Running Tales



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

Reactions to the Ilovoto Run

Ilovoto waterfall cartoon1. Rebecca Miller
At 5km:
“I will come back to Kenya just to view this trail again.”

At 15km:
“Where is Otora, I wanna kill him.”

2. Nancy Gakii
“That I have overtaken Chairman is not a good sign. He must know something about this route that I don’t. “

At the 20km split:
“I am going home.”

3. Patron to Otora
“I intend to do 30km”

Otora: “Patron, it is a bit challenging. “

Patron downgraded to 20km and walked the last 6km.


4. Victor Wesonga, returning after one year
“Patron, I will not listen to your advise on this run. The last time I did so, I got injured for a year.”

I thought that I saw him walking up the forest.

5. Macharia Kungu
At the start
“I will do the 40km.”

Downgraded to 35km and at the base of the waterfall, when asked where Raoul was:

“He chose to die, turned right for the 40km.”

On being told by Otora that the shortest route home that he sought is actually the marked trail, 8.5km

“Please inform my people of my death if I die here”, as he slumped to his butt and for a long time could not stand up.

6. Ferrah Etyang
At 14km,
“I need sugar” and I reply, “You have about 25km to go, how much sugar will you need to finish the run?”

500meters later, she bought mandazi and soda.

7. Loise Mbarire
As I was going up the steep bend at about 22km, I saw her, about 50 meters as the crow flies but about more than 1.5km trail wise.
I blow the Swara whistle and she asks,
“Where are you?”,

“Here, keep running.”

“I am dead”, she retorts.

I leave her for dead but she arrived home at 6:22, just 17 minutes after me, alive.

8. Me 
As I climb the steepest hill, three ladies in Mothers Guild uniform ask me where I was from and where I was running to.

I said, “Western Kenya, to Nunguni.”

“Take a short cut”, they advise me.

I said that it is not allowed.

“Then take the main road right turn because it is shorter”, I am advised.

When I turned left following the marks, they screamed in unison,
“woooi!!!, you came here all the way from western Kenya, to die.”

I attempted a smile and trudged on.

9. Me
At about 29km when I was halfway up a punishing 6km hill from the sandy river, an old lady asks me,
“Why are you walking so fast?”

I look at my watch and I was doing 13minutes per km at that time. Totally famished,
I could not spend my last breath and energy to tell her that I was actually running.

10. Raoul
Up the 2km hill to the waterfalls and as I passed him, doing 14mins per k ;

“Men, I have lost control of my legs.”

“Find it”, I replied and passed him.

Then,  as if to console himself and detract his mind from the ritual of pain, he stops,looks down the marvellous country and says,

“This is like my village in Cameroon. “

“Let us first complete this Kenya village run” I tell him.

At the waterfalls, Raoul and I find Otora sadistically smiling and clicking away at his camera and he says,

“5km more to go.”

It turned out to be about 7.5km.

We take pictures and rest for about 5minutes.

“This run is wicked”, he laments as I slowly pull away.

10. Me
On the course I ate three scones, four bananas, and drank two Lucozades and eight bottles of water.

My body got battered and I am down with a fatigue induced flu.

Running Tales

A Promise the Chairman Cannot Keep

Swara Ilovoto runI’m constantly enchanted by the beauty of our country, and the adventures of the Urban Swaras that keep unveiling this splendor.

It was a bit of a road trip from Nairobi to Salama, 100km plus of unwinding road towards Nunguni centre. And as we were heading there, you could tell at a glance that the place is hilly and at the same time has beautiful scenery.

We got to Nunguni and as usual the chairman explained the distances, noting that on this run there was no 10km. If you were new, it was baptismal by fire, the longest distance being 42Km. I had already decided I would do 20km together with my running buddy Marion; a distance that turned out to be almost 22km.

Off we started at 8:30am on the dot along the main road with a downhill which was good for warming up the muscles, but a killer when we were finishing. The rubber met the road or vice versa by a gentle climb before branching to the real deal, a downhill section where one guy kept saying when you go down down…. And true to his words it was followed by a climb. At the tip of this hill was a breathtaking scenery of the houses and terraces covered with vegetation for breaking soil erosion. The climb took us through a cool forest, one of the features I enjoy any day on a run.

We ran through streams of fresh water and coffee plantations, which was a surprise. I never thought coffee was grown in this part of the country. Other things I noted were different types of fruits; a very productive place, not to forget the locals who were curious about us. With friendly smiles, they greeted us and inquired where we were from.

More than 2 hours into the run, there was this climb where Marion, Ashok and I were walking, and had no idea what was awaiting ahead. Lo and behold, a beautiful waterfall unfolded, with brown smooth rocks and green carpet of vegetation in layers too real to believe. I forgot my tired legs and enjoyed the scenery.

After the view, we realized that we were in a valley that we must climb out of. And thus a steep ascent followed, burning most of our stored energy, and leaving us with sore muscles  well into the next day. The run back to Nunguni Centre was for the most part uphill, which makes me conclude that the only promise the chairman will never keep is, there will be no hills.

Kudos to the trail fox and the scouting team for a most beautiful run.

Running Tales

The Ilovoto Run

Swara Ilovoto runThe Swara out of town runs are usually to look forward to; a Swara is invariably a running tourist. So the llovoto run was a go by this Swara both for the tourism reason, and serious running business as a chance to build up mileage in preparation for the next marathon.

As we zigged and zagged through the Mombasa road traffic, I was anticipating a run right up my alley, the circulated pre-run info had indicated the terrain as ‘undulating’, but who were they fooling, probably someone wanted to use a catchy word. No matter, Kambaland is well known to be flatland all the way from Syokimau as far as the eye can see, with only a few wannabe hills here and there.

On branching onto the road to Kilome at Salama junction, the road soon starts a steady and determined ascension and with each hairpin bend my dream of a ’rolling plains’ run steadily dies, I seemed not to have learnt from experience, clearly optimism has no place in Swaraland. By the time we get to the start point at Nunguni, a decent town at the top of one of the hills, its clear that this is to be a hilly affair.

This narration will have two angles, the run itself as an independent event and my personal experience;

I have since learnt not to generalize my experiences. You’d be huffing and puffing and generally having the worst day of your life during a run whereas the random Swara alongside you is on a ‘slow run’, taking it easy. Therefore if it seems that Ilovoto though handed it to me, it could as well have been a picnic for some Swaras.

Down to business

The run setting was on point geographically and therefore aesthetically. You can always count on the routes crew to deliver a memorable run, especially the out-of-town ones. But the same crew seemingly also took an oath to uphold the doctrine of ‘nothing good comes easy’, so you generally have to sweat as you soak in the experience.

The start point was a spectacle; attracting the townspeople in no little numbers, it was a pity there were no politicians at hand to take advantage of the ready crowd…

On a personal account, a little history will be appropriate; I am lately building up mileage in prep for my next marathon, coming up on the third of July. I had been stuck at 20 kms for two weeks. Last week at Ngong, I ventured further, attempting a twenty-five, which you guessed it, turned out to be twenty-eight. It wasn’t an easy run. But a man has got to be a man and I had this crazy idea that a thirty at Ilovoto was going to be a piece of cake.

The run is flagged off at 8:30, the distances are indicated as 16 kms all the way to 40. The first 3 kms is all downhill.

Now this is how the run was structure. You go to the lowest point of the first hill, run up the facing hill ever so slowly as you appreciate the maker’s creation and Man’s modifications thereof…in this case the modifications are concentric terraces running round the hills to allow for farming on the steep slopes. A forest up top cools your heels and wipes your sweat.

You then find a higher and steeper hill, look for its ‘ground zero’, go up the hill, in this case the hill is less farmed. As you go up, the soil turns whiter and whiter and you soon think you are running on one of those sandy beaches. You get the impression that Otora’s chalk marks could be camouflaged on these bleached soils, and your corrupted mind conceives a brilliant idea how this would work as a Jik advert; normal black cotton soil on one hand and the white soil after washing with Jik…

Halfway up the second hill you get to the 30kms turnoff. The longer route points straight up, while the 30 one takes you downhill. In a moment of dimwittedness, you take the longer route. You’ve just made a split second decision to do 35kms. I don’t know if that rash move was a subconscious decision to tour an extra hill…

The ground zero of the last hill offers a refreshing run along a sandy river with neatly striated rocks and a view of a clearly seasonal waterfall on the face of one of the surrounding hills… at the river crossing you feel like sitting down on the rocks and dip your feet into the cool waters, you immediately rebuke the thought…

Soon after, all hell breaks loose. This is the steepest and longest hill yet, in your level of fitness you should have hung your boots long ago. The hill starts from 29kms all the way to 35… thankfully, the heavens smile on you and Otora shows up at 30kms with all the goodies you could wish for, all except a ride back. On seeing your state, he candidly discloses that the 35 will actually be a 38, talk about a morale boost…

Thanks to Otora, I am on life support for an additional few kms, and then I start teetering on sanity’s edge at close to 34 kms. I nonetheless continue inching up the hill. Mercifully the Ilovoto falls reveals itself and offers a brief distraction. There is a Swara at the falls. We chat a bit. She is also at her tethers end and says she doesn’t think she can handle the remaining 2 km. I think to myself, “lord a’ mercy”, if only she knew it was no less than 4 kms… but I don’t tell her, we don’t want anyone taking a jump down the falls.

Swara Ilovoto run2I had hitherto not really walked, but you should have see the hill after the falls, how do I put it; the steepness is the kind that if you stretched your hand out in front you’d probably touch the ‘ground’ or better still, looking straight ahead would be looking directly at the ground. Absorb that!

So we walk up the hill with the 2 km swara and I resume my run upon reaching regular ground. But I’m soon at my wits end. Something snaps deep inside. My feet feel like they’ve been clamped; I lose the will to live and give up the ghost (OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but I maintain something snapped)…my run is therefore over at 34.35 kms.

The rest of the distance is covered by Grace. How long did I take? Many hours, five I think…

On reflection, my level of fitness was suited only for 25 kms max. As I celebrate getting off easy, my body clearly took the brunt of the ordeal, I hope it bears no hard feelings…

I join a retinue of Swaras who are reminiscing the run and MK, Le Patron himself, makes a timely prophetic statement; apparently it has been asked why Swara runs begin so early. In all his wisdom, the Patron concludes that it must be so that by the time the Swara minds are fully awake, they are already done with the run or are in too thick to pull out’…how true.

Lunch is oh so great… MK asks for the beloved Swara mixed tea, the fellow serving looks at his century old beard and says to himself, ‘this one looks exotic, we’ll serve him tea the proper way in spare parts; milk, water, teabag’…the price for not looking local…

As we leave to dance in and out of the Mombasa road traffic, some brave Swaras; Loise, Ferrah, Chairman and Raoul are still in the wilderness on tour. As I write this Sunday evening, we hope they have finally finished their run…at least Raoul has confirmed he has.

And so to Ilovoto, we have some catching up to do in a year’s time…

In other news, I hear the Magadi run is checking in soon. That’s where this swara got baptized last year, both literally and figuratively. But that’s another story.