Saturday 26th August 2017 brought the Swaras into uncharted territory, that of the Mua Hills. Chairman had classified the difficulty level in his introduction as “fairly tough by Swara standards,” and had encouraged participants to go heavy on the breakfast intake. I was in two minds as to whether to follow his advice and fuel up for a lengthy run or go moderate and eat light therefore. My mind had settled on the latter, as the one and only time I ate “heavy,” I had to squat away from prying eyes, mid-run.
It took approximately an hour to get to the venue, and as soon as I took the turn off from Mombasa Road, the road became a climb, and I readied myself mentally for later. Getting to the venue, and as Chairman had stated in his email, a yellow swara shirt was indeed hanging from a post. Perhaps we could make this a regular feature at our runs. A sizeable number of cars were already parked and a smattering of Swaras could be seen mingling.
Amongst them were the host himself Henry, who sometimes travels insane distances just to make the 7 a.m. starts, being a resident of Kitengela. Then there was Diana Nduku, a lady familiar with the place, who pointed out to us exactly where her rural home was, pointing at a shining light where it stands, and which seemed to sit on top of a murram climb (a dream finish for any runner I would have thought). There was also the speedy trio of Dennis Lopua, Benjamin Chikani, and Albert Naibei whose voluntary services to the Swaras are priceless. Leif Newman pulled up shortly after for what may well be his final Swara Run. His presence as far as I’m concerned has been immense and shall definitely be missed, though hopefully he can still contribute to the Swaras digitally once back in Sweden.
The briefing began with Chairman blowing a whistle whose noise whilst audible, sounded strange for a whistle I must admit. Someone also went as far as wondering why the Club couldn’t get a better whistle, but Chairman stood up in defense of the mouthpiece, probably meaning its days aren’t numbered at the Club.
I personally had chosen to do the 15 Kilometers, and the run began as it would end, with a downhill section. We were soon turning left with the course beginning to take up an undulating nature with the weather being absolutely ideal, consisting of completely overcast conditions and the mildest sprinkling of rain. Getting to the first split, I had chosen to go longer than 10 k’s and what awaited straight away was a lengthy climb. The thought “WHAT HAVE I DONE?” briefly entered my mind but there were people looking and I had to save face by not turning back around. The story might have been different otherwise.
Perhaps the most challenging climb was a fairly straight one made up of stone paths on either side, and grass and mud in between. By this time by my recollection, Benjamin Chikani had already raced past me and a couple of other runners chanting “STRONG, STRONG!”, perhaps being code speak for don’t give up! The long climb gave way to relief in the form of a much gentler section, though the loose soil underfoot was still challenging on the old body. Each passerby though was nothing but encouraging, and a little curious on most occasions as to what exactly was happening.
A final climb remained, whose intensity and awkward nature had finally resulted in me walking for a section of it, but which I abandoned and took up a jogging stride once more upon the ground flattening out.
The final section was once again downhill, on the right of which was Sonko’s family farm with a sizeable lion statue erected outside the gate. Peter Park, one of the Swaras had later spoken of his regret that he didn’t take a selfie with the Lion.
Back at the farm, preparations were in full swing for breakfast, complete with a very hospitable serving team, whose varieties were more than my plate could hold.
Francesca later shared that a couple of girls had been running alongside her in the most basic of clothing, whom she had invited to come join us for tea. I wasn’t there long enough to find out if they did but I sure hope they did.
All in all, as Chairman had said in his email to recap the run, I would like to think there will be clamor for the run to be held on an annual basis at least, and next time maybe I will try a longer distance.
My thanks go to those who took time off their schedules to come scout the run, Henry for hosting us, and Otora for marking such an awesome route.
This man Otora is either a genius or a sadist, or both! (Mensa & BDSM Anonymous, anyone?) Loved and loathed by Swaras in about equal measure: usually loved before the start of a run and perhaps during the early stages when all is smooth, then loathed when the going gets tough usually way into the run when the end is nowhere in sight and support is faltering, and then loved some minutes after the run when each person’s equilibrium has been restored.
Yesterday’s run was no exception that followed the usual script; but oddly enough, it was simply to die for! It was staged at the nondescript Classic Villa Resort -that is neither classic nor a resort of any sort- on Lower Kabete road. When it was announced earlier in the week, I was a little blase about it since it had been featured on the calendar earlier in the year and I thought that I had it all figured out
Back then in mid February it had been scheduled a week before Kilimanjaro Marathon that features many Swaras so few people went beyond the 20km mark then. As we weren’t on the Moshi trip, Yasin and I whether by some misplaced bravado or sheer foolhardiness dared to do the longest marked distance that came to 33km or so. And we were made to pay for all our trouble as it was a hot day and support petered out towards the end of the run.
This time round not surprisingly I planned to play it safe and for good reason too. Not only because I had been deserted by my comrade in arms who was just concluding Ramadhan, but more because I was not in the best of form. Whatever little confidence I had soon started to dissipate even before the flag-off when we realized that there was no water to carry as we started off.
In gambling they say that the house never loses; and in running the trail also never loses. And that is where Otora the resident trail-fox comes in. Not only is he as wily as the creature he is aptly named after, but he simply never ceases to amaze with his ingenuity. For you see no sooner had we started than I realized that he had tweaked the route in such a way that though we were basically running in the same area, it was nearly unrecognizable. This time though he had thrown in some gentle but steady uphills that got most of us seriously winded, and caught me completely by surprise!
The jury is still out as to whether the plot this time was more wicked than the last time. Suffice it to say that the sight of clearly beaten Swaras homing in on the staging area at the finish told eloquent stories of hard-fought battles with the trail and it was pretty obvious that the only thing that saved the day was the bugle calling off the day’s engagement with neither party prevailing.
How did yours truly fare, you ask? Well, I would rather not talk about it as I was badly chastened. To my shame, I could only manage a measly 10km out of the possible 30km I had set out for. As I hinted earlier I have as many explanations as one could possibly conjure, in fact probably a list as long as your arm. But if the truth be said those are all mere excuses; I failed miserably in my quest to come off better than the last outing.
So yes, admittedly it was a clean and clear victory to the trail once again. My one consolation is that I will live to do battle with the trail another day. Hopefully I will be better prepared so as to prevail next time round!
Until then, keep running!
It would be remiss of me not to recognize recent achievements of two Swaras: Davis Gitari & Ngatia Maina, who successfully debuted in Vic Falls & Lewa full marathons respectively. And all done in style too; both with PBs of 3:23:31 and 4:18:58 respectively. Kudos chaps, hats off!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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….
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: email@example.com . Let us have a conversation.
Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday in Olepolos when the Swaras descended on the sleepy town of Kisamis in a convoy of vehicles. No doubt the locals must have known that there was something major in the offing with wave upon wave of vehicles arriving bearing their unsuspecting passengers…
Although the run was to kick off at 7.30am, most had arrived well before that time and were huddled in groups catching up as they waited for the off. A chilly morning it was and we could barely make out Ngong hills, obscured by thick mist, in whose shadow the run is set.
The chief instigator of the whole plot was conspicuously absent, and just when we thought he had abandoned his charges to their own devices, the chairman emerged from his hideout to give the customary pre-run briefing and blow his whistle. The most disconcerting bit was when he disclosed that he had no idea what lay ahead, while inviting the group to discover it…
For a run that had been touted as having taken two days to mark, one would do well to approach with caution. The first few kilometres consisted of several switchbacks that brought you close to the crest of Ngong Hills. Thereafter you were taken through the undulating terrain and different running surfaces right to the bottom of the Kedong’ valley.
It certainly lived up to its billing: rugged, scenic, punishing and rewarding all at once! Aside from some very steep ascents at the 6Km mark and at the very end, the course took you through acacia forests here, a veritable moonscape of strewn volcanic stones there and some scattered homesteads along the way…
It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs. Some parts of the course were so treacherous that a number of Swaras had their seemingly unbounded energies earthed by having to kiss the ground! My sincere commiserations to all those who suffered that unhappy fate though mercifully no major injuries to report.
Still, it was not all that torturous, doom and gloom. It also offered some rewards for each exacting segment of the run. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the run was the beautiful dam that those who went beyond 15km encountered. Never mind that encircling the reservoir involved clambering over rocks for the most part on the southern side but the sight of shimmering water and the lapping sound in the gentle breeze was quite a welcome distraction…
Battered, bruised and clearly beat from the run, most (if not all!) arrived at the finish clearly spent. Personally, I barely managed to drag myself and stagger to the end and the welcome sight of Nanyori Cafe. Here a feast to end all feasts and succour our sapped energies awaited like the promised land. The food and service was simply excellent, catering to different tastes and on point.
And so it goes that despite the Swaras tendency to push the limits, sometimes coming so close to self-destruction, we had nevertheless survived the arduous run and will live to do battle with it another day. I believe I’m not the only one who is definitely looking forward to test my endurance there again, hopefully sooner than later. Having done only 20 Otora-Kms (that turned out to be 25km on the conventional scale!), guess that covers only one day’s route marking and I’ll need to see what was marked on the second day…
See you there on the trail, meanwhile keep running!
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? ButI 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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is said: Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make your own.
Well, yesterday I proved that I have lived long enough. First, I ignored all the tell-tale signs the universe was sending me- my running watch died last week, and I l forgot my music on the table in the house on the morning of the run. I am one of those people with an unhealthy attachment to my watch and my music while running.
Secondly, I ignored all emails breaking down in very clear terms what the Chairman’s run looks like and got myself to Magadi in such a hurry I was overtaking even the air itself on my way to Hekima to make it in good time to be ferried to the starting point.
Thirdly, at Hekima, God sent an angel in the name of Molly to share experiences from the past with me on the drive to the drop off point for the 40kms. I listened and made the sensible decision to do the 20km. Only that when the 25km drop off point came, unseen forces pushed me from my seat and I was soon on the road flexing my muscles waiting for the whistle to blow so I could show Magadi that 25km can be done with an injury and lackluster training.
That I am sitting here writing this goes to show that God forgives foolishness. The run started well enough for me especially that I managed to get hold of myself and do a very slow pace. Not those mad dashes I do at the start like a rabbit crossing the road. Things were going well, the air was crisp, the landscape amazing, cows were grazing and mooing, the smells around me were earthy and alive, mixed with wood smoke, traffic was nonexistent and life was just beautiful. I even spotted small wild animals and a baboon crossed the road in front of me giving me that look that showed that he/she knew that today, I was not joking.
Then the hills started. And I was like ‘I can do this’. I felt ok, and I was like ‘let me do it slow and as soon as I get to Olepolos, I will pick up my pace and do that beautiful finish- arrive charging through Kona baridi like I own long distance running’. I did arrive back at Hekima, many many hours later, and in such a state that I had the occasional passerby looking at me with pity. That stretch where I was supposed to pick up my pace at Olepolos is the exact place where my body lost the plot. That hill before Olepolos (is it a hill, or a mountain?) I walked. I looked up ahead. When that didn’t work I gazed at the tarmack. Then I turned my eyes to the skies. My aim was to look anywhere but the road/hill ahead of me. That I didn’t enter Olepolos is true testament that I have a shred of willpower somewhere. I did run/walk at this point with a gentleman with whom I shared my thoughts of how Olepolos was the true north for me. That I would be fine once I got there. Later I realized that he employed exceptional skill in responding to me- he kept my foolish dreams alive, while at the same time managing my expectations. Thank you sir. I didn’t get your name. I am that chick in orange, eating trail mix, breathing heavily sometimes, and almost not breathing at other times.
Somewhere my butt came alive. I felt so much pain in my gluteus maximus every time I took a step. Muscle cramps set in on my feet and I spent all my energy doing mental tricks with them. At some point-must have been 22km- I started to get a tid bit delirious despite all the water I had taken-about 7 bottles- and all that trail mix I ate. Not to mention the occasional melon and oranges from the support vehicles. It was hot.
Step by step, I covered the distance and zoned everything out. Magadi is TOUGH. I was told Ilovoto was worse but I was not there. Magadi is my painful experience. There is this guy who was ahead of me in the distance for forever-walk running. He became my inspiration because I somehow felt and knew that we were both carrying the same cup of suffering. If you are that guy, thank you for not stopping, because if you did, I would have stopped too. Our hero James also came to mind at various points of my grueling ordeal, not for comparison (for heaven’s sake, he did the Comrades in the time it may take me to run a full), but for inspiration.
In my own way, I conquered Magadi. Many thanks to the organizers and to the support team. You were simply amazing and true to the task. Every time a support vehicle pulled up beside me it had water to dish out and smiling faces asking if I was fine. Once when they asked if I needed a ride I pictured the temptation of Jesus in the desert with bread (it was bread, right?). Saying no to that ride must have strengthened a part of my brain.
Raoul in an email last week or so said that Magadi support vehicles drive up and down picking up dead bodies. They might still be out there collecting but there is one thing I left out there on the road which they shouldn’t bring back to me if they come across it: Fear.
PS: What really was the true 25km distance? Every person who passed me communicated different distances. At one point, I knew I had 9kms to go, and someone about a km later tells me 13km to go. I wanted to die.
Yesterday Chairman’s run lived up to its expectations of being one of the most difficult runs in the Swara Calendar. It used to be the most difficult but that top spot has been taken by the Illovoto Run.
Swaras came with the intent of conquering the Magadi…. some were humbled and others conquered…. Some came seeking to redeem themselves after Illovoto and redeem themselves they did. It is at this run last year that Naibei fell ill while attempting a 40 km. Yesterday, he was back and he completed the full 40 km. Way to go Naibei.
I wish to thank Wahome, Davis and Chairman for offering their vehicles to support the run. Wahome, please pass our thanks to Githenya and the other driver, I do not remember his name. Also, not forgotten is Lyma for securing the venue and organizing the breakfast and for sacrificing her run to ensure that the runners were nourished after the punishing run and to the Treasurer, Peter for all his help in ensuring that the run went smoothly.
Special thanks to Davis for volunteering his time, the whole day practically, to support the run. Thank you Davis.
Have a great week and see you all on Saturday, when we do this all over again…..
So, why exactly do you leave a warm bed to get up very early on a Saturday morning and head out to a Swara run? Is it because:
a) you are a fitness freak and someone lied to you that running is up there with the best forms of exercise? 😉
b) you have some pent up steam from work during the week that needs to be worked off before the weekend can start?
c) you need to pay for Friday night’s indiscretions or perhaps make advance payment for the excesses that are bound to happen over the weekend?
d) you love the idea of trying to decipher chalk-marks on the ground and subsequently following them over all manner of terrains in all weather?
e) you really have nothing better to do on any given Saturday morning so why not do it just for kicks?
f) None of the above.
g) All of the above.
Well, whatever your reasons I am just about to add yet one more. I have always held the opinion that what we invariably find ourselves doing as a running club every week must seem quite odd or even positively irrational to the casual observer. However, before anyone calls the nearest shrink for some group therapy, I believe that there may be indeed some method to the madness.
For you see, yesterday’s run was one of those that really makes you question your sanity. Granted, it was an excellent setting, some fairly flat terrain and the weather was just perfect for a long run. And besides all that, the longest distance was going to be 25Km, so there really didn’t seem to be anything much to forewarn the unsuspecting crew of what lay lurking this particular morning…
The first half of the run was innocuous enough, but trust the CRE and their trusty point man Otora to conjure something guaranteed to upset the day’s proceedings. As it had rained the night before, there were some long muddy stretches alternating with puddles that any hope of finishing the run quickly with ease were quickly washed away with all the flood waters. From then on it degenerated to some sort of dance without a formula and not unlike the performance by a novice skater the first day on the ice rink!
But such is the quirk of nature that when one finds oneself in a sticky situation you quickly learn to grin and bear it. Having accepted one’s unhappy fate and forgetting everything about time, splits or paces the event then took on a brighter outlook. And I’ll let you in on a little secret here: when clods of mud cling to your shoes and they then seem about five times heavier, there is no better way of getting rid of them than wading through the nearest pool of water!
And so it goes that yours truly got a rare opportunity to relive his youth. Back in the day, before paved roads and paths became the norm [or at least more common] and the typical mode of getting from point A to B involved much legwork, the rainy season was fraught with many possibilities of a tangle in the mud that weren’t entirely unwelcome to any average lad until you got home to face the music…
So yes, where else can one go back in time and behave like the youngster you once were running around without a care in the world? For all you know, perhaps such rare opportunities are the elixir of youth for those who would remain young at heart. They say that there is a boy in every man, so why not let him out to play? At least anyway that is what I did and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
And now that we are on the subject, tell me about your childhood. I am all ears…
At first it seemed like the weather would not cooperate. It had rained most of the night before and the cold drizzle persisted into the early morning. For a minute I feared we would start in pouring rain, a terrible way to begin a long run. But then at some point mother nature looked down upon the shivering runners, many of whom had come to lend their talent by running for a good cause, and relented. A few minutes before the run started, the rain stopped.
This is an accurate description of the start of two early morning Saturday runs that happened over 5000 kilometers apart, one on March 26 in Capetown and the other one on April 2nd in Karen, Nairobi. One was a good course, the other one was for a good cause.
First about the good cause: the Karen run was dedicated to supporting Kevin Mwachiro, one of our most dedicated and friendly Swaras. Kevin is waging the battle of his life against cancer and Swaras would not be Swaras if we did not stand by him in his time of need. In case you have not offered your support and would like to do so, please join #teamKevin on facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=kevin%20mwachiro or Mpesa your donation to Lucy Thuo.
As for the Two Oceans Marathon, what is there to say that has not been said? The most beautiful, painful, fun, humbling, crazy, lunatic, long, marathon/weekend…take your pick. The 56K ultra was all these and more. More than 12 Swaras took part, a record I believe and they all acquitted themselves extremely well. The pre-run support was wonderful (thank you Tata), although none of our training plans seemed to go exactly according to plan. But we were all agreed, we would run the damn thing, come hell or high weather. Others like James (Wahome and Waliula) were less profane, if more philosophical.
“We are going to Capetown for a holiday. But if a 56K happens to stand in the way, then we’ll just have to run it.”
Such casual disrespect for distance, effort and pain can only come from Urban Swaras. It reminds me of the following ancient story told about the Spartans as they marched to fight the Persians at Thermopylae.
Along the way, the Spartans met a Merchant and asked him about the Persian army.
“The Persians are so fierce and their archers are so many that their arrows darken the sun,” they were told.
“All the better” quoth an old Spartan soldier. “The Spartans fight best under the shade.”
From what I am hearing, I expect there will be an even bigger group of Swaras attempting the Two Oceans Ultra next year. So maybe the best I can do is to contribute by sharing some tips from my experience this year. Here goes:
“You want to wear a what?” The nice lady at the Parliament Hotel, where I stayed, was trying but she could not hide her incredulity. “A garbage bag? Why?”
“Well, er, um, it’s a runners thing, you know. In case it rains….” I was not doing a very good job of explaining myself. For once I could see the craziness of what we do from a non runners eyes. We like to see ourselves in macho terms but I can assure you, the non running public often sees a bunch of pending citizens of a mental asylum instead. Especially when we try to explain some of the ‘crazy’ things we do; wearing garbage bags is not even the worst of them. How about: taping our nipples; waking up at 4.00 am in the rain to run; flying thousands of miles to a beautiful coastal town, not to lie on the beach but to suffer; applying Vaseline to the ‘you know what’….
Long story short. I didn’t get my garbage bag. The lady told me she had to consult the hotel management team, who were set to meet later that afternoon. I suspect they politely pretended to listen to her request and then flatly voted her down.
Lesson #1:Pack a garbage bag. Better still, carry a hoodie, or at least an old tshirt, something you can afford to throw away. Capetown weather can turn on a dime and the minutes before the run starts can get really miserable. Ask Timothy who showed up in a Swaras singlet.
The Congolese taxi driver had arrived fifteen minutes ahead of time, for which I was to be very grateful. When he heard I was going to run 56Km, he at first got very excited. Then I told him I was Kenyan and he gave me that look. You know, the one that seems to say ‘of course, what else would you expect from crazy Kenyans.” But then he was more polite when he verbalized the look.
“Oh, so are you going to win?”
“I am not that kind of Kenyan.” He looked disappointed.
The traffic to the start was terrible and soon we got stuck. Good that he came early otherwise it would have been a disaster. We whiled away the time by talking. At some point I found myself trying to explain to him why Kenyans are such good runners.
“We have the advantage of altitude,” I say. “We breathe less air where I come from. So when we come to sea level, like Capetown, we suddenly have more air.”
He still doesn’t get the logic. Then I hit on a bright idea:
“It is like a car, you see; a car with a turbo engine. When you want it to go faster, you turn on the turbo right? A Kenyan running at sea level is like turning on a turbo engine.”
“A turbo engine, oh yes” And then I sat there and watched his face suddenly light up in understanding. It made me feel like Socrates.
Lesson #2:Plan to leave early for the start so as to avoid the traffic. If you can find a hotel near the starting point the better. In any case you might have to jog to the start at some point. Think of it as a warm up. Next remember that when you run abroad, you carry more than the flag of our country. You carry the World’s expectations from our illustrious running past. To most of the people you meet, all Kenya’s can run and they will expect you to do no less, even if you are limping. Better yet, it will make their day if they can beat you. Just remember to take it all with good humor.
“Hello, is this room service? Can I have two cold beers delivered to my room please?” I was talking to the same lady of the hotel.
“What kind of beer would you like, Mr Ndungu?” She is very polite. “We have very many. In fact I suggest you can come down so that you can chose for yourself.”
“Sorry I am having trouble going down stairs. Just send me whatever you have.”
I got the beers. By then I had come to the conclusion that choosing a 5th floor room, one with a wonderful view of the Table mountains, and then having the lift break down the day after running an ultra marathon, may not have been such a brilliant idea after all. If you think running up hills during a marathon is tough, trying walking down stairs the day after.
Lesson #3:Running an ultra marathon will do strange things to your body. If you can, accept the chance for a massage offered at the finish line or arrange for one soon after. If you feel like sleeping for hours, do so. The day after the run you will barely be able to walk properly. Don’t pretend to be a hero about it. Everyone knows you are hurting. Even the Hotel Manager, who could not understand your request for a garbage bag the day before, is now full of sympathy. He even orders that the lift should be repaired during the night so that you don’t have to walk down the stairs the next morning.
My first trip to Capetown was in November 2015. I made friends with a friendly South African tour guide and spent two full days being shown the best tourist spots in the area. When he heard that I planned to run the Two Oceans Marathon some day he got very excited. Even offered to drive me along the entire route so that I could get an idea. The only problem was he drove the route in reverse and I left thinking that those hills they talk about were nothing. Imagine my shock on race day when I hit Chapmans hill and realized we were doing the ‘long-end-up’ first.
Lesson #4:Don’t take advice from a slightly overweight South African who admits he has never run any real distance in his life. In fact don’t take any advice, period. Instead do what Lillian did and study the videos of the route that the organizers had helpfully provided on their website, and which I ignored. Remember also that, while the famous Chapmans peak is long and tough, the real killer is Constantia Nek, much shorter but steeper and it shows up when you are long past the 42K mark. You must leave something in the tank.
The run ends on a small down hill. But, before that, there is an up hill, now named Chets Hill, in honor of a recently departed Two Oceans founder. On a normal Swaras running day, Chets hill is nothing. But on this day, coming as it does at 55K, you will probably remember every painful inch. Then you will hear the roar of the crowd, hidden just around the corner and the sound will lift you up. This is when you learn the true meaning of a second wind. You want to finish strong, or at least within the 7 hour cut off mark. Somehow, from somewhere, you will find that extra kick.
Lesson #5: Enjoy yourself. The crowds are simply fantastic, as are the thousands of friendly local runners who will happily share tips with you if you ask them. The bag collection process at the end is a bit of a pain, so if you can, travel light to the starting point and avoid the long pick up queue at the end altogether. Whatever you do, have fun!