Running Tales

The Mt. Kenya Ultra Marathon- 3rd Edition

mt-kenya-ultra-2016-teamThis run can only be recounted with a lot of pride, notwithstanding the reality that your body is a pile of ruins. We’ll try to make this as summarized as possible…what to write is just too much, after all it was an ultra.

Date: Saturday 24th September 2016
Place: Somewhere at the foot of Mt. Kenya
Time: Early

The turnout is impressive, droves of Swaras arriving early to make sure they don’t miss out on the penance they are here to pay for their various transgressions. The heavens tease runners with mild showers and dark menacing clouds; for a moment it seems Ndungu’s rain stopper is sleeping on the job. The dampness of the weather nevertheless not dampening the runners’ singularity of purpose.

As expected, such runs have their morning nerve-induced shenanigans…sample this; the good patron vows he saw one Molly head into the gents, ostensibly looking for someone; nerves right there…, but just a sec…we can’t rule out the flipside, can we? So we’ll conveniently take the Solomonic high road and argue that it could just as well have been Patron’s eyes playing tricks on him…

This being an ultra, you can tell the participants are geared for it; hydration belts, camelbaks, ORS solutions, it wouldn’t be surprising someone carried a rosary or some other tools for summoning divine intervention in case the going got tough.

Such distances are where chafing could haunt you to submission, so the friction points better be well greased, and your shoes better not conspire to sneak in a blister or two earlier in the race. Not forgetting the nipples, you’ve seen bloodied shirts before, so someone better be sure of their shirt or have the dang things taped…the kind of stuff ultra-runners go through.

For easier digestion, we will split the ultra into 3 courses.


Swaras are flagged off at 9 am. You immediately enter the forest. Cool and lazy running all round, no one in a hurry…

Before long things get interesting, hillocks of elephant dung on the road, fresh. Telltale signs in form of broken branches, and then…. behold you have spectators! In the forest? Yes, in the form of elephants? Yes. You picture a slow cold evening in Jumbo village, around a fire, bottles of Tuskers all round, a jumbo’s smartphone beeps -email alert, he lazily checks it, shakes his big ears and grunts, ‘our crazy swara cousins will be running through these woods….’, so here they were to look for themselves (someone counted six elephants), maybe next time they’ll carry their trumpets, a proper marching (trampling?) band wouldn’t kill the runners.

You soon come up to a dam, the 35K split is here. You get to that river crossing where everyone had to wade across in 2015. Mercifully the water is low this time and you can artfully maneuver across without getting in touch with water.

Immediately after, you come face to face with Mt. Kenya, the matriarch herself. She seems to have had a lazy morning and it’s only now that she is showing face, drawing back the erstwhile cloud curtains to witness the curious goings on at her feet. The view is always awe-inspiring and like every other time you’re immediately raring to hike up the mountain. The swaras with photo devices predictably pause for Kodak moments.

She continues watching as you run uphill through the potato farms, here the farmers double up as caretakers of the forest, they tend up and coming trees and as a result the mountain soil rewards them with overfed potato tubers… which are subsequently ferried to Nairobi to overfeed you.

By now clouds have been bullied out of the skies, seems Ndungu’s ‘Mundu Mugo’ was deeply impressed with the unblemished white goat offered as compensation for his troubles… You get to a second dam and you’re tempted to take a dip. The forest that comes up and its resident breeze is more than welcome. Full disclosure; the ‘second dam’ ceases to exist later when you look at the route map and realize dam 2 is actually dam 1, you just toured both sides of it.

You soon exit the forest but not after going past some colonial structures that look older than time itself and a scenic leafless forest whose naked trees makes the place look like autumn up in the temperate climes.

If by some miracle you’ve not dozed off through the foregoing paragraphs you’ll notice that no one has talked about the run. This is because it’s been sightseeing all along, you could as well have been on a truck touring the forest…for 20kms.

Warming up

With 20 kms under your feet, you’re still fresh; you know the run is still way ahead. You therefore plan to make the next 20k a comfortable jog in preparation for the onslaught.

You’ve since reunited with the 35k crowd, the routes having merged at around 18k, so you’re in good ‘strong’ company. Victor is so comfortable despite the seesaws of ascents and descents. He soon starts offering other swaras support, ‘anything? A soda? Water?’

The support has been flawless so far, you’ve already taken…let’s see… two bananas, a Fanta, an Afia (juice drink), a bigger Afia, a Coke. You’ll end up taking more coke, and lakes of water- enough to drown the cells in your body. At some point you cut down on the water and only take the other fluids. You’ve read sufficient literature to know there’s such a thing as electrolyte imbalance.

2015’s ultra was easy on the body, absence of hills after 30k- a good thing. As a result some conquerors of the 2015 ultra went chest thumping, proclaiming that the ultra was all in a day’s work, using words like ‘losing altitude’ et al- a terrible thing. Such careless talk is bound to throw the routes crew into panic mode, and it did, as a result enough hills were now part of the menu. Soon you are cussing under your breath on sighting a descent and cussing some more on seeing the hills.

Here comes the ultra

40 kms down. You’re still alive, you want to keep it that way. End is in sight, you don’t want to but find yourself counting down the distance, 16k doesn’t sound like a bad number. You soldier on.

A progressively painful 10k drags by, you finally get to 50 and are rewarded with a flat 2 km stretch, your paces speed up from around 7:30 to 5:30 mins /km. Your feet settle into a comfortable cruise, this will surely go all the way to the end…

Then Ajaa shows up, he has grave news…‘you’re going into 3 kms of hill with great views…’ you take another coke.

The hill is punishing, the pace drops to a crawling 10 min/km, victor hinges his hopes on a communication mast way ahead trusting it to signify the highest point… luck smiles at him, but not too fast, it’s not over yet.

Going downhill is the toughest test of the run yet. Your feet are no longer coordinated, we can safely name your movement ‘ginger steps’.… you gingerly set one foot in front of the other in a painful dance down the slope, someone would be forgiven to think you were walking on hot embers…

Let’s grudgingly admit that the hilltop offered quite some view… ‘cud view’ would be the appropriate term though; You definitely can’t enjoy the view right then, so you take it in like a ruminant, bringing it up later that evening as you convalesce… only then do you soak in the panoramic view, the now dark and ominous foothills of Mt. Kenya, her head safely above the clouds, the endless plains on the opposite side, and Karatina town calmly nestled in her space.

The hill itself looks like a bizarrely shaven head, tea farms interrupted by slight bushes and an odd house here and there.

56k done. It’s now evidently this run isn’t going to be anything less than 58k. Victor is getting edgy, you find it wise to keep to the opposite side of the road, who knows, He could turn and suddenly think you are Otora, and then your tense would be past.

Back on flat ground you are comparing pains. For you it’s definitely the knees, victor is paining everywhere and nowhere, he can’t quite locate his pains. It has to be the soul.

Soon talk of stopping crop up; supported by statements like, ’haven’t we completed the 56k?’ and ‘surely not many swaras will finish this run’, but neither of you takes the plunge, the following is at play in your disoriented mind;- You don’t want to stop because Victor would probably keep on running; you think Victor is probably waiting for you to stop so that he stops too, he probably fears that if he stopped first you’d keep running; You, on the other hand are waiting for him to stop and then you’d probably, well, keep running…have we lost you? Never mind… neither stops.

58k, 59k, you’re still hopeful the end is near; 60, 61, 62…, nothing matters any more, you submit to fate.

Then out of the blues you are on familiar territory!! You estimate 2 kms of easy jogging to the end but oh no, no sir, the demons in Victor’s head have other ideas, the fellow decides that this is perfect recipe for racing. It is as if the hotel is moving away and you have to run like your lives depend on it to catch up….result? 63rd km at 4:40 min/km pace, 64th at 4:14… and just like that your run ends after 7 hrs 28 mins.

Courtesy of Victor Kamau
Courtesy of Victor Kamau

You now realize why chairman and Ndung’u conveniently didn’t run, these two wizened distance runners clearly chickened out, ostensibly to do support. They must have had doubts on the doability of this distance, and you, dear runner, was an experiment to test their hypothesis…

Two swaras have already completed the ultra ahead of you, more trickle in and by the time you stop counting, a whopping 8 swaras have completed the staggering 65 kms!

You sit down to contemplate your unlikely achievement, it no longer looks that intimidating…suddenly your mind explodes and out spills a world of possibilities… what if there was a 100 km option? What If there was a ‘circling the entire mountain’ option? What if? You get the chills and stop writing….


Running Tales

The Nomadic Urban Swara-KENYA- Mt Kenya Ultra Marathon


Mt Kenya ultra marathon 2015As always, it was a hair brained, not thoroughly thought through idea. I was going to run the Mt Kenya ultra marathon. My objective was simple; I wanted  to kill two birds with one stone, join club 42 and if I survive it, join the exclusive ultra marathon club and  pull in bragging rights like Loise, Mitch and Raoul and  thump my chest with pride and say I am an Ultra marathoner, and just annoy my friends  every time I say it. Guess what! I did it! And I am such an annoying muppet!

It started with Ndungu’s emails and one caught my eye. We will need rangers to chase away elephants. My first reaction was, “ELEPHANTS”! Ndungu was quick to respond, “ they are tame …honest!” and I  retorted, “the only tame elephant I know is Dumbo. He flies  and he is cute. The last time I checked , Kenyan  elephants do not fit the bill!”

Ok for exercise. I must say the 10 kms runs I do every other day regardless of where I am in the world really helped. Investing in a personal trainer last year to focus on strength training was helpful. The trainer turned me into a small Popeye with the ability to bench press up to 60 kgs and the strength built in my muscles was evident in the run. So for practice, I ran 20 kms on Sunday in Diani, but I was so chaffed that my plans to run during the course of the week in hilly Kigali (yes I was still travelling) was thrown out of the window. I got back on Thursday night, and on Friday drove down with Martin Boelle to Karatina. Now that was the only smart choice I made!

Saturday morning, we are having breakfast and I declare boldly, “I will run 56kms!”. There was silence followed by the following statements, “write a will,” “hmmm, let’s see how you will survive with the rain!”, then followed by a rather sage question, “What is the longest you have run?” “21kms at the Ndakaini run in September!” I chuffed with pride. “What about for exercise?”  I responded “Well, I did 20 kms in Diani on Sunday, doesn’t that count?”  Silence and everyone focused on their breakfast, then one last reminder, “make sure you write a will!” Honestly who needs enemies if you have friends like these?

But I was so excited. This was green Mount Kenya; we were going to pass through forests, with the possibility of evading angry pachyderms. I had hiked through the same forest in March, ran through it in September and it was a beautiful day. I just knew I’d do the run, plus on hind sight I was on an adrenaline rush.

We drove 10 kms to a small village called Kagochi, and we started running. What was my plan? What plan! I had no idea except drum into my head to save energy, put one foot in front of the other and make sure I finished the run. And in Ashok’s words, if you can’t fight the hill, you can as well enjoy the view. And what a view we had as we ran passing through runpotato  and coffee farms, until when we reached a river and I debated on whether I should remove my shoes or not; Martin threw me a stick from across and shouted, “You will need it for support as you cross.”! I gave up and removed my shoes and started crossing. Susan was ahead of me and she happily chirped, “my shoes are water proof so I do not need to remove my shoes,” “Oh Susan….” I grouched.

I am glad I removed my shoes and waded through the cold river as it cooled my hot feet. I resumed the run and after 30 minutes it started raining and once again Susan chirped, “Did I forget to mention that my shoes are water proof!” “Susan, I swear you will be mugged in Nairobi and they will only take your shoes!” I further grouched as we slogged in the mud.

It was at this point that I definitely made up my mind to do the 56 kms run as I kept on asking, “What is the worst that could happen, other than being rained on?”  and I swore, unless there were hailstones and earthquake and the actual possibility of snow, I would not stop and definitely finish the run.

To keep my mind busy and off the run, I started playing associative mind games. I started with the rainy, muddy forest and reminded myself that it was like running in Karura Forest. Then in some stretches  I reminded myself of when I was climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and it brought back memories of my preparations for the expedition and the actual run kidachievement of reaching Uhuru Peak, and of course I was already planning my diary, I had a lot of kilometers to cover and my entire week was planned ! But the most important thing I learned was that people love people. I greeted everyone on the way, asked people in kiosks if they had tea for a weary miserable runner, to which they enthusiastically responded and I encouraged children to run with me. Some held my hand as we ran together.

Then I started looking for life lines. Susie (Brendan Molloy’s fiancé), gave me her gel and she offered to give me money for a boda boda, which, I declined just in case I got tempted to hop onto a motorbike due to fatigue. Susan also gave me her gel, and then the vehicles started following me. The soft purring engine of Ajaa’s and Wahome’s vehicles reminded me that I was not alone and I slogged on, in the umpteenth wave of rain.

Vehicles and boda bodas pulled over to give me a lift and I politely declined and I continued running. At some point I was given an orange which boosted me, my Garmin watch had died after 30 kms and I resorted  to asking the friendly villagers how far I was  and I got colorful responses ranging from, Huogopi mvua? Aki uko mbali, Madam ingia tu kwa gari (Aren’t you worried about the rain. You are really far. Madam, please get into the car!). 3 kms to the finish, I had unexpected euphoric energy and ran nonstop to the end. The Swaras were waiting for me, followed by exhilarating high fives with incredulous comments, “Joy, you are crazy! My God you are stubborn!”. 9hours 20 minutes later, I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “I am an Ultra Marathoner!”. Will I do this again? Oh yeah and I cannot wait for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in South Africa.