Running Tales

Running With The Real Swaras

Lukenya hillA Morning of Many Mistakes

The run was supposed to start at 7.00 am. But the drive past Mlolongo was a nightmare. Total darkness, no road markings, no streetlights and hulking trucks every place you looked. It would have been a suicidal driver who would speed through that section to reach Lukenya. Luckily the Swaras are not known for craziness of the driving kind.

So I get to Lukenya. More drama. I am following this 4WD, which a helpful watchman has told me is a mzungu. We get to the top of the hill and the driver starts to brake. Something is wrong. So I tentatively approach, and realize it is Leif. He is lost, as I am now sure I am.

“Do you think the camp is the one we just passed down there?” He asks me.

“I have no clue, it was too dark. Is this your first time here? Mine too. Let us call Ajaa”

So I dial Ajaa. No network. The leeside of Lukenya is like the far side of the moon, electronically speaking. So I decide to dial Susan. She answers on the first ring (miracles of technology).

“No I am not coming to Lukenya this time. Sorry I can’t tell you if you are lost or not,” she says. “Try Ajaa.” She adds, helpfully.

I try Ajaa again. No network. What to do? Leif and I hold a quick Baraza.

My First Dumb Mistake

“The campsite must be back there,” Leif insists. I agree. We turn our cars around and drive down the hill.

Suddenly a giant Swara, of the wild variety, bursts out of the bush ahead of me. I take that as a good omen. Soon the sun comes up and I can see some cars slowly snaking their way up the hill. Urban Swaras, led by Munyao the run host, himself.

Munyao tells us we can park everywhere. So we do and for a few minutes the Swaras engage in a ritual practiced by runners all over the world. Pre-run preparations. Some do stretches, others take a leak, some drink water or eat bananas while others use the time to chat with friends. Some do all of the above!

Soon the whistle goes and we are off. I am tempted to attempt the 40K but I recall the first rule of Marathon 101 “Thou shalt not over-train” especially with the Kilimanjaro marathon just a few weeks away. So I opt for the 30K (which turns out to be anything between 30 and 35K, depending on whose Garmin you want to believe). I have chucked my singlet for the Swaras screaming yellow. A mistake as the run turns out to be as hot as advertised.

We start with a hill. Hector, Leif, Munyao and I are tracking Ashok and Ameet, who have taken an early lead. Soon we overhaul them. The trail curves to the left, hugging the rocky bluff that Hector tells me is known as Leopard Hill. Luckily Mr Leopard is not home this morning. But there are many other citizens of the Jungle around. A heard of wildebeest streaks away far to the left. Dennis, our home grown elite catches up with us. He rapidly disappears round a bush, as a heard of confused wild swaras takes off after him. He is not to be seen again until the end. The swaras not at all.

The Animals Are All Swaras This Morning

The trail curves south and it’s all downhill. I decide to do my own wild Swara and put on some pace. I know it is a rather un-clever thing to do – I still have 30K to go. But I am having so much fun to think rationally. You see, Lukenya is so beautiful that you simply have to see it for yourself. Most of the land is empty scrub as far as the eye can see; wild, harsh and beautiful in equal measure, as only Ukambani can be. The sunrise over the hills is simply to die for.

But not for long, it seems. The land grab…er, investors, have arrived here. The landscape is crisscrossed with barbed wire and there are several ominous signs that say “PRIVATE LAND. NO TRESPASSING. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PERSECUTED.”

We pass one such sign next to a dam. The trail starts climbing. I am still leading the pack but by this time I am beginning to tire. Munyao and Hector are doing a serious ‘bumper-to-bumper’ race behind me. Before we complete the hill, Munyao has caught up. Embarrassing. I do a quick think. I pretend that I was slowing down in order to ask him a question.

“Where is the 10K split?” I huff. We are approaching 9K, surely we did not miss it.

“It is up ahead. The first loop is almost 10K.” He replies serenely.

Sure enough we come upon the 10K split, right where Munyao said it would be. The trail turns downhill and I catch my second wind. The animals have caught the running bug too. A herd of Zebras goes thundering past, barely a hundred meters away. Another herd, a kilometer away, takes a look at us and spontaneously decides to take off in the same direction.

The Elite Also Cry

I am beginning to tire. Benjamin (our other elite runner) catches up with us. He has an injury he explains to me. So he suggests we go ‘pole pole.’ His pole pole paceturns out to be 4.30 minutes a K. Soon even Munyao is cast adrift. I know I can’t survive this pace much longer, but my pride will not let me admit it.

Meanwhile the trail has turned up again. Hills have always been my problem, especially the variety that tends to go up forever. There are a million hills in Lukenya and Otora has typically decided we shall climb every one of them. Why am I not surprised? Benjamin is trying to help.

“When you come to a hill,” he tells me, “don’t look up. Look down and keep going. “

So I dutifully look down. In fact I turn it into a mantra. ‘Look down, look down, look down,’ I chant silently to myself. I look up (can’t help it). Holly crap! Are we going to run up there? The trail heads straight up for almost 5K. We can see a dot far in the distance, which we assume is Dennis. He seems to be struggling too. The sight gives me a perverse sense of comfort. It seems the elite also suffer.

“It is only a training run,” Benjamin tells me.”No need to kill yourself.” Good advice.

It’s Lewa-vu All Over Again

We come to the 20K split. Benjamin decides to split. He peels off left for home and suddenly I am all alone. You remember that Lewa moment? It is 21K. You are together in a huge crowd, one so thick that you are practically spilling off the trail. Suddenly everyone stampedes left to the finish and you are all alone. You begin to wonder whether there was a prank conspiracy and you are ‘it’, or you made a wrong turn somewhere. Even the animals get bored and start to drift away. It was something like that.

The trail is going downhill again. But by this time I am on to Otoras tricks. It seems we are describing giant S shapes up down the Lukenya escarpment. So, as my good Geometry teacher, or was it Geography (I tend to confuse my G’s) used to say, whatever comes down must go up. I decide to slow down and wait for Munyao, for real this time.

By now my water deprivation experiment is going seriously wrong. You see, I try to run most of every training run without taking water. It is supposed to be good for building endurance. I have carried a bottle but so far left it unopened. Otora is trying to help by not showing up with the water he promised. I am at 18K and seriously thirsty. I know if I get dehydrated my run will be over (I came pretty close). I decide to hold on until 20K, which turns out to be the 30K split point. We pause for a bit as Munyao has to debate with himself whether to run 35K. He decides on 30 (wise man) and meanwhile I use the chance to gulp some precious water. We run on.

My Most Dumb Mistake

Soon I get thirsty again and drink the remaining stock. Doesn’t help. I am really suffering now. I look hopefully up the hill, from whence my salvation cometh. No Otora. When it pours, it rains, I think. Bad metaphor, I know, but I am not thinking straight. To make things worse, the trail chooses this point to throw a fit.

Lukenya1To hell with this,” it says to me, as it hugs a slow left curve then a quick right and becomes a mountain. Or was I hallucinating? But Raul confirmed that the mountain was real.

We are running on a massive limestone rock. I don’t know it yet but from here we shall be going up for more than 5K. What I do know is that if Otora doesn’t show up with the water soon, I’ll be throwing my own fit and not a pretty one. Munyao has pulled away and he soon disappears far up the mountain. At least he has a camel back, I console myself. As for me, I forgot to bring my fueling belt. My worst mistake of the morning as it turns out.

“It is just a training run” I remember Benjamin’s words. No need to kill myself. So I assume a Wahome like pose/pace, nail my gaze to the floor and shuffle up the trail.

At some point Otora shows up with two water bottles in hand and an apology. I grab them both and gulp one on the fly. I am tempted to pour the other one on myself but I decide to play it safe, which turns out to be the only wise decision I make this morning. You see, it is 27K. I do not know it at this point but, although I signed up for the 30K, I still have 6K to go, most of it uphill. I will need the water.

How to take a technical shower

Finally I arrive at the top, the point where Leif and I had our distant Baraza this morning. It seems like yesterday. Soon the trail turns and it is a gentle hill all the way back to the camp. I arrive in some relief but my legs are hurting like crazy. Signs of a disaster barely averted. The nice breakfast and Tata’s mangoes, help to make up for the pain.

Would I do it again? You bet.

A lot of people have already finished and left. I gave my car key to Lois and she is doing the 40K (as is Ajaa, Ferrah et al). So I have to wait. Meanwhile I need to take a shower. I have no soap, no towel and no change of clothes. But Swaras are resourceful people and when it comes to the pedagogy of unconventional showering, Nyingi is the expert. He is not here today but he taught me well, when we last run together at Ameet’s run in Naivasha.  How did I solve this problem?

A story for another day.

Thank you Swaras for a wonderful outing.