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

——————————————————————————

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

A Good Cause Deserves a Good Course: 2 Oceans, (again?)

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.

#TeamKevins run: Avani, Kevin, Susan and a shy Swara
#TeamKevins run: Avani, Kevin, Susan and a shy Swara

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.

———————————————————————————————

Cruising up Chapman's peak
Cruising up Chapman’s peak

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.

——————————————————————————————-

Suffering past Constantia Nek
Suffering past Constantia Nek

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!

Running Tales

Cape Town 2014

two oceans ultra marathonGreat stuff Kimberly!  Congrats too go to Sean, Mitch and Aubrey. I am proud for you and I am sure that we shall see you in another Ultra some time soon. Indeed Cape Town 2014 experience was unforgettable and I hope you loved it as much as we did. My wife Nyakio (who doubles as my No.1 service crew) and I were there for 8 days until Wednesday and we enjoyed the race and the beauty of Cape Town.

And what a race we all had. I started off from the B pen and was therefore not far from the start line. At least I had a chance to catch a glimpse of the elite guys in A pen. I must agree at this point I felt like I was in the wrong starting place as I rubbed shoulders with these guys who looked so fit. This reminded me how far I had come in my running journey to now start off a race alongside such great runners. I told myself to calm down and stick to the race plan no matter what! One thing that mostly bothered me was whether my brand new Adidas shoes will hack this 56km tarmac course. I knew it was a big gamble to run with new shoes in such an important race but I think the running spirits must have convinced me not to worry about the new shoes after I used them for the 7.5km International Fun Run the previous morning. What I didn’t want was to get blisters way before the finish line. After carefully comparing this new gear with my fully tested older Nike pair I concluded to do the unthinkable after just 7.5km of breaking into them. Off we went at 6.30am and after 1hr 38min I was at the 21km mark. On reaching 25 km mark some fans were dishing out baby potatoes and immediately I remembered my maternal grandma who had passed away at the age of 104yrs just less than 24hrs earlier. I remembered how much she loved potatoes and how her meals would not be complete without potatoes!  At that note I got a potato and chewed it in her great honor and loving memory. I also said a prayer for her soul at that point and asked her to forgive me as I was going to miss her funeral ceremony 2 days later.

Getting to the 28km mark was such a nice experience. I guess I eased up my pace after I reached here in 2hr 13min and realized that my target of 4hr 45min was certainly achievable. I got to the Marathon mark in 3hr 28min. After 3hr 53min of non stop running I reached the 46.3km mark (exactly at the peak of Constantia Nek) and guess what!? my Garmin device decided it had experienced enough of the ultra and it went off due to low battery charge. That didn’t affect me much though since I knew I had only 10km to go. I then found myself at 50km in 4hr 16min and literary managed the last 6km with a smile knowing clearly that nothing could stop me from getting that Sainsbury silver medal I so cherished and had trained so hard for. I came home in 4hr 46min 10sec and excited to receive my Sainsbury silver medal. Amazing that I targeted 4hr 45min! My planning and training had worked out to precision. My only regret was that I didn’t push hard in the 2 famous hills especially bearing in mind the amount of hill work I had thrown into my training. I opted for a more cautious pace when it came to the hills. After all, there is always another chance!

My running journey continues and cannot wait for the next challenge. But right now let’s enjoy the achievement of finishing a 1st ultra unscathed and rest these bodies just for a while before pushing hard again.

Cheers n well done once again. Now I know even an ultra is achievable!

Guys, keep running. Running is living.

Running Tales

Two Oceans Ultra Marathon 2014

kimmie two oceans finish pictureIn the weeks leading up to the race, I was definitely feeling more nervous than excited. As soon as we landed in Cape Town, the energy of the city with runners everywhere was contagious, and my nerves calmed down (a little).

On race morning, Sean and I found our corral and stood around with hundreds of other runners. I kept repeating to myself “I’m going to run 35 miles today,” trying to psych myself up. When I went to sync up my GPS watch, it wouldn’t turn on. Panic stricken, I looked at Sean and he laughed. We couldn’t fix it so he handed me his watch. I was really upset that my watch just conked out (I tested it 5 min before and it worked!). I asked Sean, “But what are YOU going to do without a watch!!??”… “I’m going to run,” he said– simple enough. Sean has told me a thousand times to be prepared for the unexpected in an ultra, and this was just a small example of what could happen. But man, I was grateful for his watch.

The beginning of the race was dark and crowded, so I just concentrated on finding my rhythm. People were passing me like crazy, but I tried hard to stick to my own pacing plan. About a mile into the race, I heard someone breathing VERY loudly behind me, and I could hear his cumbersome footsteps. I thought, man it’s too early in the race for that dude to be working so hard! Then he passed me and I noticed he was running on a prosthetic leg. So awesome.

My race strategy was to relax and not think about the total distance of the race. First challenge: Chapman’s Peak at mile 18. I felt strong, thanks to training at altitude (and on hills with the Swaras!), and was able to run almost the entire thing. At one point on the hill, a woman was standing in the bushes playing Mama Mia on the violin! This was not an easily accessible spectator point so she must have hiked up there. Runners applauded her and sang as they went by. The road snakes right along the coast, and we had gorgeous views of the mountains and water the whole time.

The descent was extremely windy, and much tougher than I expected. Luckily, I tucked in with a running club and stuck with them to block the wind on the way down. They were also doing a great call and response cheer: “Yehbo!! (yehbooo) This is easy!! (Easy!) Yehbo! (yehbooo) this is nice nice! (Nice nice!)”– it was exactly what I needed to hear because my legs were tired from the push up, and I needed to remember to enjoy the descent, even though it hurt.

I rolled through Hout Bay, got some coke (my new favorite running fuel), and made it to the marathon mark in 5:03. My goal was to be there between 5:00 and 5:05, so at that point I felt like the plan was coming together and I could finish this thing. The next big test was a steeper hill called Constantia Nek. I walked that hill more than I would have liked, but still felt like my timing was okay.

From the top of Constantia, it’s 6 miles to the finish. Now was time to push. I had to seriously concentrate for the last 4 miles, but then I finally saw the University of Cape Town rugby field. Adrenaline took over; I gunned it to the finish, and heard Sean scream as I ran by.

I finished in 6:50:35– right before the final cutoff of 7 hours. Four years ago, I couldn’t run a mile. Seriously. It is still completely mind-blowing to me that I ran my first ultra… and even crazier that I’m considering longer races in the future.

Sean finished in 5:41, and he had a nice relaxing run without a watch to distract him 🙂

Thanks again for all of your support!