Running Wild at the Safaricom Marathon

Of all my athletic pursuits in school, long-distance running was unquestionably my least favourite. One year, in an effort to sit out a cross-country race at St Andrews, Turi, I informed our coach that I’d forgotten my kit. The plan failed, and after a trip to lost property, I was forced to compete in a flimsy 3-inch pair of running shorts. My aversion to the sport gradually faded, though, and running is now surprisingly something that I do voluntarily. To the absolute horror of my lazy adolescent self, I even signed up for this year’s Safaricom Marathon, which took place in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy last weekend.

Having only ever run the StanChart Nairobi half marathon, I was up for a new challenge and, from what I had heard, Lewa was a challenge unlike any other. Runners zigzag across open plains and undulating hills at an altitude of 1,700m, with temperatures pushing 30°C. Those brave enough to take on the full 42km marathon complete two gruelling laps of the course, while the vast majority (myself included) settle for just one. Challenge aside, I also couldn’t resist the thought of running within such a spectacular conservancy, and alongside the wildlife that inhabits it.

The marathon is jointly organised by Lewa and Tusk Trust, and the funds raised help to provide a safe refuge for black and southern white rhinos, elephants, Grevy’s zebras and other iconic wildlife species. Since its inception in 2000, the marathon has raised over Kshs 700 million for conservation and community development.

Once I’d bitten the bullet and signed up, I had to train, and this was made considerably more enjoyable by joining a team. I opted to join 60 others in team ‘Tumelewaaa’ (see what they did there?) led by Weldon Kennedy, the co-founder of Kenyan running shoe brand Enda. As a group we organised runs in Karura Forest and other interesting places, which eased the chore of waking up at 6am five days a week to train.

Weldon had competed in the Safaricom Marathon on numerous occasions, and knew a good spot for our campsite come race weekend. Hordes of runners and spectators congregate in campsites by the Lewa Swamp the day before the race, so it was important to book a spot close enough to the start line. We also needed to ensure that all 60 of us were well fed for the marathon, so we hired the fantastic Philos Outdoor Adventure (POA) to cater for us all weekend.

My 5am alarm signalled the arrival of race day, and the rest of the Tumelewaaa runners gradually emerged from their tents in their matching green Enda shirts. After a paltry bread and peanut butter breakfast, we all made our way towards the start line; my stomach churning with pre-race apprehension. Over a loudspeaker in the distance, the MC led a warm up session for the kids race, and the slapping blades of the wildlife-herding choppers reverberated overhead.

As we shuffled closer to the start line, I swallowed the first of my energy gels, and set up my watch to get a GPS lock. After a countdown the First Lady waved us off, and 1,400 runners surged forward and filtered into the narrow, dusty track in front of us. I heeded the advice of my teammates and jostled for space on the track early on, so that the first few kilometres weren’t too congested.

We emerged from the swamp and the course cut straight across the adjacent plain. As the mass of adrenaline-filled bodies eventually dispersed, and the landscape opened out, I found it hard to imagine a more breathtaking place to run. Before the trials of the race had really begun, I was envious of those full marathoners who would find themselves completely alone in this environment on the second lap – with nothing but the sound of their feet padding on the loose dust, and with whatever animals that dotted the plain for company.

This ridiculous urge to do two laps quickly faded though, as we snaked down into the Sirikoi Valley, and reached the first significant climb of the course at the 9km mark. My pace slowed and never really picked up again as I traversed the series of short, steep climbs and long, steady ascents that lay waiting over the next 7km. The trail finally swept downhill again for the final 5km, but by this point my legs felt sluggish and heavy, and my exhaustion was compounded by the searing heat.

I grabbed Lucozade, sponges and everything else handed to me at the last few water stations, and patches of shade along the final stretch provided intermittent relief for the burning soles of my feet. Encouraged by the cheer of spectators ahead, I dug deep and staggered across the finish line. I can’t remember suffering more, but I’ll certainly be back next year to suffer again.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

Photo by Eli Decker