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.

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