I then had to pay more attention to the distance markers, then I had to (groan) engage my non-mathematical brain to estimate finish times. I bet a good number of runners marginally miss out on their targets for exclusively relying on their gadgets. I remember telling a fellow runner that the pacers were going too fast- before I saw the light.

I won’t mention the much hyped rain, I didn’t mind it…its only nuisance was messing up my bib.

The post-race massage was perfect, not least because I landed on a spot manned by two nice smiley ladies who while massaging my tired legs asked me to point out any particular pain points for their attention; well my knee injury had come alive, and my groin was beat on account of the strides…I directed them to the knee.

Some Stats

Total Finishers 39,214 (female 11,062, male; 28,152)
Sub 3 Finishers (don’t people run fast) 1,766 (female 89, male 1677)
Cheruiyot’s placement 1,535

Source; http://results.scc-events.com/2017/

And then there was the evening party, a proper way to recover by meeting the elites and have a recovery dance for the lovers of dance floor. I hit the party with our newfound Amerikenyan friend, the rest of the Swaras deciding to give their legs a well-deserved rest.

It’s impossible being a non-elite Kenyan in such a forum; especially when the other six Kenyans are elites, so I soon got tired of explaining that I was regular folk. My kenyanness got to pay off as I strode into the VIP lounge with no entry pass and no questions asked, where I finally got to hang out with most importantly the legendary Kipchoge and also Kipsang, the pacers and the rest of the elites.

And that was Berlin.

Running Tales

Fluorspar 2017, My Little Experiment

The run took place on 29th July. Third time for me. First was back in 2015 as a newbie swara still cutting teeth in matters running. Fluorspar humbled me then. I went back in 2016, wiser this time and managed to conquer the tarmac to tarmac.

My plan for 2017 was to re-conquer tarmac to tarmac faster than in 2016; for comfort that I was improving as a runner and as a training run for a marathon I have in September. Then injury happened.

Before you throw any sympathy my way, I have to own up that I’m pretty hopeless at following advice, which I’ve received quite a lot, solicited and unsolicited. So I probably set myself up for injury by not getting enough physio, sudden exponential changes in mileage, cross training apathy…the list of sins is endless. But in life, you have to be your own cheerleader, so to justify my case I typically seek solace in the fact that even elite athletes succumb to injuries; more depressing because they do this for a living…look at the likes of Rudisha unfortunately having to miss out this year’s world championships…

Extensive research and professional opinion indicates that my injury has to be rested. Not good, not with my September marathon. Still I wasn’t going to miss Fluorspar, so I simply changed my plan for the run and decided that this time I’d run a little experiment, after all I was now ‘freelance running’, my neat marathon training schedule already scattered to the four winds. I therefore packed up and took off to Fluorspar.

Defining Fluorspar, the Run

fluorspar hill viewFluorspar holds sacred status among runners. Kenyan and visiting elites regularly train on the hill. For an increasing number of Swaras tuning up for the Majors and international ultras, it has become a pilgrimage, making at least one visit to the hill before their races. You’d think some ‘running god’ sits up there and runners pay homage by running the hill, whereby getting to the top earns them a ’go ye forth and conquer’.

But why Fluorspar? Nyaru, the end point of the run sits smugly at 2740 plus altitude. One of the highest points in the entire region. Compare this with Iten topping out at slightly under 2400 m. but that’s not the magic of fluorspar, the magic is in the climb to Nyaru, a relentless 21km climb from an elevation of 1349 m to 2740 m asl.

My little experiment

It was quite simple. To run in the dark… reason behind it is another story.

My alarm went off at 3.20am. Like any self-respecting human, I snoozed it all the way to 3.40am. Showered, chewed on a few chapo pieces (which the nice lady at the restaurant had discreetly set aside for me the yester-evening) washed down with coke, geared up; jacket, headlamp, bag on my back with a 2L hydration bladder, two bananas, coke…

Got out of the door at 3.50 in the AM, the little gate leading to the restaurant is locked- for a split second this looks like a perfect excuse to reunite with my warm blanket… I look around, maneuver through some flower bushes, find an alternate gate, good… this one isn’t locked, I’d probably have scaled it if it was.

view from sego lodgeI get to the main gate and the guard dog has no love lost for me, it bays for my blood like I was the devil himself. The ruckus wakes the guard who comes to my rescue and opens the gate.

Once outside, the first 10 kms is due south (read downhill), running jackets and bags are clearly not built for stealth, the racket generated by the jacket and ‘not-so-compact’ bag possibly woke the dead- but they probably decided to give me pass this time… no such luck with the dogs- all dogs far and wide were having a barking field day… the light from my headlamp bobbing up and down, picking out luminous eyes of hounds inquisitively checking on me by the roadside, one or two brave ones made to come too close making my heart pump rather urgently….anyways, I tried as much as possible to ‘ignore’ them. Twice my lights picked out a pair luminous eyes in the bushes not accompanied by barks, I reassured myself that they MUST be cats-no room for alarming alternatives.

In just three kms, I was fed up with the dang riot on my back and pretty much life in general. I soldiered on. The 8 kms from the Lodge to the tarmac was soon over. The tarmac was infinitely more peaceful. I took the road leading to Kabarnet, went past the chebloch gorgeKerio River and up that steep hill. I hadn’t expected to meet any humans that early given the rural setting, but surprisingly I in total met 4 souls (with bodies wrapped around them) between 4 and 5.30am. I turned around on hitting 16km… my run back down to the river can accurately be described as ‘lepers gait’. The painful knee not allowing any form of fluid movement.

The rest of the run will not interest you. In summary by the time my distance was in mid-thirties I was having a perfectly imperfect day and decided I would stop at 40k. On hitting 40k that proverbial little voice urged me to better my distances for 2015 (43k) and 2016 (46k)…little fella’s argument made sense so I kept going.

43kms found me at the base of Fluorspar hill proper, 21 km of pure uphill nirvana. It’s a hill you take on with reverence, submitting to its every whim and demand, hakuna ujanja. Well, this time I wasn’t worthy to run in its presence and after a brief 7 kms of the hill, at exactly 50k by my watch, I stopped and embarked on a leisurely walk, waiting for the support car.

Conclusion: I am not in any particular hurry to repeat such a run, thank you.

Life as a support assistant

The support and ambulance duties was under the command of one Eddah, a maverick behind the wheel… she stops, Otora the trail fox is riding shotgun- shooting out water and related aid items… I say my run is done as I attempt to get on board, the ‘commander’ says no, I insist, she doesn’t budge… I’m in no mood to take a ‘no’ so I hastily let myself into the car before she zooms off- the same treatment is extended to other runners flirting with the idea to quit- end result being that only one more swara forced himself into the car… and regretted soon after.

I take over Otora’s duties and he takes off running in my shoes- literally.

two swarasThe Fluorspar hill predictably makes Swaras a particularly needy lot. You have to anticipate and be ready for their specific demands as you pull up alongside (kinda like those Formula 1 pit stops with no seconds to lose). The irony of their urgency was that they were all running a shuffle. So I was kept busy opening the water bottles, having sodas, bananas and watermelons on the ready. What I thought would be a siesta on the backseat became an ‘emergency room’ situation. I still expected to have a little peace in between the runners, but the ‘rally driver’ behind the wheel had other ideas, making sure we were hanging onto that ka what’s-its-name thing on top of the door as she navigated the hairpin bends hooting a warning to whoever and whatever lay on the other side of the bend.

So two hours was spent shuttling to and fro between the front and back of the Swara pack, our driver looking to take the shortest time possible between the two extremities…

My first time in support was therefore anything but dull.

It’s a wrap

Swaras seemed to have cracked Fluorspar this time. All the starters completed their distances except for one (who I will not call out for the love of my skin), but it was as well he DNF’ed as he turned out to be a rare target for all manner of jibes later in the evening (never let people have high expectations of you). Of course I also technically DNF’ed as the spirit of Fluorspar is to get to the end point at Nyaru regardless of your start point. So one who sets out to do a 15k and ends up at the Tarmac at Nyaru is a finisher as opposed to one who completes a 50k but doesn’t get to the end tarmac. Still, I successfully hid behind my 50… I don’t know where to classify the lady behind the wheel…

The evening was, as is in all the out-of-town runs, quite an evening. I’ll however not go into details seeing as I’m running out of paper…

Come Sunday morning and its Nairobi time. My carpool mate was keen to see Iten, so we make a short foray into the still sleepy town, visiting the world famous Lorna Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Camp (HATC). This camp regularly hosts distance runners from around the globe, running tourists and curious persons trying to solve the mystery of ‘Kenyan running’. Not having any mysteries of our own to solve, we had a brief look around and headed back to good old Nairobi.

 

(I’ve used DNF in the past and someone asked me the meaning, so for the benefit of anyone else not in the know…)

DNF;‘Did Not Finish’…can be cloned to DNF’er, DNF’ed, DNF’ing, etc. (they all make no grammatical sense but no one seems to care)

Running Tales

The Voi Run

Voi sunset view
Voi sunset view

This run took place on 30th April 2017, three weeks back, but it is one timeless run so I’ll still give a bit of my experience.

Voi is the farthest swara run out of Nairobi, it is also one of the two 3 day odysseys; Day one you arrive, day two you run the main course, day three you leave. The other one such run is Fluorspar. Heading to Voi is a breeze, you can drive, carpool or take a bus. You’ll travel through the wildlife corridors where you’ll generally be able to spot an Elephant and other wildlife.

Voi taught me a lesson, don’t rank Swara runs until you’ve run all of them- and you’ll never run all of them anyway as new ones keep cropping up, you may as well receive this e-mail from Ameet in 2027; “Dear all, please send in your confirmations for the Lunar run by Thursday noon…” and you start sending us mails looking for a space shuttle to shuttle-pool in…

Swaras usually talk about all the memorable runs in terms of aesthetics, difficulty or any other unique characteristics. So conversations about runs like Fluorspar, Magadi, and Mt. Kenya Ultra usually come up. I had never heard any recounts of the Voi run so I expected no surprises and was therefore unprepared for any, it was just a run in a new part of the country possibly wrapped up in a relaxing weekend.

The Voi run is a point-to-point run, meaning you don’t finish from where you start. I’d previously thought there were only two Swara point-to-point runs; Magadi and Fluorspar, these are runs where you generally run up resulting in some juicy elevation gains, these are also runs that have ‘ambulances’ plying the route to evacuate the ‘mortally wounded, dead and dying’ swaras from the warpath.

The run

Ranu’s account has captured the details of the run down pat, I don’t remember a single name of places we ran through. So this mostly captures my personal labors and some stats.

Armed with misplaced courage, I started at the 45 kms start-point, the common end-point for all distances was to be the top of Vuria hill, Highest point of the Taita Hills and the general Kenyan coastal areas. I felt no need for alarm, after all how high can a coastal hill be? There were three 45km takers; two machines- Chikani, and Mwasaru, and one human, myself. The two machines sped off from the word go so I kept tail for a pretty long stretch.

On the road are obese Baobab trees, you’ll notice that despite the worthless nature of these oddly shaped trees in terms of shade, they have a unique use; billboards, broadcasting political spray painted ‘so and so for MCA…’ messages. The initial part of the run is semi-arid and sparsely habited.

The hill proper comes up after 15 kms and the loud colored swara shirts can be spotted in the distance. Running up unrelenting constant hill is not too difficult, one can easily lock into a modest pace and autopilot all the way to the top. On autopilot I soon reunite with swaras, beginning with the two Susans, one running her age, the other keeping conversation going. Soon after I meet Ranu, he’s shed off his camera, slightly ahead is Wahome.

Carry your own Kes. 200

The first hill dosage is soon done, an elevation gain of 1158 m from the start-point of 579 m to approximately 1737 m ASL. Such elevation displacement is bound to break the spirit of the most hardened machines and it is not surprising that I soon come up on the earlier mentioned Machines, first Mwasaru and a little later Chikani seeking deliverance into a roadside kiosk, he is immersed in Bread and some juice drink. Chirie, who is also here, and Mwasaru are broke and hungry, considering their destitute predicament I am forced to play savior and buy them sodas with my valuable first aid cash.

From here it’s an up and down affair through populated and well farmed hillsides, you’ll run through a few shopping centers, one of which hosted famished swaras (who must have carried their own Kes. 200) in one of its eateries.

The up and down is soon over and there comes the second hill dosage, Voi’s own heartbreak hill. Starting from elevation of about 1730 m ASL to the top of the Vuria hill sitting at approximately 2200 m ASL, an unrelenting elevation gain of close to 500 metres over approximately 2.5 kms. Look no further for a definition of Cruel.

My history in Swarasphere is that I do not DNF, there are those runs that have thoroughly whupped me but I largely only sit down a little, grind on and generally manage to at worst walk to the end; Ilovoto and Magadi (which come up in the next two weeks), Fluorspar, Eco Lodge and Run-together are notable culprits. Therefore by unceremoniously stopping my run (which had since turned into a walk) after 5hrs 20 mins at 45.39 kms handed Voi the dubious honor of being my first DNF.

Of course I stopped with absolutely compelling reasons; first, I had hit 45 kms (that was supposed to be the longest distance) secondly, the end point, which supposedly commanded magnificent views all the way to the sea on a clear day, was engulfed in ‘white darkness’. The dense mist limiting visibility to only a few metres, so bye bye great views.

Ironically, after stopping came the hardest task of the day, walking down the drop of 300 metres to where the cars were parked. I felt much better later when I learned even tough swaras like Nyawira, Chairman and Davis didn’t make it to the top (sorry to expose you guys like this- collective responsibility for our failures… hoping you’ve not spread stories of your Voi conquests…); for safety in numbers sake, I’m tempted to call out the many other swaras on the DNF list of shame but I can only handle three enemies at a time.

Altitude, hunger, cold and exhaustion can play games on people’s patience, so we losers that didn’t get to the top were soon getting irritable as the swaras up top were clearly taking their time. Did they not know we had other businesses to take care of? Why keep us like this? Anyway we shivered away, took our lunches, and waited.

Here come the stats

Running has its bad habits, one is obsession with stats. A year ago these stats would have made no sense to me, so free not to bother but i’ll just leave it here…

voi stats

Voi run in summary; and some comparison with Fluorspar…

Net elevation gain 2070 M (Fluorspar; 1972 M)
Start point altitude

Highest Altitude

579 m ASL (1163 m ASL for Fluorspar)

2047 m ASL- 2193 for Ranu who got to the top
(Fluorspar tops out at 2745 m ASL)

I’d long concluded that there can’t be a swara run with a net elevation gain close to Fluorspar’s, Voi debunked that myth. Average mountain climbers don’t do this much climbing in a day in their excursions. It also beats reason that a run in the lowlands delivers the highest elevation gain, but well.

Celebration time

A more than deserved supper is served, swaras get to know each other and briefly take turns to share their horror tales. Wahome, the host to this run, is generally a nice interesting person with strange stories…he has one failing though; a penchant for throwing a Mbuzi here, a lunch there, some wine… you’d be tempted to think he derives some dark pleasure from watching people fatten up as he maintains his running form. So In line with tradition, Wahome throws in a sumptuous Mbuzi Choma and accompanying Mutura.

The Mutura deserves its own paragraph…I’ll attempt to explain; you bring it to your mouth, you take a bite, your eyes close-involuntarily-to shut out any distractions, the savoriness diffuses through your systems, like a wonder drug, all activity in your body, stops; moment of silence…to savor the feeling…something deep down tells you this is it, your life’s purpose…. shudder… you open your eyes and take another bite.

Each swara thereafter retreats into their favourite zone nursing their preferred baada-ya-kazi drink, entertaining banters, wisdom is traded, some populate the dance floor and you fall into that semi-alive vegetative state soaking in the stories and generally remaining alive until the wee hours of the morning before you catch a quick 3 hour sleep.

These overnight runs always have the so-called “scent of the swara” recovery run. You endure a punishing run, and what do you do to recover? Run some more the following morning. Makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, I’ve always wanted to but have never taken part in the recovery runs, doctor’s orders… so the recoverers did their thing, breakfast was served and Nairobi here we come…

Voi, unfinished business.

Running Tales

Kimunye Mt Kenya Run

Date: 18th of March 2017

Venue: Castle Mountain lodge, Mt. Kenya

Getting there

Nairobi to Kutus 120 kms, Kutus to Rukenya 4 kms. At Rukenya, you’ll get onto a comely traffic shy road for a steady upward 16kms drive from an altitude of around 1300 metres to the Castle Station gate and a further 4 kms of forest dirt road to the Castle Mountain Lodge sitting at 2057 m asl.

At the lodge there will be quite a number of runners, some spent the night either camping or in the Lodge. Kick off time for the run is 9am, having arrived 40 mins early there is good time to take a tour around the lodge, the mountain looks stunning from here, the forest too, and there is a waterfall a few metres away tucked in thick forest… there are signs warning you to ‘Beware of Wild Animals’.

KimunyeThe Run… or Hike; Your Preference

Approximately 30 runners gather around for the routine chairman’s pre-race sermon and the run is on. Shortest distance will be 14 kms and longest 40 kms. Deviating from tradition, you’ll carry your phone to capture the sights… and the odd chance of being chased by a wild animal. The photos appearing here are of course amateurish and a little underwhelming, but one Davis has clearly refused to share his superior ones…

Run starts up, through the forest straight towards the mountain. 4 kms and two rivers later there is a wide road, freshly dug with thick dust. Turning right leads up the mountain, left leads down. A pack of six runners take the left turning and head down the mountain. As you run down, you are puzzled at the need of such a road in the forest.

Kimunye2You’d expect a run starting at 9 am to be one hot run; not this one. The cool mountain air will freshen you up and the kilometers will drift by such that before you know it, 8 kms have flown past and you get to a gate and exit the forest. From here the run is along the electric fence marking the forest boundaries.

Running along the forest edge will take you through some steep descents and ascents with the runners quenching their thirst from the cool, clear mountain waters at the bottom of each descent before embarking on the uphill tasks.

You’ll now be running sandwiched between the forest on your one side and tea plantations on your other. You’ll notice that the tea plantations are largely Nyayo tea zones forming a buffer between the forest and human habitation. The run briefly ventures into human habitation where you run through intense small scale farming of coffee, more tea etc… and of course Nduma (Arrow Roots). You soon get back to the forest edge and work your way back to the Castle gate, the run is 19kms thus far.

By this time you will have realized something is amiss, you took the wrong turn on the mountain road. You were to first go up the mountain before turning back down to the gate. Knowing that you are unlikely to forgive yourself for missing what the run had in store further up the mountain, you make up your mind to run all the way back up the mountain and explore the missed section of the run. One problem; with 19 kms done, your energies will be running low, not to mention that the next section is an uphill affair. Buying a 500ml Fanta from a nearby shop solves the problem.

Kimunye3From the gate to the camp was 4 kms while driving, it is now 4 uphill kms while running. There is one sure way to handle the run up, start slow then go slower. The forest is good company, plus the odd waterfall and dam with pipes ferrying water to humanity downstream.

At the camp you go on up. There are a number of runners (hikers is more accurate) walking leisurely down the last stretch of their 14kms. On reaching the mountain road, you take the ‘up’ turn.

You’ll run through more forest, the dust soon giving way to muddy patches. Rain clouds congregate up above. The mountain has since retreated into the clouds; you can now tell you are in mountain zone proper. You will hardly be struggling at this point, partly because the mountain air efficiently cools your engines and partly because of your pedestrian pace and photo stops.

A large expanse of clearing comes up. This would be a horror scene to a hardcore conservationist. The so called ‘sustainable’ logging is going on in earnest, the kind where top dollar trees are grown in degraded forest sections for harvesting at maturity. This is also where the mystery of the road is solved -a conduit for the gigantic felled pine trees. If you were to ask that hardcore conservationist to name the road they’d look you in the eye and say ‘highway of sin’… but you have your more pressing conservation efforts directed towards your fast depleting levels of Fanta.

The highway of sin gives way to a ‘Mountain boulevard’, a cozy little lane leading further up. You now have the forest all to yourself. The tree line comes up soon after and the forest gives way to random shrubs and lush vegetation, the bamboo zone a little farther up. If you’ve hang around the mountain climbing types, you probably have heard this phrase ‘the mountains are calling’ whenever they get the itch to scale yet another peak…the call of the mountain can be heard from here.

Just when you start thinking it’s about time to turn back, what with the dark pregnant clouds hanging low and falling energy levels, you get to an old forest house, a little farther is a mountain cabin complete with a lounging terrace overlooking the world below and two seats just asking to be sat on (which you do). The run this far is 31 kms.

The lane comes to a dead end at the cabin and therefore turning point for the run. Farther on is bamboo and more bamboo. This is a Mt. Kenya climbing route-‘Kamweti’ route- climbers have to beat a track through thick Bamboo from here.

At this point, you are plotting how you’d attempt to venture a little further up the mountain in the next edition of this run, through bamboo and whatever else… but those are dreams. The sane immediate action would be to turn back and make your way down to the lodge, 7 kms of downhill… easy-peasy… the rain just manages not to fall denying you a more complete experience. The run ends, 37.92 kms, decent mileage.

Kimunye4Kimunye5Lunch is taken at the lodge. If you are in a hurry to travel back to your origin, don’t sit, take your lunch standing up, or else you risk being seduced by the surroundings and interesting tete a’ tete going on as you lounge on the Castle’s raised wooden patio overlooking the Forest. By the time you drag yourself to your feet, its two hours later…

Running Tales

Graceland Upcountry Run, 6th Edition

Some Intro

Graceland girls’ school opened doors to its pioneer class in 2007 and had its first candidate class in 2010, it is a one stream close knit school in which out of 30 students per class, an average of 5 are fully sponsored. A total of 50 students have so far been beneficiaries of the annual run proceeds… The school is neatly tucked away by a river in Chaka, Nyeri County, at the foot of the ever watchful Mt. Kenya.

Graceland is also the upcountry digs of one Wachira Nderitu’s family, a Swara himself, and founder of the school.

Lots of things make a run; the biomechanical leg pushing and lung pumping bits counts for only a little part. So this recollection will attempt to cover the associated events before, during, and after the run.

Eve of the Run

With the host having pre-sourced for accommodation and offered dinner complete with wine accompaniments, all you had to do was complete your 8 to 5 routine in Nairobi and make your way to the school. You arrive at 9ish pm to find dinner underway, around 40 runners are already making little work of the sumptuous dinner from Mrs. Wachira’s Kitchen. Wine flows aplenty.

The dance floor is opened. Dance moves are on display, the Deejay lays them all out; from the golden oldies- where the moves executed by the older citizenry betray their younger days’ escapades- to regional representations including some Mugithi tune, a kanungo session, the easterners’ fundamentals…

Everyone has a talent, you are famous for your spectacular inability to move in rhythm to any tune. So you sit tight and enjoy the show. But not so fast, it soon transpires that the ticket to leave the dinner venue for slumber venue would be a dance; no dance, no leaving. So you all throw in a jig and off to campsite…

graceland1

D-day

D-day starts with a spirited wailing around the campsite by members of the female species led by the very able lungs of Nduku- they attribute the wailing to an electric malfunction resulting in some cracking fireworks; you don’t buy it, they are warming up their lungs in prep for the run. Anyway, your sleep is aborted, you lazily crawl out of the tent, have a semi-heavy breakfast by the River and decamp to Graceland. This is also the best opportunity to take in the imposing Mt. Kenya views before the cloud curtains are drawn.

The school teems with activity; school kids from the neighboring schools, Swaras from Nairobi, Swaras from Nyeri, friends of the school and more runners.

The run is flagged off at 09:45hrs. The start is a steep hill packed with humanity forcing you to weave in and out, not that you’d go substantially faster, that steep is really hill – sorry, hill is really steep….

graceland2At the top of the hill, 25k parts way with 15k. You are left in a 4 Swara mean running pack; Victor Kamau, Sam Nyingi and Dylan the Johnson. You feel a sense of belonging.

Dylan keeps chatting you up but you are soon out of breath, responding in between laborious gasps… its probable he’s testing you, you earlier had to vehemently defend your place in the ‘recreational runners’ category seeing that your name originates from the elite backyards…

You get to the tarmac, 6 km done, end of hill. Your three running mates crank up speed, you can’t keep up, your sense of belonging ebbs and your three erstwhile companions effortlessly dump you. You look at your watch to confirm your pace and realize you are doing 4 min 40 sec to the km, decent speed, the three are clearly on flight mode.

The tarmac makes for some good running, with the forest to your right and the Aberdares making the horizon up front, not to mention that it’s all downhill except for one jolt of a hill. You find regular water points and some very welcome cheer from the girls.

Tarmac ends at 15k. The transition to uneven terrain kills your speed, you soon come up to about 6 ladies who have a nice story telling session going, not a care in the world, maybe because they have hijacked the sweeper ambulance crawling slowly behind them.

The 6 ambulance ladies are a doorway to the 15km masses. There’s usually a kind of energy boost associated with overtaking other runners, apparently it doesn’t work when you are going past walking ‘runners’. You are tempted to walk but rebuke the temptation.

At 18km you are in the precincts of Chaka Ranch where there are more 15km walking masses, a merciless hill in the coffee plantation, a supersize bull determined to grow into an elephant (anyone took a photo of the bull??). At 20km your legs protest, you walk for 100 metres, but the thought of walking the remaining distance is depressing so you dig in and squeeze a run.

Chaka ranch ends at around 22km and the 3km you have left seems like a life sentence. By this time you just want to be back under the cool shades of the more than ample trees at Graceland. You come up on a Swara Lyma, and soon after Chirie; another Swara appears from a random road, she had apparently felt that the 15k she was signed up for was too short and decided to take a detour topping it up to 20k. You run with Chirie until she decides to put in a slight kick, you can’t respond, and for once in her life she speeds on ahead of you. With such an achievement, you expect she’ll hold a press conference soon after to broadcast the feat…

graceland3The long awaited Graceland gate at last, you roll down, by this time you are doing a rare 7 mins to the KM and hit the finish line. You can at last lay claim to your Red Rose and your heart is at peace. 2 Hrs 15 minutes on your clock, 7 minutes slower than 2016. Not good.

The 3 Swaras that had no patience with you are standing around chatting like they’re just from a lazy morning jog. Sadistic lot.

Victor finished in 1 hr 45, followed closely by Dylan 2 minutes later…

Runners stream in and the run eventually winds down with a few leisurely 25 km runners like Ajaa and Felicita finishing about a week later, and, saving the best for last, Le Patron checks in after approximately a year, his 25kms safely in the bag.

The Spoils

Entertainment, prize awards to the fast footed, tokens of appreciation to triumphant Swaras of different categories and the ceremony is over. Just one little outstanding matter…the lunch…

At last, long long last, lunch is served. Where? Across the river, that river that runs through the school, the one with a neat little dam, complete with two boats bobbing idly on it. You don’t want to picture that here is a school where students could actually row and probably fish on a random Saturday afternoon, you’re too hungry.

So over the bridge and into the clearing where you partake of the very welcome lunch treat. You can hardly blame your eyes when immediately after they beg for a nap. But sorry sir, Nairobi beckons.

And so, again, we await Graceland the 7th Edition.

Running Tales

2016 Running Highlights

ndeiya-running-into-spaceHighlights of the year; that’s what I see all over on TV, Papers and other forms of media, social and antisocial. It being the seasonal fad, who am I to be left behind? So idling away the dying hours of 2016, I reckon it’s not the worst idea to idle away mulling over a little running. So if you find this long, unhurried and random it is because it is long, unhurried and random.

2016 has been quite an eventful running year. It being only my third year on the run, and second with the Swaras, It would be logical to still be on an upward trajectory before eventually plateauing out. I can’t wrap my head around those Swaras who’ve been in this business in excess of 10 years. That’s resilience…

The 2016 running menu has been exhaustive; there has been squelching through mud, wading in water, running through the elements; from scorching sun to refreshing rain, stinging nettles, wobbly bogs, dense thickets, arid landscapes, vertical inclines, boring old tarmac,… the list goes on. With such a wide horizon of run experiences, I just might have a highlight or two.

The Highlights; 2016 Hall of Fame

  • Run of the Year: Fluorspar takes the prize hands down. This run is special; nothing can beat an elevation gain of 1972 m, a top altitude of 2745 m, a run that goes only one way-up, the beautiful countryside, the sublime feeling of accomplishment… This run is the kind of experience that can be a manifesto. You might just see this on a 2017 billboard;
Vote Cheruiyot; He ran The Fluorspar…
  • Most Torturous Run: Ilovoto the tribulations were captured in these pages. I don’t want to talk about it. You may notice though, that I made out of it alive.
  • Most beautiful run: Ndeiya controversially takes the prize. It is that freezing run at the edge and shoulders of the rift valley; it also doubles up as the coldest. This is a most competitive category and I had initially named it ‘most scenic run’-which made my work impossible. The Graceland run also has to be mentioned here, I enjoyed it no end.
  • Longest Run: Kenya Ultra, a run in excess of 64.7 kms (64.8 kms actually, but saying ‘in excess of’ makes it seem infinitely longer…) so 64.8 kms done and dusted, no walking, no ambulance. But not before my physiological and psychological limits were put on trial, tottering on the edge of sanity at some points. But conquering such a distance comes with a feeling; I think it’s what they call ‘runners high’.
  • Competitive run of the year: Vic falls marathon (3:14). It may not be the fastest but it clearly is the favourite. I managed three full marathons, the other two members of the trilogy being Kilimanjaro marathon (3:25) and Nairobi StanChart (3:04), fortunately sweating out a PB each time.

Caveat; for avoidance of trouble, the categorization is my personal opinion. I missed some runs which are rumored to have been super, example being Kereita.

Some honesty: You can stop reading here… the paragraphs that follow are lots of rambling.

Lessons Learnt the Run Way

The road taught me a few things;

  • That one has a minimum speed: do not run below this speedyou’ll stumble, the fall will not be pleasant. This happened no less than three times this year, latest during the Naivasha AGM run where running at a negative speed of 7:25 mins/ km I fell, twice, downhill, thank heavens thick white dust was at hand to embrace me, greatly cushioning the falls and in the process making me look like a makeup experiment gone bad.

Since this is about 2016, I’ll not mention a similar stumble episode that happened in 2015 at the Run-Together in Mai Mahiu where the embrace was in form of mean rocks, and Elvis, running close by, had that doomed look he may have to put his muscles to good use and play stretcher… luckily I recovered ever so slowly and painfully hobbled off.

  • You can run faster than your maximum speed: don’t do it though. Its evening in Ruaraka, Victor (the paparazzi) and myself are set up for some speed work, we run an explosive 1k in 3 mins 08 seconds, fastest K ever, we have another go, I try to keep up with victor who has grown wings, I exceed my speed limit, my left hamstrings can take it no more (being what they call a southpaw, my left leg usually takes the beating), the said hamstrings snap, I actually feel the snap. The next weeks are rough, I’ve picked up a debilitating injury, the experts say in the next three weeks I need to run a maximum of zero kms, and Stanchart was just a month away. Lesson learnt; don’t run faster than your legs…and avoid guys who run at shutter speed.
  • Do not run more miles than your body can handle- especially happens when trying to make up for lost time, like after cutting back on running after the hamstring episode. I read somewhere that Eliud Kipchoge runs 220 kms a week; after a little research, I uncovered that like Kipchoge I am also human, heck, we come from the same county… until I tried my own 200km thing, and my belief in biology is now on shaky grounds…
  • The reverse of 3 above; The repercussions of not running are straightforward, one or two things will happen; One: most people will add more padding to their one-pack, Two: some people grow a two-pack, these tend to grow on your lower back, one on each side at the same latitude with the one-pack. The one and two packs are fine until you get back on the road and realize that in just 1.5 months you are back to where you were before evolution began. Exactly my situation these last two weeks as I try to get back in shape for 2017.
  • Do not get injured- You don’t want to be the running dead. For a runner, this is the kind of stuff that will be your ultimate frustration. I was lucky to escape with only a stressful hamstring-a touch of carelessness on my part too as this is usually a sprinters’ and ‘short speed bursts’ sort of injury. I may have had a few other scares which fortunately amounted to naught.

However, sobering injury tales abound within the swara herd… you’ll hear of shin splints, ITB syndrome, plantar this, patellofemoral that… fancy aristocratic sounding names…until they visit you…and then you’ll be miserably out of action for a looong time.

Some Other Randoms

Intense Marathon Preps will lead to undesirable weights; you could go as dangerously low as 61kgs. But this is something you get to effortlessly reverse in the months of November and December, and it becomes a cycle.

You get to learn that running is a seesaw, one day you are running with the Swaras in Nairobi and are a fairly decent runner, two days later you are running in your backyard of Nandi, ‘Jambions’ whizz past you and it’s no debate, you are the slowest embarrassment of a runner that ever ran these roads…

That the ‘Recreational’ in ‘Recreational running’ is not the ‘Recreational’ in the dictionary. You’ll easily turn into a mercenary chasing PBs, graduating to higher distances and different race types, shedding those packs or something. And as a reward you enjoy the bonuses of nature, camaraderie etc….I have managed to see one or two Swaras who unbelievably are not chasing any of those obvious ends. I still don’t understand them, maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

And when you feel the urge to run on and on into the darkness of night, through some unlit lonely parts of the city, just know that you’ll be mugged all the way into next week…

Now, this is too much literature from a running dwarf. At this rate, the 10 year experienced ones better not get down to writing or we’ll have encyclopaedias circulating around these parts.

So kwa hayo mengi (in those many words), its good 2017 tidings to you all from myself. It has been bliss running away from you this year…let’s do it again come ‘17.

Running Tales

The Mt. Kenya Ultra Marathon- 3rd Edition

mt-kenya-ultra-2016-teamThis run can only be recounted with a lot of pride, notwithstanding the reality that your body is a pile of ruins. We’ll try to make this as summarized as possible…what to write is just too much, after all it was an ultra.

Date: Saturday 24th September 2016
Place: Somewhere at the foot of Mt. Kenya
Time: Early

The turnout is impressive, droves of Swaras arriving early to make sure they don’t miss out on the penance they are here to pay for their various transgressions. The heavens tease runners with mild showers and dark menacing clouds; for a moment it seems Ndungu’s rain stopper is sleeping on the job. The dampness of the weather nevertheless not dampening the runners’ singularity of purpose.

As expected, such runs have their morning nerve-induced shenanigans…sample this; the good patron vows he saw one Molly head into the gents, ostensibly looking for someone; nerves right there…, but just a sec…we can’t rule out the flipside, can we? So we’ll conveniently take the Solomonic high road and argue that it could just as well have been Patron’s eyes playing tricks on him…

This being an ultra, you can tell the participants are geared for it; hydration belts, camelbaks, ORS solutions, it wouldn’t be surprising someone carried a rosary or some other tools for summoning divine intervention in case the going got tough.

Such distances are where chafing could haunt you to submission, so the friction points better be well greased, and your shoes better not conspire to sneak in a blister or two earlier in the race. Not forgetting the nipples, you’ve seen bloodied shirts before, so someone better be sure of their shirt or have the dang things taped…the kind of stuff ultra-runners go through.

For easier digestion, we will split the ultra into 3 courses.

Sightseeing

Swaras are flagged off at 9 am. You immediately enter the forest. Cool and lazy running all round, no one in a hurry…

Before long things get interesting, hillocks of elephant dung on the road, fresh. Telltale signs in form of broken branches, and then…. behold you have spectators! In the forest? Yes, in the form of elephants? Yes. You picture a slow cold evening in Jumbo village, around a fire, bottles of Tuskers all round, a jumbo’s smartphone beeps -email alert, he lazily checks it, shakes his big ears and grunts, ‘our crazy swara cousins will be running through these woods….’, so here they were to look for themselves (someone counted six elephants), maybe next time they’ll carry their trumpets, a proper marching (trampling?) band wouldn’t kill the runners.

You soon come up to a dam, the 35K split is here. You get to that river crossing where everyone had to wade across in 2015. Mercifully the water is low this time and you can artfully maneuver across without getting in touch with water.

Immediately after, you come face to face with Mt. Kenya, the matriarch herself. She seems to have had a lazy morning and it’s only now that she is showing face, drawing back the erstwhile cloud curtains to witness the curious goings on at her feet. The view is always awe-inspiring and like every other time you’re immediately raring to hike up the mountain. The swaras with photo devices predictably pause for Kodak moments.

She continues watching as you run uphill through the potato farms, here the farmers double up as caretakers of the forest, they tend up and coming trees and as a result the mountain soil rewards them with overfed potato tubers… which are subsequently ferried to Nairobi to overfeed you.

By now clouds have been bullied out of the skies, seems Ndungu’s ‘Mundu Mugo’ was deeply impressed with the unblemished white goat offered as compensation for his troubles… You get to a second dam and you’re tempted to take a dip. The forest that comes up and its resident breeze is more than welcome. Full disclosure; the ‘second dam’ ceases to exist later when you look at the route map and realize dam 2 is actually dam 1, you just toured both sides of it.

You soon exit the forest but not after going past some colonial structures that look older than time itself and a scenic leafless forest whose naked trees makes the place look like autumn up in the temperate climes.

If by some miracle you’ve not dozed off through the foregoing paragraphs you’ll notice that no one has talked about the run. This is because it’s been sightseeing all along, you could as well have been on a truck touring the forest…for 20kms.

Warming up

With 20 kms under your feet, you’re still fresh; you know the run is still way ahead. You therefore plan to make the next 20k a comfortable jog in preparation for the onslaught.

You’ve since reunited with the 35k crowd, the routes having merged at around 18k, so you’re in good ‘strong’ company. Victor is so comfortable despite the seesaws of ascents and descents. He soon starts offering other swaras support, ‘anything? A soda? Water?’

The support has been flawless so far, you’ve already taken…let’s see… two bananas, a Fanta, an Afia (juice drink), a bigger Afia, a Coke. You’ll end up taking more coke, and lakes of water- enough to drown the cells in your body. At some point you cut down on the water and only take the other fluids. You’ve read sufficient literature to know there’s such a thing as electrolyte imbalance.

2015’s ultra was easy on the body, absence of hills after 30k- a good thing. As a result some conquerors of the 2015 ultra went chest thumping, proclaiming that the ultra was all in a day’s work, using words like ‘losing altitude’ et al- a terrible thing. Such careless talk is bound to throw the routes crew into panic mode, and it did, as a result enough hills were now part of the menu. Soon you are cussing under your breath on sighting a descent and cussing some more on seeing the hills.

Here comes the ultra

40 kms down. You’re still alive, you want to keep it that way. End is in sight, you don’t want to but find yourself counting down the distance, 16k doesn’t sound like a bad number. You soldier on.

A progressively painful 10k drags by, you finally get to 50 and are rewarded with a flat 2 km stretch, your paces speed up from around 7:30 to 5:30 mins /km. Your feet settle into a comfortable cruise, this will surely go all the way to the end…

Then Ajaa shows up, he has grave news…‘you’re going into 3 kms of hill with great views…’ you take another coke.

The hill is punishing, the pace drops to a crawling 10 min/km, victor hinges his hopes on a communication mast way ahead trusting it to signify the highest point… luck smiles at him, but not too fast, it’s not over yet.

Going downhill is the toughest test of the run yet. Your feet are no longer coordinated, we can safely name your movement ‘ginger steps’.… you gingerly set one foot in front of the other in a painful dance down the slope, someone would be forgiven to think you were walking on hot embers…

Let’s grudgingly admit that the hilltop offered quite some view… ‘cud view’ would be the appropriate term though; You definitely can’t enjoy the view right then, so you take it in like a ruminant, bringing it up later that evening as you convalesce… only then do you soak in the panoramic view, the now dark and ominous foothills of Mt. Kenya, her head safely above the clouds, the endless plains on the opposite side, and Karatina town calmly nestled in her space.

The hill itself looks like a bizarrely shaven head, tea farms interrupted by slight bushes and an odd house here and there.

56k done. It’s now evidently this run isn’t going to be anything less than 58k. Victor is getting edgy, you find it wise to keep to the opposite side of the road, who knows, He could turn and suddenly think you are Otora, and then your tense would be past.

Back on flat ground you are comparing pains. For you it’s definitely the knees, victor is paining everywhere and nowhere, he can’t quite locate his pains. It has to be the soul.

Soon talk of stopping crop up; supported by statements like, ’haven’t we completed the 56k?’ and ‘surely not many swaras will finish this run’, but neither of you takes the plunge, the following is at play in your disoriented mind;- You don’t want to stop because Victor would probably keep on running; you think Victor is probably waiting for you to stop so that he stops too, he probably fears that if he stopped first you’d keep running; You, on the other hand are waiting for him to stop and then you’d probably, well, keep running…have we lost you? Never mind… neither stops.

58k, 59k, you’re still hopeful the end is near; 60, 61, 62…, nothing matters any more, you submit to fate.

Then out of the blues you are on familiar territory!! You estimate 2 kms of easy jogging to the end but oh no, no sir, the demons in Victor’s head have other ideas, the fellow decides that this is perfect recipe for racing. It is as if the hotel is moving away and you have to run like your lives depend on it to catch up….result? 63rd km at 4:40 min/km pace, 64th at 4:14… and just like that your run ends after 7 hrs 28 mins.

mt-kenya-ultra-2016-map
Courtesy of Victor Kamau
mt-kenya-ultra-stats
Courtesy of Victor Kamau

You now realize why chairman and Ndung’u conveniently didn’t run, these two wizened distance runners clearly chickened out, ostensibly to do support. They must have had doubts on the doability of this distance, and you, dear runner, was an experiment to test their hypothesis…

Two swaras have already completed the ultra ahead of you, more trickle in and by the time you stop counting, a whopping 8 swaras have completed the staggering 65 kms!

You sit down to contemplate your unlikely achievement, it no longer looks that intimidating…suddenly your mind explodes and out spills a world of possibilities… what if there was a 100 km option? What If there was a ‘circling the entire mountain’ option? What if? You get the chills and stop writing….

mt-kenya-copy

Running Tales

The Fluorspar Run- Take two

Seems like there’s a lynch mob baying for the blood of the 2016 Fluorspar Swaras as a result of their post run hush-hush… slow down, here is one account…

Kerio 2016The fluorspar run is ideally a 3 day odyssey. For lack of a better explanation, look at it like a sandwich…the run practically being the stuff between your to and fro road trips.

Day 1

This will be your 319 odd kilometer drive from the capital to Sego Safari lodge. As said by many before, it is recommended that you leave Nairobi in the morning. Handy Google will say without blinking that it will take you 5 hrs 11 mins. Now, if like this Swara you are the regular guy for whom 319 km drives are generally uninterrupted sessions behind the wheel, then Google is talking to you.

But Google is clearly not a guy in a carpool outfit that includes two determined Swaras of the female species, so you need to make allowances for a few stops, sorry that’s a lie – you’ll make a few stops then 5 more (don’t ask questions)… From impromptu purchases of valley floor honey (and volumes of groceries on the return leg), to irresistible wow stops for the countless great views. And we will not mention the OMG stops for the Swara who is crossing the equator on terra firma for the first time.

You’ll also pause along the scenic hairpin bends as you climb up towards Kabarnet and lastly at Chebloch Gorge…where you’ll be sure to find another Swara crew, with Timo predictably Carbo loading on a barley product.

As you leave Kabarnet, you face the intimidating view of the climb you are set to conquer the following day. It looks like a wall. One Swara conveniently draws a sore parallel between this wall and some ominous wall in a certain popular TV series; GOT (Game of Thrones) for those in the know…

The trip shames Google by taking 7 leisurely hours.

Wiser Swaras would add a bit of Lake Bogoria in their itinerary. Our heart goes out to those unfortunate Swaras who got to the lodge at close to midnight having left Nairobi late, tied down by their day engagements.

So yeah, leave early if you can.

The wall sighting makes your evening a frenetic carbo loading session that goes like this; you eat, you get full, image of the wall flashes in your mind; you go for a second helping, you eat, you get fuller, memories of last year’s hardships on the wall visits you; time for a third helping….

The pre-run briefing is delivered by Wahome and James Waliaula, whose attempt at trying to hearten the ‘folks’ gathered is… let’s put it this way… picture a sermon. The goal is to make your flock look forward to going up above; there are two angles you can go about it. Preach about the goodies up above to make the flock feel all dreamy and longing to partake of those excesses, or preach about the horrors of damnation down below to scare the, well, hell out of your flock and make them single-mindedly determined to keep out of the darn place… you get the idea…

Day 2

This is d-day, a day that will without doubt be imprinted in memory. Your only role is to step aside and hand the day over to your feet, lungs, willpower and stars (hoping you are in good terms with your stars).

Not surprisingly, a sizeable number have done this run before. For this Swara, 2015 ended in a fit of breathlessness at Kilometer 36 so there were amends to be made. This is the kind of run to do again and again and maybe only stop at umpteen.

It is reasonably agreed that Fluorspar is not the toughest run in the Swara calendar, just by closing your eyes you can visualize one or two more murderous runs in the circuit. A good number of Swaras put it at position 3 or 4 in the torture pecking order…some place it in position 1 or 2 but it would seem these have not yet been privileged guests of the other Swara ‘torture chambers’… or torture trails if you may. An overwhelming consensus though is that Fluorspar is way up on the favourite list.

So the run starts at 6.30 for the tarmac to tarmac distance of 42.7 kms. Logic, common sense, the normal distribution curve or whatever you call it would dictate that the least number of Swaras would attempt the full distance, more numbers taking the ‘safer’ distances of 30 k and below. In defiance, 10 swaras (close to 50%) take the plunge for the 42.7km; making this the most popular distance!!

For a clearer perspective, running the shorter 23 kms would take you through all of the most scenic and rewarding parts of the run. But NO, this daft lot decides to warm up for about 20 kms before the run proper, the daftest of them even doing a further 4 kms after getting to the top of the escarpment, just for the experience of running at an altitude of 2740 m.

So as we were saying, the run starts at 6.30 am. Caution all round, before the fast ones speed ahead. The first 20 km is a breeze, you have to negotiate across a number of rivulets on the road. A clear sign that it’s rainy season; these streams were conspicuously missing in the run of 2015.

You start the ‘run proper’ after 2 hrs, hitting the steady incline with guarded resolve, knowing only too well the soon to be encountered toll on your feet and thinness of air up top. The climb is deceptively gradual, it doesn’t offer you the sudden steep climbs that would make you stop, neither does it flatten out to offer transient reliefs…

The support this time thoroughly outdid itself; there was Otora, the hired Motorbike guy, and ….wait for it… two ‘cheerleaders’, no less!! Thanks to Ndegwa. Talk about Otora being overshadowed in his role. It was hardly surprising that Otora and the other guy’s water provisions seemed to barely get depleted; go figure… The omnipresence of the support crew also meant that this is one run where you’d get to the end fully hydrated.

The Stats

kerio elev1kerio tarmac to tarmac statsFootnote stats for the tarmac to tarmac.

Quick summary;

Minimum Elevation         : 1,163 m asl

Maximum Elevation        : 2,745 m asl

Gross elevation gain      : 1,972 m (stats for the bugger who did 46.35 kms; appx. 1,900 m for 42.7 kms)

Net altitude gain             :1,577 m     

With those 3,000 words (1 picture equals 1,000 words, no?) there is nothing further to add about the run.

So the run ended, as usual the earlier finishers madly cheering on the weather-beaten, battle-weary, bone-tired Swaras lugging their dead weight up the last few metres, the goings on a clear amusement to the local populace who are used to lithe athletic figures sprinting up the hill… our sympathies to the early finishers though, they do not get to enjoy this carnival end to their runs.

The carnival mood extends to a river down below; where everyone realizes there should have been a memo to carry additional gear for messing with the water, and onwards to the lodge where testimonies are traded over lunch and infusions of the lethal and soft kind.

The day refuses to end before a Nyama Choma fellowship is held way into the night where a section of Swaras fall into vegetative state while the rest remarkably afford to shake a leg despite their daytime tribulations.

Day 3

Swaras Left.