Running Tales

FACING MT KENYA, TAKE 3

They were united by their love for running; but, other than that, they came for all sorts of reasons. Some for the scenery, some to conquer the mountain, others to commune with mountainous pachyderms. But what almost all of them ended up doing on Saturday 24th September was to conquer themselves, yet again. Some did this by setting new distance and endurance records, some set new records in sheer obstinate grit and never say die attitude.  In this, our biggest, and longest Ultra Marathon to date did not disappoint. It is impossible to capture all the stories of triumph and near disaster, in any case most of them have been much better told.  But here is my small sample:

  1. My witch doctor is better than yours: The weather really held up this time. It was dry, despite an early threat of rain in the morning and the smug looks on some peoples faces (Cheruiyot) as they gleefully informed me that I may have to ask for a refund from my ‘Mundu Mugo’. But I had secured the services of the best rain stopper in Central Kenya and he did not disappoint. Now I have him working on my premiere league bets. I promise to buy you a beer with my first million.
  1. How some people find themselves going to hell: Njagi has always sworn that he will never run a marathon. So, somewhere near Karatina University, he flags me down and declares imperiously “I demand to get into your car.” I meekly oblige. He is on the 41st KM by then and he is clearly not happy with someone. Then a conversation ensues and it turns out he was only 1.5K from the finish. Suddenly he changes his mind and demands to be let off. Next I see him he is actually sprinting. When I see him at the end, over 42K done, he is still muttering darkly about certain people who have got themselves on a fast track to hell. But, try as he does; he can’t quite wipe off the proud look on his face.
  1. We are not amused: The first time I hear that the Ultra has turned out to be a 65K slog, I am in complete denial. Otora can not do this to us. Then I meet Victor, Davis and Cheruiyot and they confirm it. Turns out Otora had thrown in the beautiful Kiamucheru hill loop, one we have always wanted do but kept cutting off due to bad weather. But then he forgot to make a similar reduction elsewhere. At some point the trail Queen staggers into the finish at Oldoiyo Lengai. She can barely stand but she is smiling as always.  But despite the weak smile, I can tell that her Majesty is royally pissed. “I will kill Otora,” she declaims. “Who gave him the authority to make a 65K?” Two hours later, having missed Otora I start searching for him with some trepidation, only to find him in the restaurant having a meal. Happily his head still seems to be attached to his neck.
  1. Is it legal to club MK and throw him into a car?: If there was a medal for sheer stubbornness MK, Molly, Emeka and Fera would certainly have bagged an armful. I tried to get them to hop into the evacuation car several times, thinking they were looking much the worse for wear. MK say says “I can not drop out and still remain the Patron of the club.” Emeka, “I have to get that medal.” Moly, “I have to finish.” Fera “I have leg cramps, getting into your cramped car will be more painful, so better just run.”
  1. Some people came into this world to make me feel bad: One day later I am at the airport. I hear a shout and look behind me. Who do I see? Our World wandering Swara, Joy Owango herself. This time she is off to exotic Abyssinia. From her perky smile, there is absolutely no sign that she ran 65Km less that 24 hours prior. In fact, between the two of us, it is me who looks half dead, no doubt from all that cheap Russian vodka that Ajaa, TQ, Fera, Maureen et al made me drink for half the night before. When I grow up….
  1. So, what next? Otherwise many Swaras commented on the improvements despite the longer distance. The run support was better than before, the locals as friendly as always and the medal was a great motivation. Some people (Victor, Davis, Ajaa, MK, Joy, Loise, Nyawira etc) even want us to make this run bigger and keep the 65K distance. But these are not normal people by any means. So we would like to hear from you regular mortals. Tell us what you think. Feel free to criticize any aspect of the run; well, except my horrible people skills (that one we shall leave to my wife). Where do you think we should go with this run? How long should it be? Do you plan to run next year? What can we do better? Post your thoughts on the group email: urban-swaras@googlegroups.com . Let us have a conversation.


PHOTO STORY

Off to a smiling start
Off to a smiling start
Front runners
Front runners
A stubborn back runner
A stubborn back runner
Forest section; still smiling
Forest section; still smiling
Ha! Who is laughing now?
Ha! Who is laughing now?
Dam hot and dusty
Dam hot and dusty
Out of the forest, but not out of the woods
Out of the forest, Kabiruini. Going up blackberry hill
Kagochi, end of the road
Kagochi,  end of the road – for 37K
Two legs good; two wheels better
Two legs good; two wheels better

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MEDALS AWARD CEREMONY

That is all mine? Njagi seems to be asking
Wow! That medal is all mine? Njagi seems to be asking
More awarded - still some to go
More awarded – still some to go
Even the prodigal daughter, Susan, pitches in
Even our prodigal daughter, Susan, pitches in
Some of the proud medalists
Some of the proud medalists
Running Tales

YOU SHOW ME YOURS I’LL SHOW YOU MINE

(AN ACCOUNT OF THE 2016 STOCKHOLM MARATHON)

This one started as a typical schoolyard fight between Hector and I. You know the type, where boys will fight each other to defend important things, like the following:

Hector: Mine is bigger

Ndungu: Mine is longer

Hector: Really? But I bet mine is more popular with the ladies

Ndungu: Oh, yes! Says who?

The upshot of all this was a truce, the famous school yard peace treaty:

Hector: I’ll show you mine if you will show me yours

Ndungu: Deal! (Imagine an electronic ‘pinky swear’ here)

And then we all went back to whatever games we were playing before the interruption

One of the games Hector was playing

Which is how I found myself registering for the Stockholm Marathon, where I would go to check out Hectors boast that his is bigger. It is: over 16,500 people took part in the Marathon, which is several orders of magnitude beyond our annual Mt Kenya Ultra Marathon. I understand the number is usually capped at 18,000 and would have easily been made this year. However, according to Jael, who run Stockholm last year, the weather was not very good then and this could have kept some people away.

If so, they missed a fantastic day, weather-wise and everything in between. I arrived in Stockholm on the Thursday before the run expecting the famous Swedish cold weather. Instead the temperature was 29 degrees Celsius, which held for all of Friday too. On Saturday, just in time for the run, it came down to a comfortable 19 degrees Celsius, or as Hector described it ‘Nairobi weather, minus the high altitude.”

The weather was fantastic. And the sights? Wacha tu.

Stockholm is a beautiful  city and the organization of the run demonstrates the best of Swedish precision and hospitality. Everything starts on time. There are water points, soda points, power juice points and even banana points, exactly where the organizers said they would be. It seems like half of Stockholm is out cheering. Which all should have made for a perfect run and possibly a new PB for me, right? Haha, I got you there. Of course this would also have to imply that everything in my preparations had gone according to plan, which would be asking for a bit too much. Where Marathons and I are concerned, things never seem to go quite according to plan.

Hector was right – his is definitely bigger and seems more popular with the ladies

I had adhered to a ‘rigid’ training regimen until a month before the run. Then duty called. I was suddenly required to travel to California and then fly back two days later from Sacramento through LA, spend a night in London to arrive in Stockholm, thoroughly jet lagged and so disoriented that I had to ask people on the street what day of the week it was. Neither my phone nor my Garmin watch was working by this time. Somewhere in this process, my training had gone out of the airplane window, together with any hopes of a PB.

You can guess then that by the time I arrived I was desperate for something to go right for once. Several things did: starting with the weather, a tour of Stockholm city and (once we had figured out the starting arrangements) the impeccable organization on run day. The local fans were simply out of this world, what with cheering, music and even dancing.

Beaten by a beer (well, almost)

They were even cheering for me. “Kenya, Kenya, Kenya!” I had worn my Swaras shirt and the bib design included a flag of Kenya, I assumed that is how they could tell I was Kenyan.

“Finally,” I thought to myself. “I had to come all the way to Stockholm for my overflowing talent to be recognized.” Surely the good book got it right: A mad man is never appreciated in his village.

By this time I was grinning like a crazy man and throwing kisses at any Swedish girl who even looked in my direction. Then I saw a hand printed sign that said ‘Heja Mia!’ Which I assume in Swedish means, ‘Go Mia?.’ Later another one that said ‘Heja David’ which is when I realized the crowd were not shouting “Kenya!” but “Heja” (pronounced Heya).

I was a bit deflated by this. But I consoled myself: “I am sure some where I will find a sign saying ‘Heja Ndungu.’ I didn’t, but I am convinced this was due to a (rare) slip up in Swedish efficiency. In any case it gave me a brad new excuse for not running a sub 4 as I had hoped. No Heja’s.

 

Thank you girls. Of course I am not Lotta but, ‘close enough’

The marathon had started at 12.00 noon, another first for me, so we were finishing around 4.00 pm . The northern sun would be out and shining for another 6 hours. The final stretch was around the track of the Stockholm Olympic stadium which was completely full. The cheering made me feel like a conquering Olympian, an honor only matched by hearing that Stanley Koech had clocked 2:10:58, breaking a 33 year course record. As for me, I limped in at 4.05.

The most painful part of the run came at the very end, after we had finished. We were required to hand back our timing chips and collect our finishers T-shirts at the sports ground next door, which (just) happened to be down two flights of stairs. I tell you Swedes have a secret sadistic streak, which they hide behind that friendliness which seems to be standard wear everywhere you meet them. That was not all, for, once you had navigated the stairs, the real pain was yet to come.

Stanley Koech powers his way to a new course record

This is how I ended up having this rather strange conversation.

“Hey, you! Come here,” I was addressing a young boy, one of the many young volunteers, who were helping with the run. “I will pay you ten dollars if you will untie my left shoe.”

“You will, what?” I could almost read his mind, as he nervously backed away from me. “My God. Did Harambe, the Gorilla, reincarnate in Stockholm?”,

“Sorry, forget it.” I had remembered I didn’t even have any money on me.

How I managed to untie my shoe and remove the timing chip, all without having to bend any part of my ambulatory anatomy, is an ugly story that I am not prepared to tell just now. You will have to get me thoroughly drunk to hear it.

Friends again 'David, Hector and Ndungu'
Friends again ‘David, Hector and Ndungu’

But the ending was the most beautiful one could have wished for. Drinking beer on the patio with Hector and his family. His son David had just completed his first Marathon, a commendable 3.27. I predict great marathon times in this young man’s future. I came to learn that Hector’s family are orienteering enthusiasts and very good at it too. In fact Hector runs marathons to prepare for orienteering events, which he claims are much tougher. Clearly he has not been around Otora long enough.

If you get a chance to do the Stockholm marathon, please do. It is well worth it.

And then there was the music. Good enough to make a (tone) deaf man dance

Note to Hector: OK, you showed me yours and I must say it is quite impressive. But I still insist mine is longer and tougher. See you on the mountain. Saturday September 24th.  Be there or be chicken.

 

Running Tales

EBURU – THE TALE OF A RUN AND MORE

The story of the Eburu run can be told as a tale in two movements

Planet X
Planet X

The first movement begins over 4 billion years ago (give or take a half billion years). On a cold Monday morning (it has to have been a Monday morning) as Scientific legend tells it, a rogue heavenly body of gigantic proportions wandered too close to the Earth and gave our planet a hefty wallop, one so severe that it was cleaved into at least two pieces. One piece later became the body we know as the moon, from whose lunatic inspiration are named most runners, the Swaras included. The other bigger piece cracked in many places, the pieces barely holding together and on one side left the giant gouge that became the Pacific Ocean.

The drive down
The scenic drive down

The second movement begins last Saturday, when a group of intrepid Swaras made the wet and treacherous drive past Eburu shopping center, down Oljorai escarpment to Lopua’s grandma’s house where the run was to start. For those who are cursed with technicolor imaginations, like Ndegwa and yours truly, we could not help remarking on two things. The chalk marks with arrows all pointing back the way we had come, meaning the run would start with the mother of all mountains to climb. Secondly the terrain, ‘how the hell shall we drive back up with the tracks in such bad condition?’ Ndegwa wondered. The 4WD vehicles were struggling just to get down and I am sure he worried about getting his 2WD back up the mountain. Luckily he didn’t have to as we found another way out, longer but even more scenic.

The run up
The painful run up

Scientists still argue about what caused that heavenly collision so many years ago. The only thing they seem to agree on is it was not the first one, nor the last hit that the Earth will take. The next one is just a question of when.  Some people now think the collision was the effect of a possible giant ninth planet (Planet X) which apparently has an orbit so eccentric that it shows up in our solar neighborhood only once every 3600 years or so, which explains why it has remained hidden up to now. Apparently, every time it shows up, planet X causes all sorts of cosmic mayhem, sometimes hurling heavenly bodies at each like so many pieces of rock; imagine a curious bull wondering into a china shop.

The view
The view

But gravity and time are great healers. Over many years the broken pieces of our planet were pressed back together, a process that still goes on. The evidence for this can be seen in the major fissures to be found in the Earth’s crust and surface, like the Pacific rim of fire in Asia, the San Andreas fault in America and the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Geologists tell us that the process of pressing back these giant tectonic plates created some of the largest mountain ranges on Earth and even today the process causes many of the tremors and earthquakes associated with these areas. Other evidence includes features like hot springs, where hot water well ups from thousands of meters under the Earth to the surface, often emerging as steam. The weeping of a yet unhealed planet.

The view - or the difference between a photographer and an artist
The view – or the difference between a photographer and an artist

One of these features was in full view as we drove into Eburu and Otora and Lopua had made sure we run right past it. The Kenya Power Generation Company (Kengen) has been working in this area, taping into this ancient disaster in an effort to plug our energy deficit. One of the geothermal power stations is located smack on our running trail. By the time we got here we had completed the mountain climb – a painful 8 Km of what the Chairman had promised would be five.

Despite the intermittent rain, no one was complaining (not audibly anyway). The reason is clear. The view from here is unlike anything you have ever seen. A vast expanse of what is the floor of the Great Rift Valley stretches away as far as the eye can see, with Lakes Elementetita and Naivasha shining far in the distance. I can now understand why some Kenyans have been scrambling to buy land here. This would be the perfect location for a holiday home…Arafat was almost salivating when we drove back.

At the power station, the trail turns into Eburu forest proper. Forming part of the southern fridges of the Mau water tower, this forest has suffered from human encroachment and very little of it now remains. An electric fence has been constructed to hold back the threat of extinction and I do hope it succeeds. It would be a great loss of diversity if this forest disappeared. The flora and fauna gives testimony to ancient origins – from the range of plants you see, I didn’t see animals but I am sure they are there. Giant ferns everywhere, strange flowers and even the painful stinging nettle that gave us so much trouble; I am told that, according to fossil record, these are some of the oldest plants surviving on Earth today.

The fissure in the Earth's crust
Taping the fissure in the Earth’s crust

The forest stretch was too short though and soon we were out …down the hill and a sharp right to a T junction where the marks disappeared completely. Here you had to stop, say a prayer to your favorite deity and toss a mental coin. ‘Go left,’ mine said. I went left. Four painful kilometers later I was to realize I had made the wrong turn. Clearly my prayer was ignored, or someone up there was distracted. No wonder. It was a Saturday after all and Leicester were on the verge of winning the Premier league, a true miracle if any were needed. Serves me right for supporting the registration of that Atheists organization; not that I believe in their God anyway.

Lopua’s grandma had prepared plenty of hot sugary tea; very welcome after the cold rain in the forest. There was also lunch, plenty of rice and meat. I found that my ride, Ndegwa, had left already, clearly fearing that the rain would make his exit from Eburu impossible. But he had thoughtfully handed over my well-being to the said Arafat, who delivered me right back to the Panorama Hotel in Naivasha where Ndegwa had picked me up from that morning. Thank you very much both of you.

The Chairman has mooted the idea that we could make this run the second Ultra Marathon on the Swaras annual calendar, after Mt Kenya. I am sure the CRE will consider this good proposal with all seriousness and in their full wisdom, vote YES. It will be a wonderful and unique addition to our repertoire of challenging runs.

The elevation
The elevation

Meanwhile, back to that ancient cosmic conflict; since the discovery of Planet X, astronomers have been crunching the numbers. From their calculations, it appears that this monster of a heavenly body will show up near our Solar system from around the year 2029. Who knows what kind of mayhem it will bring this time? So we better get in all the runs we can before then. (NB: granted much of this is speculation but, you get the point)

Come to think of it, that vision 2030? Can someone tell our politicians to stop fighting over none issues and get cracking on the real stuff?

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P.S. This tale has a third movement. About Lopua’s people, how and more importantly, ‘why’ they came to be in the Eburu area. One day, if you buy me a beer, I may tell you the story.

Running Tales

A Good Cause Deserves a Good Course: 2 Oceans, (again?)

At first it seemed like the weather would not cooperate. It had rained most of the night before and the cold drizzle persisted into the early morning. For a minute I feared we would start in pouring rain, a terrible way to begin a long run. But then at some point mother nature looked down upon the shivering runners, many of whom had come to lend their talent by running for a good cause, and relented. A few minutes before the run started, the rain stopped.

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This is an accurate description of the start of two early morning Saturday runs that happened over 5000 kilometers apart, one on March 26 in Capetown and the other one on April 2nd in Karen, Nairobi. One was a good course, the other one was for a good cause.

First about the good cause: the Karen run was dedicated to supporting Kevin Mwachiro, one of our most dedicated and friendly Swaras. Kevin is waging the battle of his life against cancer and Swaras would not be Swaras if we did not stand by him in his time of need. In case you have not offered your support and would like to do so, please join #teamKevin on facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=kevin%20mwachiro or Mpesa your donation to Lucy Thuo.

#TeamKevins run: Avani, Kevin, Susan and a shy Swara
#TeamKevins run: Avani, Kevin, Susan and a shy Swara

As for the Two Oceans Marathon, what is there to say that has not been said? The most beautiful, painful, fun, humbling, crazy, lunatic, long, marathon/weekend…take your pick. The 56K ultra was all these and more. More than 12 Swaras took part, a record I believe and they all acquitted themselves extremely well. The pre-run support was wonderful (thank you Tata), although none of our training plans seemed to go exactly according to plan. But we were all agreed, we would run the damn thing, come hell or high weather. Others like James (Wahome and Waliula) were less profane, if more philosophical.

“We are going to Capetown for a holiday. But if a 56K happens to stand in the way, then we’ll just have to run it.”

Such casual disrespect for distance, effort and pain can only come from Urban Swaras. It reminds me of the following ancient story told about the Spartans as they marched to fight the Persians at Thermopylae.

Along the way, the Spartans met a Merchant and asked him about the Persian army.

“The Persians are so fierce and their archers are so many that their arrows darken the sun,” they were told.

“All the better” quoth an old Spartan soldier. “The Spartans fight best under the shade.”

From what I am hearing, I expect there will be an even bigger group of Swaras attempting the Two Oceans Ultra next year. So maybe the best I can do is to contribute by sharing some tips from my experience this year. Here goes:

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“You want to wear a what?” The nice lady at the Parliament Hotel, where I stayed, was trying but she could not hide her incredulity. “A garbage bag? Why?”

“Well, er, um, it’s a runners thing, you know. In case it rains….” I was not doing a very good job of explaining myself. For once I could see the craziness of what we do from a non runners eyes. We like to see ourselves in macho terms but I can assure you, the non running public often sees a bunch of pending citizens of a mental asylum instead. Especially when we try to explain some of the ‘crazy’ things we do; wearing garbage bags is not even the worst of them. How about: taping our nipples; waking up at 4.00 am in the rain to run; flying thousands of miles to a beautiful coastal town, not to lie on the beach but to suffer; applying Vaseline to the ‘you know what’….

Long story short. I didn’t get my garbage bag. The lady told me she had to consult the hotel management team, who were set to meet later that afternoon. I suspect they politely pretended to listen to her request and then flatly voted her down.

Lesson #1: Pack a garbage bag. Better still, carry a hoodie, or at least an old tshirt, something you can afford to throw away. Capetown weather can turn on a dime and the minutes before the run starts can get really miserable. Ask Timothy who showed up in a Swaras singlet.

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Cruising up Chapman's peak
Cruising up Chapman’s peak

The Congolese taxi driver had arrived fifteen minutes ahead of time, for which I was to be very grateful. When he heard I was going to run 56Km, he at first got very excited. Then I told him I was Kenyan and he gave me that look. You know, the one that seems to say ‘of course, what else would you expect from crazy Kenyans.” But then he was more polite when he verbalized the look.

“Oh, so are you going to win?”

“I am not that kind of Kenyan.”  He looked disappointed.

The traffic to the start was terrible and soon we got stuck. Good that he came early otherwise it would have been a disaster. We whiled away the time by talking. At some point I found myself trying to explain to him why Kenyans are such good runners.

“We have the advantage of altitude,” I say. “We breathe less air where I come from. So when we come to sea level, like Capetown, we suddenly have more air.”

He still doesn’t get the logic. Then I hit on a bright idea:

“It is like a car, you see; a car with a turbo engine. When you want it to go faster, you turn on the turbo right? A Kenyan running at sea level is like turning on a turbo engine.”

“A turbo engine, oh yes” And then I sat there and watched his face suddenly light up in understanding. It made me feel like Socrates.

Lesson #2:  Plan to leave early for the start so as to avoid the traffic. If you can find a hotel near the starting point the better.  In any case you might have to jog to the start at some point. Think of it as a warm up. Next remember that when you run abroad, you carry more than the flag of our country. You carry the World’s expectations from our illustrious running past. To most of the people you meet, all Kenya’s can run and they will expect you to do no less, even if you are limping. Better yet, it will make their day if they can beat you. Just remember to take it all with good humor.

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“Hello, is this room service? Can I have two cold beers delivered to my room please?” I was talking to the same lady of the hotel.

“What kind of beer would you like, Mr Ndungu?” She is very polite. “We have very many. In fact I suggest you can come down so that you can chose for yourself.”

“Sorry I am having trouble going down stairs. Just send me whatever you have.”

I got the beers. By then I had come to the conclusion that choosing a 5th floor room, one with a wonderful view of the Table mountains, and then having the lift break down the day after running an ultra marathon, may not have been such a brilliant idea after all. If you think running up hills during a marathon is tough, trying walking down stairs the day after.

Lesson #3: Running an ultra marathon will do strange things to your body. If you can, accept the chance for a massage offered at the finish line or arrange for one soon after. If you feel like sleeping for hours, do so. The day after the run you will barely be able to walk properly. Don’t pretend to be a hero about it. Everyone knows you are hurting. Even the Hotel Manager, who could not understand your  request for a garbage bag the day before, is now full of sympathy. He even orders that the lift should be repaired during the night so that you don’t have to walk down the stairs the next morning.

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My first trip to Capetown was in November 2015. I made friends with a friendly South African tour guide and spent two full days being shown the best tourist spots in the area. When he heard that I planned to run the Two Oceans Marathon some day he got very excited. Even offered to drive me along the entire route so that I could get an idea. The only problem was he drove the route in reverse and I left thinking that those hills they talk about were nothing. Imagine my shock on race day when I hit Chapmans hill and realized we were doing the ‘long-end-up’ first.

Lesson #4: Don’t take advice from a slightly overweight South African who admits he has never run any real distance in his life. In fact don’t take any advice, period. Instead do what Lillian did and study the videos of the route that the organizers had helpfully provided on their website, and which I ignored. Remember also that, while the famous Chapmans peak is long and tough, the real killer is Constantia Nek, much shorter but steeper and it shows up when you are long past the 42K mark. You must leave something in the tank.

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Suffering past Constantia Nek
Suffering past Constantia Nek

The run ends on a small down hill. But, before that, there is an up hill, now named Chets Hill, in honor of a recently departed Two Oceans founder. On a normal Swaras running  day, Chets hill is nothing. But on this day, coming as it does at 55K, you will probably remember every painful inch. Then you will hear the roar of the crowd, hidden just around the corner and the sound will lift you up. This is when you learn the true meaning of a second wind. You want to finish strong, or at least within the 7 hour cut off mark. Somehow, from somewhere, you will find that extra kick.

Lesson #5: Enjoy yourself. The crowds are simply fantastic, as are the thousands of friendly local runners who will happily share tips with you if you ask them. The bag collection process at the end is a bit of a pain, so if you can, travel light to the starting point and avoid the long pick up queue at the end altogether. Whatever you do, have fun!

Running Tales

What I think About When I think About Running

(Plagiarism alert: Today’s piece is stolen from better writers than I, including: Rudyard Kipling, Haruki Murakami, Chris McDougall, Raoul Kamadjieu, Jack London and others. Can you tell what is stolen from whom?)

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If you can take the worst that Otora can throw at you
The hills of Kajiado, the mountains of Iten and the marshes of Kikuyu
It you can do a 40K run, and wake up next morning to do a 10K recovery
If you can run long after your mind has said your body will die (it’s a lie)
If you can do this early on a Saturday morn, when normal humans are asleep
And suffer and still come back next week and do it all over again
Then yours is the craziness of the trail and the glory of the run
And, what is more, you’ll be a true Urban Swara, my friend.

(A shameless heist from Rudyard Kipling’s great poem ‘If’)

The call of the trail
The call of the trail

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I believe it was Christopher McDougall in his famous classic, ‘Born to Run’ who first made the following powerful case, at least to me. The body of a human being is built to run. The body on its own does not recognize distance or fatigue and normal human beings can run almost any distance. It is the mind that acts as a brake, warning you to stop when, according to it, you go ‘too far’ and playing all sorts of tricks when you refuse to listen. Remove the mind’s interference and a normal, healthy, human can run almost indefinitely.

McDougall illustrated this point by narrating the story of the Tarahumara Indians of the mountainous Sierra Madre region of North West Mexico and the late, mad Mzungu, Crazy Horse, who once lived among them and learned to run like them. The Tarahumara (or Raramuri as they call themselves) run crazy distances, 100 Km is fairly common, with none of the modern comforts we take for granted. According to McDougall, they essentially run in akala (open shoes) covering long distances over mountains and valleys, sometimes for days. The only time they seem to stop is to have a smoke.

I had reason and time, plenty of it, to think about MacDougall and the Raramuri during the Tigoni run last Saturday. I have done the run before. But there is no way you can prepare for a Tigoni run. Not physically anyway. The run starts innocently enough. A 7K downhill which, according to Raoul, ‘tempts one to let go and fly.’ But then, as he bluntly warns, “Don’t.” Not that anyone listens, including him, he had to be shipped home on a Boda Boda, and not the first time either. Soon the trail turns and at 10K, becomes a gentle climb. Easily doable, for veterans of Magadi, Kajiado et al, right? Wrong? What no one tells you is that you will be climbing for the next 9Km, until you reach the tarmac road.

From here you will see the ‘finishing point’ the cars parked next to the Gulf petrol station where you left them. Now if you have signed up for a 20K plus distance, you have a hard choice to make, for Otora is not done with you yet. Do you quietly creep in to the finish line and hope no one sees you? But how could you live with yourself after that? So you give a last, wistful look, at the short distance runners, already relaxing in the sun, profusely curse Otora and his lineage one more time and turn sharply left, on to the road that climbs past Brackenhurst. The real run has just began.

This is where the second monster of distance running takes over. Altitude. If I recall James Taylor’s instructions, from the days when I used to do the ‘Farmers choice chase,’ the altitude difference from the bottom of Redhill to the top of Brackenhurst is almost 1000 meters. When you have just done 20K, 10 of them uphill, that counts. It counts a lot.

This where your mind begins to play games with you. “Surely I can’t do this any more or I will die,” it says. Your other half mind, the ego insists, ‘yes you can.’ Or rather; “Imagine the shame, if you stopped now. All the women will laugh at you.” Then you notice that you are running all alone and your silly mind gets going again. “What would happen if I collapsed here, in these tea bushes? Would they ever even find my body? What would my wife say?” After she warned me for years to ‘grow up and start acting your age.’ “Serves you right,” you can hear her voice even now. “Why don’t you go ahead and die again then, maybe that will teach you a lesson.” What if I broke my leg? How would I ever get back down there?

The only mitigation is the scenery. Some parts of the trail are so beautiful that your mind, briefly forgetting its running stream of self pity, simply exclaims: “Wow! Our country surely is beautiful.” I wish I could bring more Kenyans here. Then perhaps they would realize what a blessed lot we are and stop their incessant whining.

You have reached the top of the mountain. Some sections are simply not runable and you confine yourself to a walk. You are way past embarrassment by now. Some of the walks are so painful they become a rather ungainly shuffle, prompting a bunch of kids to ask innocently; “How come none of you are running?”

To which your mind responds in some rather unholy glee. “Ha! So I am not the only one.” The semi elites who came past here must have been suffering too. But a few minutes later, Waliaula will overtake you on a downhill stretch. He shouts that he is on the business end of a 50K. He is doing such an intense pace that you are forced to revise your earlier conclusion. No sign of suffering there.

At some point you are forced to knock on a strangers door and beg for water. The pretty Woman of the house takes a look at you and quickly runs into the kitchen. She looks like she has seen a ghost. More likely she sees a potential death on her doorstep, and imagines the ordeal of having to explain such an event to the police, or her husband. She brings you a jug of water, one so big that you have enough to drink two rounds, fill your running belt and wash your face. You thank her politely and run out of the compound.

You notice that everyone has stopped to look at you. It is the same look you would give to a mad man, newly escaped from Mathare. You know the one who keeps insisting that he is not mad, even as he tries to fashion a suit from a bunch of newspapers? That one.

Soon you hit a downhill section. But now the sadistic phenomenon of ‘reverse terrain pain’ hits home. You see, your muscles have become molded into the process of running uphill. Forcing them to go downhill demands a whole new, muscular, re-education. A painful one too. You reach the river and see the steep hill towards home. You let off an explosive sigh of relief. Who would ever have imagined that a hill on this run would come as a godsend?

You arrive back home, 32K later and the first person you see is Wahome. He is all smiles, fresh from having done a paltry 20K. He looks at you and cracks a joke. But you are not laughing. You have just remembered that he is the one who invented the Tigoni run. You want to give him a large piece of your mind, the stinky half too. But you look at his fresh condition and realize that, in your half dead state, he could easily snap you into two. So instead you walk away and try to find an easier target to bully. Maybe Ameet. After all, he is the MC, aka the Swaras punching bag, right? But he doesn’t look bullyable either.  So instead you content yourself with a cup of tea.

Then you hobble back to the car. You are in such a dizzy that you even forget your running belt, which Ameet retrieves for you. Aren’t you glad you resisted the temptation to bully him?

Later you will philosophically reexamine the events of the morning and come to a conclusion. Losing your running belt was your silly mind getting back at you, after ignoring it for 32K and nearly destroying its bodily vehicle.

Some of the strange things you think about when you do a Swaras run.

Running Tales

Running Through History (An account of the Osotua run)

There are many good reasons to take part in the annual Osotua run. Let us start with the scenery. It is simply to die for. If you have not been, may I suggest you stop reading this and check out the photos that Roul posted on the Swaras facebook page. Or, if you like Victor more, here you go.

Go on and look. I’ll wait.

Here is one of them. Beautiful, no?
Here is one of them. Beautiful, no?

Then there was the run itself. In case you are like me and can’t help confusing Osotua with Ololua, that other classic that happens in Karen and the nation of Ongata Rongai, here is a quick tip: for Ololua – think Monkeys. For Osotua – think killer hills, for that is what the run, starting as it does on the edge of the great Rift Valley escarpment portends.

But there was nothing like killer hills this time. At least not many. Otora must have found religion during the holiday season. He avoided the temptation of routing us up the vertical escarpment against which the Osotua camp nests. Instead we went left of the escarpment wall, aiming straight at Mai Mahiu town and Mount Longonot beyond it. Then we gently curved left again, using Mt Margaret as the beacon this time, just missing the Longonot satellite Earth station until we arrived at the Kenya Pipe Line depot, which sits at the end of an ancient tarmac road that I am told used to form the Nairobi Nakuru cattle track, way back in Colonial times.

Speaking of Colonial times, history alone could be a good reason to do Osotua , assuming Masai cuisine and herbal goat soup are not your cup of tea. Osotua sits on the northern boundary of official Masai land, an artificial border demarcated by power of Colonial fiat and treaty chicanery. It is thus a symbol of the greatest land grab ever perpetrated in Kenyan history, a historical injustice of gargantuan proportions if you want one. This crime, committed more than 100 years ago, is part of a long story. So let me tell you the short version.

The lay of the land. El nino has turned it all green
The lay of the land. El nino has turned it all green

The Colonial British were a rather practical, if devious lot. I guess you had to be when, hailing from a small Island with terrible weather, you found yourself the owner of an empire that stretched half way round the World. How would you rule such a massive empire? There are not enough of you and despite the prowess of your army and navy, the expanse of your dominions are simply too vast to control by force. You can’t always rely on bribing the natives. Many of them cannot be trusted to stay bribed and in any case, there are only so many beads and trinkets to go round. So they invented the doctrine of divide and rule, or rather they perfected a doctrine that the Romans had invented more a thousand years earlier.

In a nutshell the doctrine goes like this: to rule the natives and keep them subdued you need to do two things first and foremost: (a) identify their weaknesses so that you exploit them and (b) identify their strengths and either align yourself with them or do everything you can to turn these strengths into weaknesses. Together these principles formed the key pillars of what became known as the theory and practice of indirect rule.

Back to Osotua.

Before the British showed up on our shores, the Masai used to graze their cattle on the land stretching from near Arusha in Tanzania, past Kiajado, Nairobi, Nyeri, Nanyuki, Eldoret to Kitale. This vast stretch, almost 1000 kilometers long, formed the nomadic tribes summer and winter (high land pasture and lowland pasture) grazing grounds. The right to ownership was reinforced by history, mythology (Engai (God) gave the land to us and all cattle on earth besides) as well the fierceness of the Moran warrior class. These Masai Moran’s had for hundreds of years kept any strangers away from the Kenyan hinterland, single handedly shielding the tribes of Central and Western Kenya from the ravages of slave raiders, colonial explorers and the missionaries who followed them.

On the run. Negotiating some of the treacherous terrain
On the run. Negotiating some of the treacherous terrain

I am sure the Masai could have continued doing exactly that, but for a perfect storm of disasters that struck around the 1820 to 1890. First an epidemic of smallpox that decimated many populations in the East African region, causing forced migrations that changed the ethnographic landscape permanently. Next and even worse for the Masai, a series of cattle epidemics, mainly Riderpest, that killed many of their animals, threatening to destroy the basis of their economic and cultural existence as a people.

It was around this time that Joseph Thomson showed up courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (mother of the present day National Geographic that you see on TV) to explore the East African hinterland. Thomson boasts in his memoirs of his prowess in traversing the previously impenetrable Masailand, “…a sheaf of green grass in one hand (a Maa symbol of peace) and a rifle in the other” (a British symbol of deceit?). But the truth is he and his servants were traipsing through largely empty savanah grassland. The disasters had reduced the feared Masai into a shell of themselves and the stresses caused powerful internal tensions, especially following the death of respected leader, elder and prophet, Batian, when his two sons Lenana and Sedeyo turned on each other and split the tribe into two.  The resulting Morijo civil war was to cause a permanent rift, creating the tribe now known as Samburu and giving the colonialists the weak point they needed to exploit in order to steal the Masai’s land.

Joseph Thomson. When I was young we were taught that he was the 'first man to cross Masailand' which made wonder what had happened to the Masai. Had they all gone blind?
Joseph Thomson. When I was young we were taught that he was the ‘first man to cross Masailand’ which made wonder whether the Masai had all gone blind

The British needed land and other natural resources to support the home country and the expansive empire, and later to settle white veterans from World War 1. They discovered the fertile valleys and slopes of the Abadares and the expansive well drained plains of the Laikipia and Uasin Gishu plateaus. Good land, well watered, plenty of native labour nearby, and weather like the Yorkshire Dales in permanent summer. What was not to like? So they liked. In fact they liked so much that they promptly renamed it ‘The White Highlands.’ One small problem, the Maasai and to a smaller extent the Nandi and Kipsigis to the West claimed to own most of it.

What to do? Start a land war? Not a very efficient idea, especially as you would still need the same native owners to provide cheap labour or serve as hired mercenaries to subdue restless tribes that could threaten the settler project.  In any case, even though the Masai were weakened by then, no one wanted to test the theory that they could not fight, or give them a reason to unite their warring clans against a common enemy. Otherwise the Colonial project in Kenya could have ended before it began.

The road to Mai Mahiu. Getting there can be tougher than doing the run
The road to Mai Mahiu. Getting there can be tougher than doing the run

Enter a chap called Frederick John Dealtry Lugard – (marches in, stage right): fresh from a stint in subduing the restless natives of West Africa, who insisted on opposing the creation of modern day Nigeria. Born in Madras (present day Chennai) India, Lord Lugard was one of the greatest proponents of the policy of indirect rule. You could say he wrote the manual on the philosophy and practice of divide and rule. He believes the British can convince the Masai to vacate their land without having to fight them.

Enter Lenana ole Batian – (sits quietly stage left) – the brash but rather humbled Maasai war leader from Kiserian, recently enthroned as Oloibon Kitok and soon to be Paramount Chief of all of Masailand. Brave and well versed in the ways of warrior hood and the culture and beliefs of his people, but Lenana was clearly ignorant in the dark arts of politics and diplomatic sleight of hand. He has recently emerged from a devastating struggle for power against his brother. All he desires now is peace and he thinks the British are his friends.

The meeting of the two people and opposed visions was to be a disaster for the Maasai and indirectly for Kenya. Through a series of tricks, the Maasai were somehow convinced to give up the fertile upper plateau lands of Nyandarua, Nakuru,  Nanyuki  and beyond and move to the dry and marginal Kajiado/Namanga plains to the south while their Samburu cousins were pushed to the dry Laikipia plateau north of Nanyuki and Isiolo. You can read one of the colonial agreements here. No I’ll not wait.

Further afield, the project of colonizing Uganda, for which the Uganda railway had been built, was largely abandoned and Kenya colony became the new center of British settler attention. The rest as they say is history.

The deed is done. Chief Lenana shortly after signing away most of Masai grazing land
The deed is done. Chief Lenana shortly after signing away most of Masai grazing land

The Mai Mahiu road that passes just next to Osotua forms the utmost northern edge of this historical injustice perpetrated on the Masai people. An injustice that every post independence Kenya government has continued, either by default or by design. In fact the genesis of land tensions that have existed here between the Maasai and the Kikuyu, which flare up in regular, so called ‘tribal clashes’ can be traced this far back. The people of Maa have never recovered.

But let us get back to the running trail.

The flat section of the run lasted exactly 27K. Shortly past the KPL depot, the trail turned left, then right and bang into the face of a massive rock strewn cliff. Clearly Otora had saved the best for last. Somewhere near here the SGR will soon be passing, emerging from one of the longest tunnels to be constructed in East Africa. But for now it is all volcanic rock and scrubby bushes, mute witnesses to the suffering of the Urban Swaras.

The morning mist makes the land look a scene in fantasy movie
The morning mist makes the land look a scene in fantasy movie

At the top of the cliff we emerge onto a narrow flat plain abutting the real escarpment. The sharp hill curves gently to include the Mai Mahiu road and the old railway line. Both hug the escarpment closely, tracing ancient elephant trails, an Engineer friend once told me, to traverse the famous Williams hill to Mai Mahiu town. Somewhere near the bottom is a small Chapel, built by the Italian prisoners of war in memory of their comrades who died building this road. Nothing marks the, even greater, suffering of the Indian natives who built the railway line.

My grandfather told me that watching the Italians being forced into near slave labour by their British jailers was one of the incidences that broke the myth of white invincibility and contributed to the rise of the Mau Mau. To the Kikuyu, a white man was a white man (gutiri muthungu na mubia). If the Italians could be beaten, so could the British. A story for another day.

The long run ended at 34K, as confirmed to me by Roul and my running mate Waweru, although Timothy somehow was able to scratch out a 39K (some people are insatiable, I tell you). The food was very good as were the cold showers. The views were even better, once the pain was behind us.

I vote that we do this again.

On a previous visit, Swaras posing with the locals
On a previous visit, Swaras posing with the locals
Running Tales

Breaking News! All Urban Swaras are crazy

Swaras

So finally it is official. All Swaras are crazy. But, my inspired breakthrough (from breathing all that mountain air) is that, of the Swara species, the female is definitely more crazy than the male. Sample herewith some happenings from a memorable outing, ‘Facing Mt Kenya,’ or rather sliding, ziging and zaging, all over it.

1. Katwa – ‘wild animals be damned.’ He demands to start his run at 4.00am in the morning.
“But there are elephants in the forest.” He is told.
“What elephants? I milk elephants for practice”
So he completes a 45K ‘short’ run, only to be told he missed a turn off to the 56K. He promptly declares he wants to do the full Ultra and does it. By the way 45K is an Ultra Marathon distance already, but who was counting!

2. Joy ‘marathons are for wimps’ – who has never done a full marathon before. But why bother with a piddly 42K when you can do a 56K ultra marathon? From a half marathon to an Ultra Marathon in one step. Now what do you call it when, not one but two Swara women accomplish this feat on the same day? Methinks that that sets the bar for craziness pretty high

3. Ndungu – after surviving 4 waves of pelting rain and mountain clod, concludes we have all suffered enough and decides to call off the run and have everyone evacuated. Forgets the small matter of consulting any Swara about this decision but his lonesome self. Discovers that Swaras have a rather polite way of showing you the middle finger. They simply show you a dirty pair of heels and dare to you to stop them

4. Davis, Nyingi, Ajaa and other elites: Rain. There was rain?

5. Kanana Olubayi and Martin Boelle – the youngest and the oldest Swaras on the trail respectively. After each of them running over 30K, the furthest and hardest of their short/long lives, you would think they would have no energy left to smile. You would think wrong

6. Munyao – ‘Mr potato man’ – is so inspired by the Mt Kenya potatoes that he decides he is going to use them as running fuel. So a mystified cook had boiled and salted some potatoes for him the night before (and somehow managed to resist the urge to make that universal sign for ‘crazy fellow’). From the way Munyao run, the potato fuel clearly worked. So when next you see some strange ‘fruit’ on the Stanchart trail, you know who to thank/blame.

7. Millicent – ‘lost and not found.’ She takes a wrong turn in the forest and promptly gets lost. She calls someone who calls someone else and, wonders of technology, finally gets patched through to the Chairman’s Director of Communications. Message: “I am lost in the forest but don’t you worry about me. I’ll find myself.” She did.

8. All Swaras who came to the mountain – we promised you NO rain; it rained for more than two hours on the trail; you shrugged it off. We promised you a shortened route if the weather went bad. Otora gave you a longer one, 56K; you didn’t even notice. In fact many of you had the energy to drive back to Nairobi after the run. And from what I hear you want to come back next year? Crazzyy!

9. To those who missed the run: the word is that we try to make this an annual event, better organized and scheduled so that people can use the experience to gauge their training for other runs. I am sure we shall be hearing more from the Management Committee about this.

10. Meanwhile if you see Swaras wearing a Mt Kenya Ultra Marathon Tshirt with a certain special swagger, take a moment to pay your respects. They have earned it.

Running Tales

WAHOME TAKE 2

 THE RETURN TO REDHILL

The Dam - the surrounding topography takes the shape of a natural amphitheater.
The Redhill dam – the surrounding topography takes the shape of a natural amphitheater.

It was a hard start. Heck it was an impossible start. Think of a run that starts with a mountain climb.

But, second things first. Sovereign Hotels Restaurant is a real hidden gem. Located off the road to Limuru the restaurants are set on three decks that float on a man made lake. The place is hemmed in by steep hills on all sides. They are still working on the concept but, from what we saw, this is going to be an important destination on the hideaway circuit. The large number of Swaras who had shown up on this cold morning seemed to agree.

The floating restaurant
The floating restaurant

The designer of the place seems to be a Swara – certainly it is not the owner; Mr Kanyotu, who was the longest serving head spook Kenya has ever had, is not only RIP, but he was not known to be a runner. You see, starting from the parking lot, running paths have been constructed that wind their way around the steep hills first all the way up one hill to the top, then all the way back down and yet again. The trails cover four kilometers (Otora said) and despite the winding nature, seem to go more up than down. The ground is soft, comfortable at first but soon a real challenge, especially on the steep slopes. The start of this run was a surreal experience, like trying to run your way out of a giant hole.

To the Man the run reminded him a little bit about Kajiado. You remember the latter half when, suddenly you are surrounded by mountains in every direction and wondering how the hell Otora is planning to get you out? Up the steepest slope possible, that is how. Same difference in this case.

Something else the run reminded one of, or rather someone – Wahome. To those who may not know, this gentleman has discovered and scouted some of the most scenic runs on the Swara calendar. Voi and Tigoni quickly come to mind, but they are not the only ones. How he finds such beautiful trails remains a bit of a mystery. It was not a big surprise then when Wahome confirmed that indeed he was the one responsible for finding today’s run. The trail overlaps in some places with the Tigoni run, but there is so much choice that this need not be a problem in future iterations. This is another shoo in for a permanent slot on the annual calendar.

Wahome tests the new trail
Wahome tests the new trail during the pre-run recce

This is the weekend after the Beijing Athletics World Championships where Kenyans had literary run the World to the ground. In Keeping with this conquering spirit, the Man dreams that this will be the day he finally covers himself, and the entire Swaras fraternity in glory. Opting to run the 30K, he proceeds to set such a monster pace that Nyingi, Walialula, Gilbert, Lopua and the other elites are soon left chocking on the dust left in his wake. Otora frantically tries to ride after him, to give him a bottle of water, but no Boda Boda is going to catch him on this morning. He does not need the water anyway. He finishes the 30 K in nothing flat, grabs a Swara flag and proceeds to do a victory run around the dam; pausing only to do a Kemboi dance and blow kisses at the adoring Swaras who are cheering madly from the floating decks.

Ahem…excuse me Man, wrong dream.

The reality was much more prosaic. The run started well enough, an intended 30K that ended up 25. An early pace, chasing Leif, who it turned out was doing the short, meant that the Man had less energy in reserve when the real hills finally showed up. Clearly some people never learn.

The view from the top
The view from the top 

At around 20K, he hooks up with a pretty young Swara who is the doing 25K.

“I am psyching myself, by shadowing you,” she admits with a smile. He grunts something indistinct in reply. But he is secretly happy for the company.

So for the next 2K or so they run together. She runs easy, with an occasional smile and the light step and even breathing pattern of a conditioned martial artist.  Few words are exchanged between them, none are needed. It is clear that she is willing to go all the way (to the finish). They get to a hill and silently decide to walk. Soon the hill is mounted and she politely asks if the Man would like to start another round; that is if he is not too tired. Which man would say not to such an invitation? Alas his mind has a body of its own which, in solidarity with the teachers, has decided to go on strike. Deflated, he is reduced to watching impotently as she disappears over the horizon.

“Shame I forgot to ask her for her numb…, I mean name” he thinks ruefully to himself.

Thus, having hit the wall, the Man was to walk the entire remaining 5K home, arriving dead last and long after all the tea and juicy gossip had run out. Not one of his most newsworthy outings. But the beauty of the spot that Wahome has found for us more than made up for the disappointment.

We must go back there again.

Running Tales

That Boston Hill, Yawa!

ACCOUNT OF THE ‘Run2Gether’ RUN – KIJABE
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The track
The running  track

Why our Chairman is like a prophet

The Man had set his phone to beep at 5.45 am, heeding the Chairman’s warning to leave early as the road to Kijabe was likely to be covered in fog. But it was not until 6:30 am that he managed to drag himself out of bed, another sign of his gradual slide to sloppiness, a process that had began three months back.

So it was a mad dash to throw in assorted running kit into the car, grab some sugar water (another recommendation by the Chairman, more on this later) and drive off.

Living in Ruiru County has few benefits, but this morning was one of them. He did not have to drive through town as the Northern bypass, the shortest route to Naivasha by far, passes just nearby. On hitting Limuru the fog started, exactly as the Chairman had ordained.

So did a series of maddening traffic jams which he later learned were caused by an overenthusiastic road construction crew that was doing repairs near Kimende. (Kimende means ‘big cockroach’ in Kikuswa).

Driving like a Kenyan

The Man was glad to note he was not the only one running late. From his rear view mirror he could espy Godec, a few cars back, who was trying his best to beat the clock by weaving in and out of the glacial traffic. Despite totting a chase car and a ride that looked like the half brother to ‘the Beast’ he was not getting much respect from the early morning Matatu drivers. Clearly it is not enough to run like a Kenyan. Sometimes you have to also drive like one.

The Man made it to the venue with three minutes to spare. He has been here before, during the opening of the ‘Run2Gether’ track and club house a year back. But he has never run these trails.

As promised, the Chairman started the run at 8.00 am on the dot. The trail started with a gentle slope towards Mai Mahiu (hot water) road, then turned left just before the tarmac and became a flat stretch that seemed to go on forever before suddenly curving left again and morphing into a long hill that ended somewhere near an abandoned railway station.

The Run2Gether club house
The Run2Gether club house

Run2gether – a fount of youth talent

Since Nyingi found his running mojo, and the Man lost his, they are no longer able to run together. Their interactions these days are limited to a brief Jambo and a quick Kwaheri before Nyingi sprints off and puts some serious daylight between them. The Man misses those long running-chat-fests they used to have, some which used to go on for 15Km. But he has no one to blame for the loss but himself.

This morning would have been especially apt as he wanted to talk about the young people who have created ‘Run2gether’. Especially their discipline, hospitality and organizational talent – the trail was impeccably marked; the food was tasteful and in plenty and their training schedule, which the Man found posted on a wall, was a sign of a team that seems to have a real purpose.

“What would it take to seed the whole country with many such groups?’ he thinks as he recalls again the amazing talent he has observed from years of traveling and interacting with youth across the continent of Africa. Much of that talent is to be found right here in Kenya. Unfortunately it is often expressed in negative ways.

The Man was recently the unwilling guest at an attempted robbery, a carjacking ordeal that lasted over four hours. From this experience, he was able to observe the high level of planning and organization that it takes to put together such a mission. The four young thugs seem to have thought of everything, from getaway cars, to dimly lit ATM booths where they could draw money, to multiple disguises and escape routes. They had even rehearsed the mission. The only mistake they made was in abducting the Man and two other fellows on the brokest night of their lives. The three happened to have less than 3000 shillings between them. But the point is this; the youth of this country are brimming with talent. Run2gether is a good example of how such talent can be channeled positively.

Boston lite

But let us get back on the trail. The runners crossed the railway line for the second and last time just before the start of the escarpment. This was at the top of a gentle slope which the Man thought was the famous Boston hill. He even stopped to quiz two Swaras who had over taken him just before the end.

“Is this Boston hill?’

“I don’t know, but it had better be” the Swara replied with a determined glint in his eye. “I am sure it can’t get worse than this” he added as he took off. If only he knew.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” the Man was left speaking to himself, as he spied the wall of mountains a hundred meters to his right.

The railway line hugged the side of these mountains and for a moment, it seemed like the run would go along along it, which would have been another flat cruise back to the start. But then Otora has never seen a mountain that he did not want the Swaras to climb. Thus, barely fifty meters ahead, the trail turned right. Giant arrows (double ones for emphasis), pointed straight up and, the Man was sure, at the steepest slope that Otora could find.

The flora
The flora

Lessons in flora, fauna and topology

The Man gave up running and started walking. It was a painful thirty minute trudge to the top, mitigated only by the sheer beauty, which for once he was able to enjoy at some sort of leisure, thanks to his more sedentary pace. Too bad he had left his camera back home.

This mountain, an escarpment actually, forms part of the northern edge of the south-eastern branch of the Great Rift Valley. It rises almost 2000 meters from the valley floor and although much of the land is settled, some of it is too marginal to farm and has retained much of the original vegetation. This has formed a giant carpet of green covering every valley, down which the morning fog was rolling slowly, billowing like incense in a giant Cathedral. It was simply beautiful.

The Man amused himself by trying to see how many plants he could remember by name and use. Here were maigoya (prectranthus barbatus) used as a hedge, for ripening bananas, and sometimes as toilet paper. Mirichu bushes (of the acocanthera family) whose roots make potent arrow poison, yet the fruits (ndicu) are edible and indeed were a favorite of the Man and his peers when they were growing up. Then there was the rare mukandu (ocimum gratissimum), menthol plants used for curing toothache and common cold and the macuna bushes (pavonia urens) used for making traditional soap and for treating hives to attract bees. Finally the deadly datura stramonium, magurukia, so feared that even today the Man will not shelter under this plant for fear of going mad.

There were many other plants he recognized but he could no longer remember their names. “My late grandfather would be unhappy about this,”the man thought.

Having been raised by a medicine man grandfather, there was a time the Man used to know every plant and its uses. But the White man’s education had interfered and now he knew… what? He looked down in some embarrassment; even though there was no one but the birds to see his shame.

Then his eye was drawn to a grey snake lying across the path. But, on close attention, it turned out to be a line of army worms. They are so called because they march in military single file, their metal grey color making them look a little bit like Nairobi City Council Askaris.

There were quite a few army worm squads out on parade this morning, but not enough, the Man hoped, to create a swarm. He remembered, years back when he was a small boy, his mother telling him that, when they swarm, army worms can be more destructive than locusts.

“They will eat everything that grows. But, unlike locusts, even birds don’t like to eat army worms” she had said.

The fauna
The fauna

What a SOB, story

Not that the man had ever seen locusts, but his young imagination could easily fill in the blanks. For many years dreams of spiny skinned crawly army worms and clouds of blood thirsty locusts that darkened the sun, were a staple of his childhood nightmares. Luckily those nightmares had ended, unlike the night of this never ending mountain. At some point Davis caught up with him, briefly interrupting his reveries.

“What happened to you?” He asked. Translation: “what the hell went wrong with you man! We used to run together?”

The Man trots out his tattered sob story.

“It was like this, you see. I went traveling for two months and I could not run. That is why I am so badly out of shape.”

The story sounds so lame that the man dare not look Davis in the eye. But Davis is a real gentleman, however and he has the politeness to pretend that he believes it. Up to a point of course, as he then says a brief good bye and quickly runs away.

“Was that a smirk I just saw on his face?” The man was left wondering, and berating himself.

“What a liar you are! So you traveled and you couldn’t run. Was it to a country in the sky, one that has no ground on which you could run? Or was it a dictatorial regime where running is a punishable offense?”

“The truth is, Man, since you missed that chance to run the Two Oceans Marathon you have become a no good slob, more wedded to junk food and beer than the bracing morning runs that the Swaras are known for. You are no better than a….”

The hills
The hills

And the real run begins

Luckily at this point his self flagellation was interrupted by the end of the steep mountain slope. The trail turned flat and then started going down hill, to join a much bigger road where he met Godec’s detail waiting for their boss. They waved a cheerful good morning and he waved back.

“That is a good spot to wait,” the Man thought. “In case he is too knackered from climbing that Boston hill, he can take a ride home.” Boston hill, ha! If only he knew.

Five hundred meters further on, the trail turned right and started a gentle, innocent looking climb. Electricity power cables had been strung up on the left side, stretching arrow-straight, up a mean looking escarpment to what seemed like heaven and beyond. But much of the slope was obscured by trees and hedges, so the Man could not tell whether the trail followed the power lines. It did. Welcome to Boston hill.

“If this is a hill, then these Run2gether fellows must have a real gift for practical jokes or understatement”, the Man grumbled to himself. “For a start, this is not a hill.”

Newton has nothing on this

In another life, when the Man used to do serious running, he run the Boston marathon. He can confirm that the steepest part of the Boston marathon trail, the Newton hills, have nothing on this monster of a mountain. In fact, the man could bet, there is nothing like it in all of New England. When the Chairman warned the Swaras to bring running supplements and drinks, it turns out; this was what he was he trying to prepare them for. But, if you think that the Man listened, think again. His sugared drinks and simsim snack were left back in his car, quite safe as it turned out, but where they could do him absolutely no good.

Then again it is impossible to prepare anyone for the experience of Boston hill. Not even a photograph can do it justice. Nothing can capture the difficulty, the dizziness, the shortness of breath and pain in every muscle that attend the first time one attempts it. So how do you explain it to someone if you must? Here is a poor attempt:

Think of the Ngong hills. The steepest slope of the biggest Ngong hill is about a 200 meter climb. Take ten of those stretches and string them together to form a 2 kilometer ladder. Find a nice spot and lean this ladder against the sky. Now to try to run up the damn thing!

You would think it is not doable. Even walking up is an almost impossible challenge as some Swaras, including the Man, found out. But this is where the Run2gether crew come to train. Watching some Swaras like Nyingi, Dennis and Benson fly up this mountain as if it did not exist was an awesome sight.

The view
The view

A glorious finish

One good thing about surviving Boston hill is that nothing more that the run organizers can throw at you comes even close. The rest was a fairly gentle slope and some minimal climbs. The Man estimated he had about 5K left to get home. Not that he was absolutely sure, ever since those punks stole his Garmin watch; he has learned to run Zen. He is liking the experience so much that he might delay buying another running toy.

The trail ended with a glorious view of the blue Mt Longonot straight ahead, just as the Chairman had prophesied. This view alone made it all worthwhile.

But, the challenge and especially the beating that they took from the trail, is something that will keep many Swaras coming back. The Man plans to be among the number. Hopefully he will be back in running shape by then.

“Hiyo Boston hill itakiona.”