Running Tales

FACING MT KENYA, TAKE 3

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

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


PHOTO STORY

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

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MEDALS AWARD CEREMONY

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

YOU SHOW ME YOURS I’LL SHOW YOU MINE

(AN ACCOUNT OF THE 2016 STOCKHOLM MARATHON)

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

Hector: Mine is bigger

Ndungu: Mine is longer

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

Ndungu: Oh, yes! Says who?

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

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

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

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

One of the games Hector was playing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beaten by a beer (well, almost)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Stanley Koech powers his way to a new course record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Running Tales

What I think About When I think About Running

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

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

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

The call of the trail
The call of the trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Tales

Running Through History (An account of the Osotua run)

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

Go on and look. I’ll wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Osotua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let us get back to the running trail.

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

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

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

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

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

I vote that we do this again.

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

Kakamega Forest Marathon- And A Dose Of Ultra

urban swaras imageTrue to form, a sizeable number of swaras (13 I hear), myself included were able to attend the Ingo marathon on 28th November 2015. I was a bit unsure of participating having attempted the ultra just a week before.

Allow me a word on the ultra before we get to Kakamega.

Mt Kenya Ultra; Mini-Brief

This is a run that I totally outdid myself. I showed up with an open mind with a cautious ‘run till I drop’ goal. Finishing would be a bonus.

There seemed to be a few other bonuses in the bag; the excellent trail, good mountain air, rain, rain and more rain.

I must credit my completion to Sam, he managed to run the slowest he’s ever done in his born days and as a result we completed the whole distance together. At some points he was clearly struggling to maintain the pedestrian pace I was subjecting him to. It is almost unreal that I could actually sprint with him the last few hundred metres to the finish (I only believe it because I saw it)…coming home in a little over 6 hrs.

Other notable parts of the run was the mud, specifically after Ndung’u mentioned that the roads had been graded so no mud… well, we ran through a few ‘mud farms’. One can only conclude that Chairman and Ndung’u couldn’t stand a mudless trail and therefore created ‘man-made’ stretches probably the day before, they even managed to throw in a river to be waded across.

Then there was a long lonely stretch where we were totally out of energy and kept looking out for a kiosk for around 7 kms (probably between the 46th to 53rd kms)… an opportunity for any enterprising swara out there; picture the amount of monies you’d make selling sodas and related stuff to ultra runners…

Ultimately, the great Ultra outing encouraged me to sign up for Kakamega, especially after I suffered no notable hangovers.

The Kakamega Forest Marathon

Ingo Marathon is the competitive run I’ve entered with the least pressure on expectations and preparations. I probably treated it like a normal swara run.

The main aim was to conquer myself- finish a full marathon. Especially after my DNF at the Stanchart; the account of which I shared in these pages eliciting well meant messages of ‘condolences’ from concerned swaras.

Marathon Expectations

Being the inaugural marathon and coupled with its location, I didn’t have any illusions on the level of organization. TV adverts mentioned a start time of 8 am, when I registered on Thursday the marathon brochure indicated a skeptical start time of 6.30 am.

I would also have been sufficiently surprised if the aid stations were up to speed and roads closed (the brochure indicated road closures to private motorists). So no surprises on the late start time and lack of water.

The only thing the organizers would have done better was on the rain, there was no rain whatsoever, even clouds were conspicuously missing, and this being el-nino season.

The course lived up to expectations. It was excellent, through the forest twice, tea plantations and friendly backcountry.

Personal expectations

Coming a week after the ultra and with no knowledge of the course, I couldn’t burden myself with a time target, although there is that small voice that gives a time considered reasonable.

Also, the Ultra had given me such a feeling of invincibility that in a case of mental inertia, I donated blood the Monday after. Reasoning that five days would be sufficient to replenish the pint… Google later informed me that my performance would probably be slightly affected; it (Google) was surprisingly not very knowledgeable on subject though.

So there, just finish the run.

Preparations

After the Ultra, I resolved not to run at all, just recover, next run being at Kakamega.

The Run

That danceathon mentioned by Beatrice was a super preamble for the run.

In my books, Luhya tunes are by far the most danceable in Kenya, so it was not surprising that enough swaras (Susan, Suzie, a bit of Victor and Myself ) plus the local populace were carried away shaking legs and shoulders… the smart swaras entertained their eyes from the sidelines and preserved their energies for the challenge ahead.

The 42 k start line was an elite affair. As far as I could tell, the only non-elite part of the pack was Brendan, myself and another fella. The 21Km swara crowd soon join us after missing out on transport to their starting point.

Gun goes off, the elites speed off. Brendan Is also going curiously fast, I catch up with him and the earphones explain his speed… he’s on performance enhancing Music, those are probably still legal…

Its clear this is going to be one lonely run. Not a bother…this too was expected.

At around the 3rd Km, something odd happens. A little boy of like negative height whizzes past me; I shake my head and look again; it’s real. I dog him for 2 kms. The first aid station comes up. There would be only two other more in the course of my run.

After a few kms of forest, Victor shows up out of nowhere. This is one of those fast Swaras. He slows down to my pace and we run together for more than 10 kms. He is ‘doing 21 kms plus 5’ (beats me why he couldn’t just say 26kms…). He selflessly shares some of his water with me.

Further on we meet Wahome fighting the good fight as we tackle a rocky downhill… I am quite sure the lead car(s) were overtaken by the elite pack at such sections… vehicles could only be driven through here at considerably slow speed.

Victor finally pulls away at around 4 kms to the 21 k finish line.

Having studied the run route from the marathon’s website, I knew (or thought) that at around this section the 42 k’s and 21 k’s were to part ways. I get to the junction that separates the two distances, ask a fellow holding the 42 km ‘sign post’, he says that all runners take the same route. I suspect that he is directing me the 21 km way because the last full marathon runners probably went by more than an hour before, but he insists.

I therefore take his direction. A km later, I meet Beatrice heading the wrong way. I am thoroughly impressed that she’s completed her run and is walking back. Not so fast; she clarifies that she lost her way…

Presently the finish line shows up. I already feel worn out and the run is getting confusing. I decide to run past the finish line and do probably another few kms then call it a day. Two hundred metres later, I find a 42 k sign; I can still run the full distance after all.

I’ve probably covered 26 kms at this point. And here ladies, gentlemen and others, is where the real marathon begins. My body is shutting down; I am alarmed because this is too early. I’ve done better enough times before. But fortunately quitting doesn’t cross my mind; it’s not an option. Not after the StanChart…

My enemy would be walking, knowing only too well that once I stopped running there would be no rebound. So I push on, my feet hardly co-operating.

I am now conspicuously all alone till the end. A pleasant surprise awaits me at around 29 km; an aid station with actual water, they are probably waiting for transport to ferry them back to the marathon village. This is the last I see of water- the bottled kind. I have enough sense to keep the bottle which I get to refill at a roadside stream. Otora’s chalk marks give direction for the rest of the distance.

By now, I am drawing (much to my chagrin) sympathy from residents hanging out by the roadside;

“kasaneko tu kichana yangu, utafika”… (’push on dude…’) a lady encourages…and similar comments…

I conclude I must be looking like a wuss. Unacceptable, so henceforth- whenever I spot people, I adopt a running pose complete with facial settings that say,…’ look here, running this slow is absolutely out of choice, I’m still strong…’ the concerned looks and sympathies keep coming.

One helpful guy offers to show me a shortcut, I decline, he insists, I decline. He asks ‘am I sure’, I nod vigorously. He catches his breath, then gives it another go… I tell him, ‘fine, but I won’t take it’…

Soon after, a GSU lorry, the ‘straggler bus’, shows up, the aid station people are in it. The driver asks me to get in. ‘No thanks’ I tell him, ‘I’ll finish this thing’. You should have seen the look of annoyance on his face…

The lorry falls behind me and I understand his attitude, he probably is supposed to come in after the last runner… the ’bus’ follows me for like 3 kilometres then gives up and speeds ahead…

The straggler bus incident makes me suspect I could be the last person on the road. It curiously makes me feel good; ‘Last man standing!’

The last 5 kms is possibly the truest test of endurance in my running career. I finally crawl over the finish line -for the second time- in 4 hrs 34, doubting the distance covered.

kakamega run

Note the confusion on the actual and expected routes for the full marathon… (forgive my artistic shortcomings…)

The aftermath

I crash into one of those first aid tents (a first). The two nice looking ladies smile and prep me for aid, then they mercilessly tear at my muscles. I beat a hasty retreat and spread-eagle on the ground somewhere.

Two runners from my hood find me. One did 2.24 (has a PB 2:10) and the other 2.28 (PB 2:14). They both missed the top 10. I ask whether that was really 42kms, they are non-committal… ‘Doesn’t really matter as long as everyone did the same distance…’.

It’s now four days later. I still walk around with a slight stylish limp; a massive improvement from the hobbling of Saturday, and limping on both feet of Sunday.

I must say I attempted to write this on Sunday, but aborted… was writing with too much feeling. Now my ‘feelings’ too have recovered.

So, mission accomplished. A full marathon conquered and my physical and psyche limits stretched to the fullest in the process.

The trail comes highly recommended, you should try it….