Running Tales


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: . Let us have a conversation.


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



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



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?)


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


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


Once you have passed the traffic choke points of Mlolongo and Kitengela, the drive to Maasai Eco Lodge, just past Kajiado, is a joy. The road is so smooth and traffickless that I am tempted to cruise all the way to Arusha, just for the heck of it. Then I remember I came here to run, not to drive. So I regretfully turn left, into the lodge at 1.00pm, ready to sample the best that Ajaa and Otora have cooked for us.

MC had asked people to leave Nairobi early in order to have time for settling in, lunch and other pre-run preparations. I arrive full of questions: where shall I sleep tonight? Who am I billeted with? And, most importantly, does she or he snore?

But MC responds like a proper African woman.

“Why don’t you eat first and then I’ll show you your room?”

Good suggestion. So, I do. And then she does. It turns out I am rooming with Ameet who, I am happy to confirm, does not snore.

Or...madness by another name
Or…madness by another name

We’ve got to pray

The Chairman blows his whistle at 1.55 pm. Time for the long runs to start. We gather at the gate where announcements are made. Then we receive a benediction from Mzee Ole Nkaru, former Paramount Chief, who implores Engai (God) to protect us.

This should have been the first warning that some serious stuff was afoot. The Chairman has never, to my knowledge, organised a prayer before a run. Clearly he knew something we did not. That some of us would need divine fortification.

The second warning sign was his ominous parting advice:

“Remember this is an endurance run, the important thing is to finish (read, survive) not to run fast.”

And so, with these reassuring words, we were off.

The first three kilometres are a breeze. A gently sloping trail and a cooling tail wind. I try to keep up with the front runners for a while. Then the trail takes a sharp turn to the left, the slope increases, the front runners shift into overdrive and the elites and also-runs are soon separated. Annabelle gamely keeps up with the elites though.

At the 3K mark, we come upon the first of many chalk mines that dot Kajiado County. The trail does an abrupt left turn at the mine and then…holy…bleep.

It is a hill so sharp that I get a stiff neck just trying to look up to see the top. The trail heads straight up with barely a turn anywhere. I reach for some choice expletives to describe Otora and his ancestry, but it does not help. So instead I put my head down, summon a determined look and start power walking.

The curse of the Maa

In Maasai tradition, elders (which is what I am aspiring to become) are strongly discouraged from swearing or cursing, even when angry. Maasai culture holds an elders words to be so powerful that they can cause disaster to befall a family or tribe if misused. I am told that the strongest expletive an elder can use is ‘May you get lost.’

I must have used the Maa language during one of my anti Otora swearing episodes because I soon get lost. In fact I was to get lost not once but five times. The first time was soon after ascending the first hill. Ajaa and Nyingi, who run all the way up, caught up with me near the top.

“It is just a little more to go, and then we start rolling down,” Ajaa says in his typical understatement.

But the run down proves to be quite enjoyable. Nyingi and I are chatting up a storm and not paying attention to the trail. I get so carried away that I miss the marks. We are lost.

We quickly spread out to see if we can reacquire the trail. Luckily, Surinder’s son, who was on water duty, shows up at this time and directs us to the trail marks and the water point.

We each grab a bottle of water and run on…straight into another ‘lost’ episode. This time I make a wrong turn and lead everyone on a 2K merry chase to nowhere.

Lessons learned:

(i) If you want to piss someone off, chose a Swara (despite my off trail shenanigans, Aja, Nyingi and Annabelle are still talking to me).

(ii) No more swearing in Maa. Next time Otora drives me up the hill, I will stick to my Middle Eastern staple ‘May your armpits be infested by the fleas of a thousand camels.’

Ajaa in Kedong Valley
Ajaa in Kedong ‘Kedong valley ghitu kani?’

Raoul’s Range; Surinder’s Pass

By the time I have found myself, after overshooting another turn by 1K, everyone has left me. For the next one hour I am chasing the pack with no sign of a Swara in sight. At some point I begin to wonder if everyone conspired to take a different route, just to teach me a lesson.

“Have you seen anyone pass by here?” I ask a group of Maasai boys, as I huff up the second of the killer hills – one that lasted almost 3K.

Wengi sana – Very many of them.”

Somewhere near the top Peter overtakes me. Soon after I catch up with MC. A few minutes later we are at the top and I allow myself to relax. Surely we are done with hills now, I think.

Then I emerge from a grove of indigenous trees, onto a rutted cattle track that slopes steeply down.

That is when I see it. A range of hills directly ahead, they curve gently, like a crooked wall, to the south. At first it looks like there is a pass near the far end. Then I see another steep hill blocking the way. The only way forward is up one of those hills.

I run down the track, hoping Otora will at least have chosen the small hill in the center for us to climb. No such luck. At the bottom I find two arrows pointing firmly to the left. We are going straight up the steepest part of ‘Raoul’s range,’ – a hill that was later to be baptised Surinders pass because this is the point where most of us caught up with and passed MK.

Oh my running God!

I need a drink.

Luckily at this time I come upon a bevy of Maasai maidens who are serving water. I grab a bottle and run past. Then I stop, look up Surinder’s pass, pause for a minute and turn back. The girls look at me with some concern. Has he suddenly gone crazy?

“No, no…that is the right way, one of them tells me, pointing the way towards the hill.”

“I know. But I need another bottle of water if I am going to tackle that monster.”

And so I start my way up the hill. I am barely managing to stay upright. At the top I come upon a Maasai boy with his dog and radio, enjoying the view and listening to sun downer tunes. He waves politely at me, I wave back. Even then I can see the questions in his eyes.

“You drove all the way from Nairobi to come and do this?”

Past the top I pass MK, who tells me he is doing 15K. I look at him. I am thinking to myself ‘Mzee has finally lost it, must be the heat.’

“How can you be doing fifteen when I am almost at 25K?”

“They told me this is the route for the 15K,” he tells me. “So I followed.”

I am tempted to make a smart ass response but I am so tired my brain has frozen as well.

MK – suffering in happier times

Revised aspirations

I run on. A short while later I pass Raoul. He is clearly not amused.

“I was hoping for a run, not a hike. This is even dangerous. They should have told us to….”

I leave him, still complaining and run on down the hill. At the bottom I find the final split…15K runners turn right, crazy people turn left. There is no contest. By this time I have revised not only my run aspirations, but I am also seriously re-considering the wisdom of my running career. I turn right.

The rest is thankfully all downhill. I arrive half dead at the Eco Lodge to find Leif, Wahome, Annabelle, Rosemary and others have arrived and are exchanging war stories. I have covered 31Km in 4 hours 5 minutes. This is the time I would normally need to complete a slow marathon.

We still have to wait for about an hour for Ajaa to arrive. He is the only one who was crazy enough to do the 40K, which took him well over 5 hours. But he arrives in style, complete with a royal escort of Otora and a Boad Boda outrider.

The elevation of the Run
The elevation of the Run. aka Rouls range

Consensus: we have a classic

After dinner we sit around the bonfire swapping stories from the day. The Patron leads us in a process to critique the run. People are struggling to find the most colourful adjectives to describe the experience. These range from the simple…’tough run’ to the lyrical ‘an amazing, torturous, yet fun experience’ to Wahome’s jaw dropper ‘I found the run quite easy’ (although he was heard to curse up the mountains like everyone else).

Finally a sort of consensus emerges. The Swaras have finally hit on a classic run, now officially the toughest on the calendar. Most people want to come back and have another crack at those hills next year. Some people feel we could do with a few less hills but everyone agrees that the tough terrain is a unique character of the run and the hills should not be flattened too much.

One thing we all agree on, though: don’t tamper with the views, they are simply fantastic.

The day’s events soon come to a close. Some people go to bed early. Others stay up quite late enjoying the beautiful, star packed, night sky and the many drinks and bitings on offer.

A recovery run is planned for early the next morning. I manage to miss it without even trying. But I understand 14 people show up for this ‘hair of the dog’ (smell of the antelope, in Swara lingo) run. Clearly Swaras are a tough lot.

A wonderful run despite the pain. I hope to do it again next year.

Thank you Otora and Ajaa.