Running Tales

NO BUSINESS 100: A race report, and related events

This is primarily the story of a 100 mile ultra-marathon.

The ultra, NB100, has an actual distance of 104 miles or 166 km, it takes place in Stearns, Kentucky, Trumpland.

This could also be a Going to America story, being my first time across the Pacific. But we’ll try and limit our attention to the ultra.

It’s also fair to warn you this will be a long read. It was a long run. Here we go…

Part 1: Birth of the Ultra idea to arrival at Stearns, Kentucky

How I got to sign up

In 2017 I registered for Berlin Marathon. I wanted to make it a touristy outing, spend about 2 weeks in Europe, but I needed a reason, then I had a eureka moment; sign up for another race a week after Berlin. And I signed up for a 90 km ultra in Poland, and I got justification for my two weeks.

So when I got entry into Chicago Marathon 2018, I thought I’d keep the tradition alive, look for an ultra a week after Chicago, this time upgrade to a 100 miler. Why 100 miles? It is a landmark distance. Lower distance runs earn you a medal, 100 milers generally earn you a buckle, belt buckle. 100 milers also are invariably multi-day events, most having cut off times of more than 30 hours, meaning you run through day and night, meaning you are exposed to much more challenges than the regular long runs. I was curious. Wanted to see what lay beyond the double digit distances.

I engaged the services of a consultant to find me an ultra. Key criteria; should be a week after Chicago, should be at least 100 mile, should ideally be a single loop course (meaning you don’t get to run a section more than once, also you end at the point you started). The consultant, Google, came up with about 5 options, I settled on the one mentioned up there, NoBusiness 100, if you’ve just walked in.

I registered for it in February 2018 and all that remained was good old training.

The build-up

I had 7 months to train.

I had two events to train for: Chicago Marathon, NB100.

I laid out a grand plan: there would be long runs, loong runs and looong runs. I mapped the longest one, 112km, beginning at Fluorspar in Elgeyo Marakwet County, ending at my frontyard in Chepterit, Nandi County. That run would traverse 3 counties. There would be night runs, there would be back to back long runs like a 50k on Saturday, another 50k on Sunday. There would be strength training, and speed work too. I can stand here and declare that the plan, and its creator, deserved a Nobel Prize.

But as I drew my running plan, some dark forces were taking notes, planting landmines along the path of my award winning plans.

The first setback: I did an excellent job of twisting my ankle while running an un-runnable section of Karura Forest. But that didn’t worry me, October was a long way off. The injury would fade away. And it did, though quite slowly, and I resumed running, and discovered I could run in the Nairobi CBD early mornings before the city woke.

It is with the excitement of this discovery that I hit my big toe pretty hard, while running pretty fast, in a pretty dark section of 5:30 am Nairobi CBD. And that was annoying, very annoying. I didn’t stop running, picked myself up and ran the remaining 2 km, all sense dictated I suspend running to allow the toe to heal, the injury actually extended to mid-foot.

But who am I? I ran the following day, and the next, worsening the foot, activating the ankle injury, and on the 8th of June, my run aborted midway, my foot was dead. The next time I would run was 15th of August. These two months were trying times.

But all was not lost, I enrolled in a gym, did strength-work, and core workouts, and pedaled furiously on the bike that takes you nowhere. Idea was to keep the lower limbs active and maintain cardio fitness.

By the time of closing the training logs I had done only 3 runs longer than 40 km, the longest being a 44.6 km run in Voi on June the 2nd. Longest time on feet was 12 hrs, but that was way back in February running up and down Mt. Kenya.

The most psyche boosting of my workouts was an up-and-down Mt. Kenya run of 7 hrs 35 min on the 1st of September, it affirmed that I could be on my feet for long hours without much trouble from the estranged feet.

To make up for the training hiccups I dedicated lots of downtime to literature, reading everything ultra-running, especially hanging onto the theories that ultras are more mental than physical, therein lay my salvation. To further strengthen my faith, I sought out testimonies of people who had run ultras on limited training mileage. And yes there were testimonies, a good number sitting here;

Despite the interrupted training, I never really considered cancelling the ultra. ‘I am no coward’, ‘I don’t wuss out’ I kept telling myself. My not-cancelling certainly had nothing to do with the $250 non-refundable entry fee.

So with less that 700km mileage in 7 months, I packed my bags and headed to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Introducing Jen Wong…and how we got to Stearns

Jen is American, she ran with Swaras in 2016 when she was in Kenya for 3 months. We first met in a carpool to the famous Fluorspar run where she can be remembered for not being able to keep her hands off the Chapatis…

I mentioned I’d be within her borders running the Chicago Marathon, she said cool! Then I disclosed my Ultra plans and her eyes opened wide and she said if I did the ultra she’d come cheer me…I only had to get her an Urban Swara t-shirt.

I already had ideas on how to spend the blank week between Chicago Marathon and NB100. I also was firming logistics of getting to Stearns, the race location. I would travel to Louisville then onward to a town named London. There was no public transport beyond London, I was yet to figure out how to get to Sterns from London, an 85 km distance.

Jen promptly overruled my plans. ‘YOU HAVE TO SEE NASHVILLE!’ This was a declaration. I said yes ma’am, I would go to Nashville, I would see the Music City, we would rendezvous Friday morning, 12th October, we would drive to Stearns… Nashville is some 323 km from Stearns.

On 8th October, the day after Chicago marathon, I took a bus from Chicago to Nashville, hailed a cab, got collected by Latoya, a nice lady from de Bahamas, she immediately strikes conversation, where was I from? (trust my African accent), ‘Kenya’, said I ‘first time in America?’, ‘yes’, ‘you must be really brave taking the bus your first time here’, she said sounding impressed and I felt sufficiently macho. Indeed the bus experience had been a little seedy.

After a lot more tête à tête on how she was progressing on her American Dream, to how her boyfriend wasn’t committing to a mortgage, that ‘black guys from here have little ambition’, I was annoyed on her behalf,  style up American boyfriend!…and I felt at home in Nashville by the time I got to my Airbnb digs.

Day 1 Nashville: laze mode

Day 2 Nashville: Wander mode, and Jen was absolutely right, Nashville was a gem. (This is where I would have placed a choice Nashville photo, if only my phone had not changed ownership soon after getting back to KE)

I walked the city attractions, bought a 1 day public bus ticket, hopped onto this bus and that bus, round Nashville and its suburbs, just a’ sightseeing, dusk found me in a bus route 21, the bus wasn’t headed downtown, in a fit of decisiveness, I got off the bus, at a random junction, 25th Ave N & Clarksville pike.

I immediately feel out of place, not unsafe but grossly out of place; the junction looks a little shady, there’s an auto garage behind me, a number of people hanging around, the garage has prominent graffiti; no warranties, no guarantees, no refunds, no receipt…, I’d have wanted to take a photo of the juicy graffiti, but I have traces of wisdom. A guy rides past me, on a bike, which has no seat, another one walks by, no shirt, everyone here is a ‘former African’.

I stand at the bus stop, waiting for the bus to downtown, a guy is on one side of me, a lady on the other, it starts drizzling, the lady remarks on the rain, the guy chips in, basic courtesy dictates I contribute to the small talk as I’m between them, not me, I will not open my mouth and betray my straight outta Africa accent, I stare straight ahead, let them think I’m stone deaf.

Bus came after the most uncomfortable 10 mins, onward to downtown, and I headed straight to Broadway, Broadway at night was an event in itself! I was hooked!… but this is not about Nashville, It’s about an ultra, so let’s get on with the ultra….

How we got to Stearns

Jen jets into Nashville very early on Friday the 12th, her call wakes me from my Nashville-suburbish cozy sleep. She picks the car-for-rent and is at my location before I’ve breakfast stuffed myself.

She got a big car, with navigation, and a sunroof. The bigness and navigation was because we were headed to remote country. She said the sunroof was so that she’d sleep under the stars, in her comfy sleeping bag, as I slogged on with the ultra in the night…such talk is no good for someone who will be running through the night, but I swallowed my protest, I was at her mercy…

We left Nashville, Jen punches in coordinates of our destination. We all know how navigation works, the nice lady with a pleasant voice tells you something like, and ‘in 100 metres turn left into Interstate 64, drive on…more directions…you’ve arrived at your destination’.

The voice of the lady in our Navigation, after seeing the coordinates, said that we would get to a point where we would hear her voice no more, as we would have entered an area that had not been mapped. We said fine.

We drove leisurely for a few hours through what Jen said is usually referred to as ‘hillbilly country’. Jen suggested we visit the ‘Blue Smoky Mountains’ after the ultra, I agreed. We passed by a ‘haunted house’ signpost and I suggested we visit it too on our way back.

We got to the point where the navigation lady’s voice retired, drove further, took a wrong turn, drove all the way to the end of road, we find a cemetery, by the cemetery is a barrier, behind the barrier is a trailhead into the forest. Our destination was a town hall, as a rule town halls don’t sit in forests. Lost we were.

We drive back, find our way. And here we are, Stearns, KY.

Jen is a model human. She took a day off work, flew to Nashville, drove hundreds of miles, crewed and paced me. Never mind that she exposed me to pressure at the ultra by her relentless use of the word ‘Kenyan’, she definitely shouldered some fame being the one crewing and pacing the ‘Kenyan’.

This is where you take a break; check on livestock, go for a run…something…in preparation for part 2.


Part 2: Pre-race briefing and the Ultra

We checked into the town hall, collected our bibs, and some really cool race gear, I especially loved the North face hoodie and immediately adopted it as my official garb for the remainder of my time in the US.

Mug shots, like the ‘going to prison’ mug shots, were taken for all runners and their pacers, with the race number held prominently. The mug shots came out really nice and I can’t help thinking they would be perfect for a ‘lost person’ notice or an obituary.

At 7pm there was to be a pre-race dinner and briefing.

One important deviation of ultras from road running is that PBs don’t really matter, it’s about getting to the finish line, one 100 miler can never be compared to another. NB100 had a cut-off time of 33 hours. The idea was to get to the finish line before 33 hrs lapsed, but I knew I’d do it in 24 hrs.

Also the harder the ultra, the more popular it is, selling points for ultra-events are adverse conditions starting with elevation gain; put simply, the more the pain the more attractive the ultra. Most runners, however, want their first 100 miler to be an ‘easy one’. NB 100, with less than 4,000 m elevation gain can be classified as ‘easy’, which is one reason I never got very worried, I was confident. In 2017 I had done a 96 km ultra with 5,000 m elevation gain, how hard could a 100 miler with less than 4000 m be?

But this confidence was about to go on trial.

Runners and crew congregated for the dinner and briefing, it also worked well as pre-race intimidation; runners sporting gear for tough races like ‘Tahoe 200’ (a 200 mile race), another has a 500 km Ultra jacket…we sit across from a fellow, Brad Hinton is his name, this is his 13th 100 miler, his first was back in 2009.

‘It’s all about pain tolerance man,’ Brad says looking at me, ‘I may not be fast but I sure can out-last you on pain’ he adds. I shift uneasily in my seat. He wasn’t bluffing, he took off the following day and ended up finishing 4th.

Another runner and his crew join our table, this is his first 100 miler, at last a kindred spirit.

Briefing is done. Apart from how ‘not difficult’ the run would be, emphasis is on being safe, the run would be entirely in the forest, mostly on technical single trail terrain. Runners needed to be careful not to trip on roots and rocks or wipeout on slippery sections. Wild animal problem was not to be expected, there could be bear sightings though, snakes too.

Each runner would be fitted with spot trackers, these make it possible for a runner to be located in real time. In case one veers off course or get lost they can be rescued, it also has a button that can be pressed in an emergency. The organizers took pains to define emergency; extreme hunger, wanting to drop out, regular injury etc are not emergencies…the idea is that emergencies would be situations like if you were half eaten by a bear,  broke both legs and both hands, or if you were dead…

The race starts…

Standing at the start line I couldn’t help feeling out of place. Guys milling around the start line were physically intimidating, Jen said they looked like Vikings.

Thickly built Caucasian legs, the size of teenage tree trunks, were on display. I too, without shame, displayed my skinny Kalenjin legs, those legs have a story. They have endured years as social outcasts, hidden from public view out of shame. Starting from when, back in Secondary school, a ‘friend’ commented on how thin they were. That their thinness stood out in a school with more than 95% Kalenjin population shows rare talent in the thin legs department. His comment ensured I avoided any public display of those legs, it explains why I never wore shorts when I started running back in 2014, it also explains my healthy dislike of people who walk around in shorts, bunch of showoffs….

Now I can display them because I pretend to have matured enough to stop caring, and they are slightly improved.

Well, a race has to start, and it did, at 6am on 13th October 2018.

Off we went, only 166 km to go.

The first parts are uneventful, it’s dark, head-torches bobbing single file in the single lane forest tracks, no incidents, I only twist my ankle once, someone trips over a root, another slides on a slippery rock…all regular stuff.

1st aid station is at 9km, I get rid of my jacket, eat a little, leave aid station, a little later I trip on a sadistic root and land on my wrist. Dang pain but I groan it away.

I make a mental note to be careful, it would be easy to DNF (Did Not Finish) on impact injuries more than anything else. Otherwise these early kilometres are easy, there is thick leaf carpet, decomposing to form humus, It makes me recall the few times I’ve seen ‘hummus’ in food places, a food item I’ve always suspiciously avoided. This must be one of the places they get harvested from…

At about the 30th km I catch up with a lady, Amy is her name, I say mine, she asks where I’m from, ‘Kenya, but I’m a slow Kenyan’ (important to qualify that). We chat for the next few kilometers. She finished this run last year in 24 hrs, she is running it again because last year it was run clockwise and this year it’s the other way. This is her 7th 100 miler, I’m impressed, the more because she looks ‘non-ultraish’, no visible toughness about her.

She asks whether I’m shooting for thereabouts of 24hrs, I say yes, she gives me some solid advice, I decide to stick with her for some time, I would forge ahead if I felt she was slowing me down. My watch indicates I’m on track for a 22hr finish.

After the next aid station, I let Amy have a 30 seconds head start as I tackle a large Banana, I follow her, knowing I’d catch up soon enough. I don’t, she’s melted into the forest trails never to be seen again. Amy Macintire went on to finish as the first female and 5th overall, in 25 hrs…

We had been warned that there would be river crossings, that feet would get wet, that it was wise to have a change of shoes and socks along the race, preferably at Bandy Creek aid station, 97th km. Yes there were a few stream crossings, which, I am proud to report, I managed to expertly navigate, avoiding getting my shoes soggy, I felt quite the ninja. Then I got to aid station number 4, the route markings led to a river bank, I looked to my right, no bridge, looked to my left, no bridge. They had forgotten to put a bridge here, I hesitated shortly, not keen to end my ‘dry ninja feet streak’.

‘Building a raft will take too long’, a runner coming back from across the river says to me.

His statement packs so much truth that I promptly step into the icy waters, after all the water was at best knee deep. But the rocks were slimy, and I slipped and got baptized, much to the entertainment of the cheering people across the river. Death of ninja.

I had so far done 40km, still fresh.

The next aid station would be at 55km.

The devils started taking interest in me at around the 50th km, in quick order my knees got painful, then hunger struck, I had neglected to eat well at the previous aid station, then the area between maybe my 4th and 5th rib began chafing, the pain was a royal nuisance. As if on cue, the aid station seemed to be moving further away….and I started thinking how I had 110 km to go.

By the time I got to the aid station, my pace had reduced from the healthy 7 min/km to 12 min/km.

The sight of food was so exciting that I took a photo of the bounty before I began devouring it. There was this food item that looked like pale Chapati, it tasted very agreeably, I ate one after the other until I felt the nice volunteer manning the aid station was looking at me rather suspiciously. I would learn that Tortilla is the name of the pale Chapati, I later observe them being ‘cooked’ at subsequent aid stations, thence did I understand the volunteer’s puzzled looks, his mind must have been, ‘dude’s already lost it, he’s eating raw dough’.

Food matters over, I asked whether anyone had Elastoplast, their blank looks reminded me the name should be ‘Band-Aid’ on these sides of the world. I remembered I had spare Band-Aid in my bag, got it out, taped over the chafing area.

I stocked some food and left the station a new man.

Soon after I catch up with a runner, we chat up. His name is Bart Borguis, he is a Prof in Louisville, has a marathon PB of 2:32, very impressive. It’s his first 100 miler, he’s moved to ultras as he’s getting ‘old’ for road marathons and their intensive training, asks me where I’m from (everyone keeps asking me where I’m from), ‘Kenya’ I say, adding the standard ‘slow-Kenyan’ disclaimer, he asks me where in Kenya, ‘Nandi’.

He knows all about Kenyan running, the Rift Valley, the Kalenjin. He gives me his theories of why ‘we’ are fast; altitude, poverty, bird-like legs with high calves…

I’m about to ask him ’but why shift to ultras’, but I hang the thought, I wouldn’t be able to answer the same question.

It has been observed that the recreational running and ultra-running scenes are dominated by middle-aged, middle-income, mid-life crisis sort of people (I am one of those who doesn’t not fall in any of those categories, unless you add ‘aspiring’ before them…) everyone has their opinion on the demographics and reasons for running ultras. One consensus though is that ultra runners are a bunch of masochists, intentionally seeking out pain…

Bart soon zooms off after an aid station and I vow not to talk to any other runner, it makes them faster.

Me on this side, Jen in the middle, Bart on that side; refueling under the watchful eyes of Jen.

By the time I got to 80 km I was dangerously swinging between highs and lows, and I was getting annoyed, annoyed at the endless forest, annoyed that I was irrigating the already well-watered forest far too many times, annoyed at the many rock formations, the only sight that could excite me was the finish line. I also was exclusively walking, didn’t matter whether it was uphill, downhill, flat. Walking. The pains in my knees, groin and soles of feet were unrelenting.

I attribute these early difficulties to lack of sufficient training mileage.

The aid station at 88 km was one of the most memorable. There was this chicken soup, I asked the nice volunteer lady for it, she said it was very hot, I said fine, she said pepper-hot, I said fine. Drank the thing, it was HOOT, you should have seen me sweat, out of respect I had to finish it. The soup seemed to wake me from the dead, and I left the aid station with some life in me.

Little did I know I was yet to get into the darkest hours of my running career, literally and figuratively.

Behold the night

Night came, just after daylight left, I was at 90 km.

I changed into a thermal top and slacks at the next aid station, 97km. the slacks were to keep my feet warm, I thought it would help with the pain, plus I needed to generally keep warm as I didn’t foresee any more running.  Sleep started playing hide and seek with me almost immediately, I was able to just barely ward it off until I trudged into the next aid station at 105km.

Aid station 105km had a roaring fire and some camping chairs around it, there was a slight drizzle too.

Jen was to pace me to the next aid station, a 10km distance. I proposed to take some time by the fire as I was trembling, and a 10 min nap while at it as I was sleepy. Jen said Ok, 5 minutes. Seated next to me by the fire was a guy violently trembling and dry heaving, a survival blanket around his shoulders. He had already exgested all ingested food.

We left the aid station, a welcome relief to have someone accompany me in the dark night, ghosts of sleep were kept at bay, Jen gallantly fighting a losing battle to improve my speeds of between 13 to 15 min/km, she succeeded however in making me commit to latch onto the decent walking pace of a guy 20 metres ahead of us.

She filled me in on news; a guy had dropped out after being bitten by a snake, another had an accident and injured himself so bad that he had to be pulled out etc. presently our 20-metres-ahead guy sat on the side of the trail to fight his personal demons, probably sleep. How I wanted to do the same! Jen couldn’t allow it, managing to keep me on my feet for the endless 10 km.

Finally, we got back to aid station, I headed straight to the fire as Jen arranged my feeding. The pains were relentless, I asked for meds, Jen got me Ibuprofen, for the first time I took painkillers while on a run.

I was in no position to go out into the forest immediately. I informed Jen I’d take a 10 min nap and promptly closed my eyes, shutting out the troubles of this world. I woke up to Jen standing over me, giving me the marching orders, ‘are you going to get up and go’. The tone, and the look on her face, she wasn’t amused…only much later as I analyzed my run, did I  realize I had spent a whole hour and 10 minutes by that fire.

The 20-metre-ahead guy had come in, sat on the ground, said he was taking a 10 minute nap. Jen later informed me he never left, woke up to pull out of the race. Fire and sleep, lethal combination. That could have been me had Jen been nicer…

The next leg started beautifully, I was energized, the pains were gone probably because of the drug, it was around 2.30 am. Even the slight drizzles didn’t bother me, for a few kilometers I could run-walk.

Then sleep came back, badder than ever, and hallucinations. I had read stories of people sleep-walking and hallucinating in ultras, they have always struck me as exaggerations… until it happened to me.

For 2 hours I was walking intermittently in a daze, eyes literally closing as I walked, real danger of walking into a tree or off course, I was forced to sit on the forest floor to nap, despite Jen’s snake story actively discouraging the nap stops. Runners would stop and ask whether I was fine, I’d say I was fine, just sleepy. ‘Alright, don’t stay too long’ they’d add and fly on.

Direction played games with my mind. I could habitually see headlights of runners up ahead, to my right, this would naturally mean that the route turns would trend right, yet all turns seemed to trend left, yet the lights were always on my right, but I kept turning left.  It was worrying and confusing.

At some point I thought I saw Bart run past me, I couldn’t figure whether it was real or not. I later learnt he unfortunately DNF’d.

The rain too never stopped, making the ground a little treacherous, there were these horse-trail sections with quicksand type surfaces, making movement a laborious exercise… In summary all the ghosts of the night directed their best arsenal at me and had a field day of it. I got out of the night a shaken man.

Somehow the night didn’t seem too long, maybe because half the time I was drifting in and out of consciousness, sleepwalking and napping.

At around 6 am, I got some new power. Barring disaster, I knew I was going to finish. The remaining distance featured in my mind as ‘only 40 km’. Somehow all the hills were packed in these last kilometers, but no matter, life was good, rain too would let up. Smooth going hardly makes a story worth telling, so to save you a few yawns I’ll spare the details of the morning hours and skip all the way to the last aid station where I shed off my slacks and jacket and embarked on the last leg.

Jen met me at around 161 km, with the new shoes she was breaking into in readiness for New York marathon. The shoes didn’t look new anymore by the time we finished.

We made little work of the last 5 km to a rapturous reception by the AWESOME race volunteers and officials at the finish line.

Finish time 30hrs 37 mins. Buckle earned.

I’ve supposedly been ‘cultured’ not to show emotion but even that couldn’t prevent me from feeling a ka-small lump in my throat as I soaked in the reality of what had just happened. A lady finishing a few minutes after me was overwhelmed by emotion, for a few minutes she couldn’t utter a word, sobbing softly the whole time, locked in embraces with her crew and race officials.

Of 96 starters, 39 finished. A 40% finish rate. I was the 24th finisher.

Finishing an ultra is also a factor of good fortune, you can be 100% physically ready but still DNF due to accidents. Broken limbs and other body trauma are common especially in technical terrain ultras. Some runners are unable to keep food down, and woe unto your run if you can’t fuel.

Aside from accidents and other health issues, time contributes to a good number of DNF. Apart from the overall cut-off time, each aid station has its own cut-off. If you are behind this cut-off you will automatically be withdrawn from the race, it does not matter if it is the last aid station.

Having completed the 100 miler on less than 700 km training mileage, I am convinced 100 miles is not as tough as it sounds, most recreational runners would finish a 100 miler with the normal training runs and the right state of mind. Still it’s better to have good mileage in those legs.

A post-mortem

Don’t Make post-run plans.

With a finish time of 30.5 hrs from a confident target of 24hrs, plans to visit Jen’s Blue Smoky Mountains went up in smoke. So too did the haunted house, though I felt satisfactorily haunted by the night ghosts of the ultra.

There was to be Nashville celebrations, some Music City mementos to collect, a day tour of New York. My battered body disrespectfully declined any invitation to unnecessary movement. Plans cancelled. Jen was however determined that I experience the famous Southern BBQ. A real treat and befitting way to reward the assaulted body.

Despite the Ultra tribulations, some things went well for me;

  • No single blister: Me and my oversized shoes made a dream team. The shoes took all the beating and my feet came out unscathed.  I never had to change shoes or socks despite the water crossings. The shoes are now headed for retirement, or plastic surgery.
  • Food and fluid: I had good appetite all along, headquarters at stomach didn’t reject anything directed their way. Tortillas were in danger of extinction as soon I discovered them, I am confident no other runner ate as much tortillas as I did. Oranges kept my taste buds spruce, bananas were my take-away favorites. Hydration was 50-50 mix of coke (dark drink, not white powder) and water, until I felt overhydrated and reduced it to 80-20, and began taking an isotonic drink called ‘sword’.
  • Injuries: the injuries that had strangled my training kept out of sight the entire time.
  • Presence of mind: I feel my mind stayed where it was supposed to be pretty well. Even through the dark ages between 80 and 125km…. Jen insists I ‘cry-babied a little’, such talk shouldn’t reach my ancestors.
  • Positive vibes: Aid stations were a joy, the volunteers making sure you got regal treatment…it was like a 100 mile party. Breaking down the distance into aid-station-to-aid-station segments made it infinitely easier on the mind.

What I would do better

  • Mileage, mileage, mileage. Never again am I running such a race with such scarcity of mileage.
  • Sleep: I still have zero ideas on this. Tips from you, oh wise ones, are welcome…not miraa though.

Would I run another 100 miler? It is exactly a month after the NB100, the pains are all but forgotten while the blissful feelings of achievement remain intact. I’d probably warm up to another 100… in the distant future.

The End.

P.S. This is by far my longest write-up. We salute you for going the distance….

The Very End.


They remembered to put a bridge here…such sights offered some distraction from the pains…

Jen, a Finisher, and the all-important buckle: This Jen’s smile was very absent when this finisher was ‘cry-babying’ at 116km…Those sausage fingers are a result of nasty fall at 12km

Running Tales

A Long Voi-age Uphill

I left myself several days to recover. I didn’t think my fingers could type, as the aches and pains from my legs had travelled upwards to my knuckles, but I also knew that if there’s one thing Swaras aren’t famed for, it’s sitting back and waiting. Enough photos have been shared and anecdotes bandied about, for an official, non-partisan and purely factual narrative of the weekend’s antics to be necessary unfortunately, dear readers, that’s not what you’re going to get. Far from it. You’re going to get an amateur runner’s, accomplished wine-swiller’s, recently (sort of) Kenyan’s account of one heck of a weekend, with all the subjectivity and personal colour she can possibly muster.

Now I’ve been Swara-ing for long enough to have had two babies, or run one and a half rounds of all the great marathons (in other words, around a year and a half) but this was my first time to attend the legendary Voi run. Friends (Rosemary, I’m looking at you) had told me about the succulent tangerines. Others (Saxo) had warned me of the heat and the after-parties. Some (I forget the names as they were gone in a blur of overtaking) had told me the trail was to die for. And so it was with excitement, trepidation and slightly wobbly legs from lack of any real hill training, that I set off, in a full car (four adults and two children), one grey Friday morning. Hold up! We weren’t skiving; it was Madaraka Day. So, to celebrate, I let the Kenyan do all the driving – who am I, as a wanton muzungu, to take away a Kenyan man’s independence at the steering wheel? Masika, our able chauffeur, wasn’t fazed by the ladies and children singing ‘Frozen’ Disney songs, Ed Sheeran, and Taylor Swift at the top of their lungs. Although we did notice he sped up once we opened our mouths for the first high notes…

Weary travellers like ourselves trickled into Afrika Lodges over the course of the afternoon, happy to see familiar faces, and familiar white chalk arrows outside the entrance gates, a promise of what was to come. Credit to Wahome, our phenomenal host and barman, for providing the most comfortable of beds for naps, night-times and who knows what other shenanigans. But this is a family-friendly publication.

The first run, the ‘warm-up’ got pretty heated, in the late afternoon Taita Taveta sun, throwing up red dust over small ravines, through expansive fields of dusty green vegetation that perfectly reflected the dappling sun that was getting us nice and ‘warmed up’ as we eased into our 13km. Some Swaras, with names that may or may not rhyme with Pond and Saoul, barely broke a sweat, and warmed our seats back at the hotel bar once they were done. Our muscles looked at the hills in the distance with longing; little did we know what was in store for us the next day.

First though, back at Afrika Lodges, there were of course refreshments aplenty, and Swaras got busy carbo-and caffeine-loading, swiftly followed by copious amounts of dinner and, to our delight, more carbs. I’m not ashamed to say I took some of my carbs in liquid form, which I assured everyone makes me run better, but only Cheruiyot (whose fault it is that I’m the scribe of this newsworthy adventure) joined me for something cold and slightly fizzy before everyone got a rather sensible early night. I would never claim that Chairman had anything that wasn’t water so let me end this first chapter here.

I feel like I can allow myself to shake things up a bit. Fast forward to 24 hours later, all Swaras (except for a handful of die-hard runners who are also very good at running to the bar) were safely tucked up in those same beds, with the memories of their 20, 30, 35, or even 48km accomplishments cradling them to a deep, peaceful and well-earned sleep. But how did they get so tired, you might ask? Swaras are die-hard athletes who can tackle anything and go on to be productive, social human beings in the big wide (normal) world!

It all began with an early morning wake-up call from Ferrah, who had sequestered Chairman’s whistle but couldn’t quite figure out how to use it. Luckily for me I was bunked next door to her so I got the full blast of her attempts as I was emerging from my dreams of marrying a prince and having my designer dress broadcast across the kingdom.

Then there was, you know, the Andean, Alpine, ten-times Mount Kenya-esque range of hills that we conquered, bottom to top, with varying degrees of intensity and speed, but always with confidence and panache, because that’s how we roll.

A brief breakdown of how this run works: the dirt road starts when you take a turn off the tarmac a few kilometres outside of Voi town. From there, it’s 48km to the end of the road. As long as you carry on straight, you’re on the right track, and will be rewarded with views that will take any breath you have left in you completely away. For those who aren’t made of superhuman material, you can be dropped further along that same road, cutting your total running distance down to 40, 35, 30, 25, 20, or less. I was the only one doing the 35km, so I was able to sing to myself and skip and make all manner of noises and expressions as I went, with only the monkeys to judge me. I thought the 48km gang would never catch me up, but of course Benja and Otora broke that rule 7km in, and overtook me, uphill, in a leap and a bound. In fact, the 48m cohort was the biggest…at the start line. Let’s not talk about the end line until later.

The air was balmy, with an early morning briskness about it, perfect for starting an uphill climb. The day warmed slightly as we got higher and our blood pumped a little more vigorously. Then I realised that Chairman wasn’t lying when he said the climb would only end at the end. The hills were relentless, twisting and turning through what felt like a hidden universe of villages nestled in between ranges and dips that even Safaricom network couldn’t reach. I wasn’t completely alone though. Because I have a fear of being alone, (psychoanalysis to come in a later write-up) I sped up to try and catch up some of the 25-ers, and came across a few, nice and sweaty and in spirits as high as the crest we were heading for. There was Chairman with Martha, and a steady-paced Rebecca; then I caught patron and his son as they approached an uphill climb. Of course, I had to pretend I could tackle that hill with ease, otherwise Patron would have seen me as a disappointment. Good thing he couldn’t see the writhes of pain on my face.

Now, I’m the first to admit my errors. But taking a wrong turn is not a mistake. It’s a deliberate challenge to oneself. I found myself getting lost on the route that Otora had said was ‘so easy, you just follow it straight’. So I turned left. And cruised downhill for 4km before smelling a fish and hitching a ride back up on a boda, feeling ashamed but also proud of my extra 4km. Just 5km and approximately 300m of elevation later I was at the top. And, by gosh, it wasn’t half bad. We discovered a hidden viewpoint and a natural spring to wash the slick from our faces and the grit from our throats. Of course, many selfies were taken, then we dutifully headed back down to join the others and have our neatly packed picnic lunches. And this is where things started to go wrong. We met the Masika/Cheruiyot gang who had snaffled away all the beers we had ordered the night before for a celebratory post-run ‘cheers’. Yes, ALL of them. They were heading upstream, we were heading back for dry land, so we let them go. Then came Otora, with my champagne. That’s an offer no lady can refuse, so back up we went, followed by James ‘barman’ Wahome, Raoul ‘birthday boy’ Kamadjeu and a motley crew of long-distance troopers. In fact, everyone followed us up the hill to finish the gruelling challenge in style.

Let the party begin. Beer and bubbles flowed, as did the good times and the risk of falling 300m down the rockface with all the tomfoolery and danger-selfies we were attempting. Thomas Bond and Katara Wawa guarded the buses and lunches down below as we let 2600m of total elevation, five hours of blood, sweat and tears (of laughter) and body-loads of adrenaline wash over us in a cascade of unbounded joy and relief.

Several naps were had on the bus back, but someone whose name may or may not rhyme with ‘Catia’ was calling for more beer at every shop we passed.

And so, dear reader, you have a better picture of how 23 Swaras ended up exhausted, elated and fast asleep, several hours later, after yet more (recovery) carbs, a giant cake to celebrate Raoul-48-years-but-doesn’t-look-a-day-over-21-Kamadjeu’s birthday, and enough speeches to win an election. I guess we all knew we still had one more run to come.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to call what I did the next day ‘running’. Sure, I transported myself from one spot, back to the same spot, with some movement in between, but it was by no means elegant or athletic. But at least it meant I didn’t completely fossilize ahead of the long drive back to Nairobi. Again, some people, whose names may or may not rhyme with Pond and Rara, don’t seem to be able to slow down. Maybe they thought we were chasing them, zombie-like and blood-hungry. I guess that’s just me before my morning coffee.

For the journey back, Daisy, Marylyne and the children and I found a new chauffeur, none other than the one and only Joe Black, who we also pushed to his limits with bad karaoke (Whitney and Mariah even got an airing) and girls’ trip shenanigans all way down back to western Nairobi.

Whilst the aches and pains have now dissipated, the memories of this kaleidoscopic running extravaganza of a weekend are fading much more slowly, partly thanks to the deluge of Whatsapp images that have been inundating our smartphones since that day, and partly due to the fact that this running club, it has to be said, is one-of-a-kind. With Swaras, there’s no a-Voi-ding hills, and all attempt to give up are null and Voi-d.

Running Tales

In the Footsteps of Kenyan Elite Runners

Fluospar run - 42km startDate: Saturday August 31, 2013

Ever since Wilson Kiprugut won the first Olympic medal for Kenya in 1964, Kenyan elite runners have gone on to dominate world athletics, consistently bagging medals in middle and long distance races around the world year after year. As part of their training, a number of these runners periodically test their mettle at Kerio Valley where they run from near the Kenya Fluorspar Mining Company premises to Nyaru on Eldoret–Eldama Ravine Road, in the process climbing a staggering 1800m. Last weekend, the Urban Swaras set out to follow in the footsteps of these elite runners and get a first hand experience of this formidable trail.

As always, some chose to run 40km, while others set out to do 35km, 30km, 25km, 20km and 15km. The first few kilometers were relatively flat with minor inclines and dips, several river crossings with only stones to step on, and great views of the green hilly surrounding countryside. Some waterfalls could be seen cascading down the slopes in the distance. This part of the trail felt like a walk in the Garden of Eden, encircled by the landscape’s natural beauty. Little did we know what awaited us further on.

As the morning sun rose higher, it started taking its toll. The gradient got steeper by the minute. This was the turning point in the run, the real run had just began. The trail became a series of sharp twists and turns, snaking its way gradually towards the elusive end at the top. Each step became a struggle as we started questioning our sanity. It wasn’t all gloom and doom though, as the occasional sideways glance was rewarded with stunning views of the distant valley below. The activities of the Fluorspar Mining Company were now evident from this vantage point, as dug up ground stood out like open wounds amidst the green surroundings. 

Fluospar run profile
Courtesy of James Waliaula

As the run progressed, it soon started claiming casualties. With the exception of those doing 15km, the rest began falling like dominoes.  Some succumbed to muscle crumbs, others to exhaustion in the face of the relentless climb. It was gruesome, it was merciless, it appeared all was lost and no one would be left standing. Finally, here was a trail that the indomitable Urban Swaras could not surmount, and it seemed their well-earned reputation was crumbling … well, not so fast. Like the mythological Phoenix, the Urban Swaras’ saving grace came from Otoro and Wahome who gave it their all and rose above this challenge, both finishing what turned out to be 42km from tarmac to tarmac (from Kabarnet-Item Rd to Eldoret-Eldama Ravine Rd) with an elevation gain of over 1800m. Waliaula also finished his target 35km in a very respectable 3hrs 42minutes.I don’t know how they did it, but well done to the three heroes of the day.

And so the Urbans Swaras lived to run another day with a renewed respect for our elite runners , having come face to face with the type of obstacles they overcome in their march towards Olympic and World Athletics Medals and accolades. As always, without the lifesaving selfless support from Tata, Monica and MC, this run could have been a total nightmare. They ensured runners got water, bananas, sodas, chocolate and the much needed moral support to come through this experience in one piece. We cannot thank them enough for the role they played.

Fluorspar Run Photos

Running Tales

Parting Words

Leif Newman, Sweden, August 31, 2017

Dear fellow Swaras,

Just a few words of appreciation. I am now moving back to Sweden. Being a member of the Swaras has been one of the most memorable things during my five years in Kenya. Fantastics runs, wonderful friends and so many adventures.

Thanks to all of you and especially Ajaa and the CRE. Now I will be running in Sweden instead. Hope to see some of you in races in my home country.

All the best, and running is living!


Jorunn Goeransson, Sweden, January 5, 2017

Dear Swaras,

I joined you for running in the beginning of October 2016. As an exchange student, first time in Nairobi (and Kenya and Africa) it was not very easy to find good routes for running. Looking back at my four months in the city, joining the Swaras really improved my stay and my impression of Nairobi. I am very grateful to you all, good people, for welcoming me warmly to the Swara family.

I wish you all the best for 2017 and hope to see you again, either in Nairobi or any other marathon around the world.


Glenda Siegrist, US – July 20, 2016

Dear Swaras..

It has been a great pleasure to have the opportunity to run with many of you,if even for a word of encouragement as you passed me.  I looked forward to Saturday AM to be able to run with a group of great and inspiring people.  Thanks to those who plan and organize the trips, the routes, the food and other details.

I”m off to the US for vacation and the probably off to Juba, unless the environment stays bad. When I”m through Nairobi again, I’ll put in for a Saturday run with you.

Thanks and blessings to all.  Stay healthy. Run well.


Ariel Zirulnick, US – January 16, 2016

Today was my last run with you guys because I’m moving back to the US on Wednesday. I just wanted to write to say thank you for the great routes and good company for the last year! It made it easy (sort of) to wake up at 5:30 am most Saturdays 🙂

If anything takes you to Miami, where I’m moving, drop me a line!


Annabel Harford, UK – July 8, 2015

… my family & I will be returning to UK in August back to our home city of Bath.

I can truly say, without a doubt, that running with the Swaras has been my number 1 highlight of living in Kenya. So many interesting & challenging runs, and so many wonderful people who understand my addiction to running! Just remember – we are the sane ones. Those who do not run are missing out on life’s natural high.

I am sure I will be back to visit & I will certainly join the Swaras again when I do (Naivasha relay 2016 / Lewa full 2017??)… And, please, if any of you find yourselves in the lovely South West of the UK, come and run with me there – and with my running club Team Bath.

Hope to see lots of you this Saturday.

Running is living – absolutely. All the very best and thank you all.



Adrien Henry, Belgium – July 25, 2014

Dear Swaras,

Although it’s been a while since I last ran with you (more because of travels than laziness, I promise!), I’d just like to sincerly thank you all for the great fun we had together, the amazing sceneries we crossed and the extremely friendly welcome I received by all of you.

I’ll particularly remember the incredible Kilimajaro Marathon with the beautiful massive peak in the background, and which I strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t experienced it yet.

I’m now based in Joburg and will start exploring the running paths of South Africa, so if any of you passes by just shout and I’ll be happy to hit the road together.

I’ll see you soon,



Kimberly Behrman – US – July 22, 2014

Dear Swaras,

After 3 wonderful years in Nairobi, today I’m heading back to the US for grad school. And I want to thank all of you for making my time in Kenya so fantastic.

When I started running, it didn’t come naturally to me and I just didn’t like it all that much. That changed when I joined the Swaras. The trails and camaraderie that are so signature Urban Swaras helped me fall in love with running. Saturday mornings have become the highlight of my week, and I’m so grateful to have explored Kenya through running with all of you. Special thanks to Otora and the whole CRE team for scouting and planning routes that introduced me hidden trails and incredible views that I would have never seen otherwise.

Thanks to all of you for your constant encouragement and advice about all things running. And of course, thank you for the company on long runs, for inspiring me push the pace a little faster, and for helping navigate when those chalk marks get confusing. There’s no way I would have had the guts to run Two Oceans (or sign up for my first 80km race this November…), if it wasn’t for the Swaras support.

I will miss the Swaras so much, but hope that you get in touch if you’re ever passing through New York! I will definitely be back to visit Kenya too, so this is more of a see-you-later than goodbye 🙂

All the best,

Richard Lebon, UK – May 29, 2014

Dear Swaras,

After a short eight months in Nairobi, I am moving on – but just a quick message to say thanks for your wonderful welcome and kindness over this time, you have made my time in Kenya a real pleasure.

And if you are ever in the UK, let me know – indeed, remember to check out, run by a friend of mine, and a great way to see London – I’ll try and join you for a run!

Good luck with all your upcoming races and adventures, and I will look forward to running with you all again sometime…

Richard Lebon

Daniel Lams, Sweden – April 8, 2014

Thank you all for the beautiful runs I got together with you, and especially all the support at Nairobi marathon last year. I will go home to Sweden now And run Stockholm marathon and in the future I will come back and run Lewa marathon together with you. Thank you all!

Daniel from Sweden


Andrew Brown, US – March 18, 2014


Thank you and please pass along a big thank you to Albert, who helped in my training on Feb. 15!! I did my half marathon in Virginia, USA on Sunday, and completed it in a time of 1:32 and 13 seconds. I was very pleased with the result as I was aiming for 1:40. I give a lot of credit to the Urban Swaras training run! I think it helped bring my time down about 10 minutes.

Here is a photo from post-race with my wife (who also ran). There were just under 9,000 runners in the race, I finished #216. The winner was a native Kenyan at 1:04.


Hamish Mcfarlane, Australia – January 9, 2014

Dear Swaras,

Happy new year to you all. Some good and bad news for you, the bad news is that we won’t be back to Nairobi to live this year as planned. The good news is that Sarah is 14 weeks pregnant, and still running if a bit slower and shorter than usual.

We will at some point in the future be back for an extended stay, so don’t forget us, we will be Swaras again.

In the meantime I have signed up to the Mt Solitary Ultra Marathon (trail race) which is in the mountains outside Sydney for my next race in April. I look forward to it as it is surprisingly remote with no support at all for the first 25km not even water.

We wish you all the best for the coming year and will follow the amazing Swara exploits on the emails.


Hamish and Sarah.


Hamish Mcfarlane, Australia – September 25, 2013

Sydney Marathon 2013

My heart and thoughts are with you all and Nairobi. My condolences to those of you who have lost or injured loved ones. Sarah and I have been in shock all week seeing and hearing what has happened (Re: Westgate incident).

It was with great pride that I pulled on my Urban Swaras shirt Sunday morning to run the Sydney Marathon, I finished in 3:36:44, a great result! More so considering I ran a 30km trail race in 32degC heat called the Coastal Classic two weeks prior in 3:46 and was really pushing recovery between races. The marathon mostly went to plan, I was targeting 3:30’ish, it was a warm day and I think if was a little cooler the leg cramps may have not happened in the last 7km and I would have been much closer to 3:30. Regardless, I am very happy with the result.

The men’s marathon winner was Kenyan Willy Kibor Koitile 2:13:48. In the women’s Kenyan Irene Mogaka ran third 2:38:20, beaten by two Ethiopians.

Take care Swaras and best of luck to those of you taking on the Chairman’s Magadi challenge!




Avani Patel, Kenya – July 3, 2013

From a “Fool” to a “Full”

My First marathon; this is an absolute dream come true. I can only say that without the support and encouragement of the URBAN SWARAS this would have not been possible.

I would like to thank Kimmie in pushing me to go for it, Alix for being an amazing training partner– who ran 8 weeks with me, Trail fox and Ajaa for designing amazing routes.

Special thanks to my husband Niraj for running the last 5 km at Lewa with me (despite the fact that i wanted to outrun him so that he wouldn’t say ALMOST THERE UHHHH ).

Best part was the cheering committee at the toughest 38km — Jael, Nadine, Francesca, her boys  and Ameet ( anyone else if i left you out).

The first loop of the marathon was quite annoying having to dodge all the other runners to get ahead. But in some ways that was good thing — I had to save my energy for the 2nd round.

The 2nd loop took longer but the beauty was being on the trail tracks all alone with nature was the best part. I got to see only zebras in the 2nd loop. My ultimate focus was to RUN the whole way. it was head down and go go go and tackle the hills.

Fellow Swaras, if Avani can do it, you all can. I nominate
Susan Okoma

A special thanks to Lucy, Nduku and Jael for arranging the catering staff who did a wonderful job.


Erick Sile, South Africa – June 3, 2013


I completed my second Comrades yesterday in 10:31. Solid performance thanks to the solid base built while training with the Swaras 3 years ago in Nairobi. Swaras, you can all do this. I enjoyed the up run much more than the down run last year.

See you next year for 2014 Comrades down run.



Josephine Lamshed, Australia – April 25, 2012

Dear Urban Swaras

Well, I am down to my last five days in Kenya.  I am not sure exactly where these three years went, but they have been unforgettable.  I can say I have lived life here to the fullest and have experienced extraordinary highs and lows, but somehow even the difficult times turned into positive experiences.  I truly do feel so lucky to have had the chance to live in Kenya and learn so much about Africa.  And I’d so much rather be feeling sad (than happy) to leave.

Right from the first time Mutua brought me to Ocean’s Pub, I was hooked. Since then through the Swaras, I’ve seen so many beautiful places, met so many intelligent and interesting people, and had the opportunity to push myself mentally and physically.  Some of you have gone on to become my closest friends in Nairobi.  Almost every aspect of my personal life in Kenya is somehow linked back to the Swaras. The Swaras were the best group of people I met in Kenya, your willingness to get our there and give triathlon a try confirmed it!

I am taking a long holiday, then starting work in Canberra, the capital city of Australia, from August.  You can catch me at this email address.

I’ll miss those kids on hydrate-or-die calling out Mzungu, Mzungu, how are yooooo?  But maybe you can tell them from me, I am (Jose)fine!


Rixt Bode, Netherlands – April 19,2012

Thanks and goodbye!

Dear Swaras,

For those of you who did not know, this is just to tell you that I am leaving Kenya tomorrow, after a 6 weeks deployment to our country office. I have really enjoyed my time here and that is not the least because I found you and could join you for the Saturday runs over the past weeks. I guess I have been really lucky, being able to go to Longonot, Maanzoni, Amit’s house, and last week seeing the left, right and centre of Ngong.

You are a great and very pleasant group to join, and I have started a big promotion campaign among my colleagues. I will continue running when I am back in The Netherlands and for a while will certainly enjoy the flatness of my country, but I am sure that after a few times I will long back to the hills of Kenya and certainly to you.

Keep up the running and I hope to see you shining at the podium of the Amsterdam marathon one day!

Best wishes.


Gunnar Kraft, Sweden – February 5, 2012

Thanks for inspiration.

Dear all,

I want to thank you all for a few years of running together with Swaras. It has been an inspiration for me to come back and be a bit more stringent with running. I have been a member of different running clubs/groups over the years but I have never met a team as Swaras. Keep up that spirit and the Urban Swaras will defintely be the best running club south of Sahara and north of Limpopo!

I move to Dar in March and welcome you for running in Dar whenever you pass by.

Hope to see you sooner or later.



Erick Sile, South Africa – December 3, 2010

Dear Swaras

I wish to thank everyone who made it to my farewell run. Special thanks to the
organizers of that great event last Saturday. Many thanks as well for all the
kind words of encouragement by email, sms or through phone conversations.
I was truly honored to have met all of you. I will miss running with the Swaras
on Saturday mornings; all the motivation, fun, laughter, pushing, etc. that made
me improve my personal best.
Please give me a shout if you are ever in Joburg. I would be happy to take you
through some nice hilly routes here. Once I settle, I may even think about
organizing a Joburg Swara event. For all of you running the 2 oceans or the
comrades, you are all welcome to “camp” in my house (when I find a house).

Thank you and keep running!