On the Sidelines of the Safaricom Marathon

It has been 20 years since the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy hosted its first Safaricom Marathon. The inaugural event was a comparatively low key affair, with just 180 runners taking part. Among them was Dave Buzza, who became the first and only British national to win the race. So a lot has changed in 20 years. The marathon is now considered to be among the world’s most iconic, and challenging, sporting events. Over 20,000 people have taken part, raising more than Kshs 750 million for conservation and community development initiatives across Kenya.

There was a perceptible buzz around the 20th edition of the Safaricom Marathon this year, which took place last Saturday. The majority of the competitors and spectators filtered into their campsites on Friday as usual, transforming Lewa’s southern swamp into a hive of activity and anticipation.

For the second year in a row, I opted to join team ‘TumeLEWAaa’, formed by Weldon Kennedy – the co-founder of Kenyan running shoe brand Enda. Unlike last year, though, I was only attending as a spectator and not as a runner. After staggering across the finish line of the half marathon last year, I was determined to come back and improve my time, but since then I’ve only run a total distance of about 5km. So I thought it best to join the 4,000 other spectators cheering on from the sidelines.

Either side of the race, too, both spectators and runners have the chance to self-drive around the conservancy. Lewa usually has restrictions on the types of vehicles permitted within the conservancy, and the lodges are expensive. So for one weekend at the end of June every year, Lewa grants its visitors affordable access to its landscapes and its wildlife. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

After a hearty dinner and an early night, we all emerged from our tents to a chilly morning on race day. At the start line a few hundred metres away, the MC led a zumba warm-up session, and the wildlife-herding choppers circled overhead. Shortly after the race started, we jumped into our cars and navigated the dusty tracks towards a spectator point at the 13km mark of the course. It was at this point last year that I really began to struggle, so I knew the runners could do with the extra support.

‘Look, it’s the first lady!’, a woman shouted, as a cameraman on a motorbike flashed by. I turned my head, and for a brief second expected to see Margaret Kenyatta trailing the bike at full pelt. It wasn’t the First Lady, it was the leader of the women’s full marathon race. Mrs Kenyatta was actually taking part, but in the 5km race.

We then weaved our way back down to the finish line, and found that our team had done exceptionally well. There’s no official prize for it, but TumeLEWAaa’s own Alan Davidson and Jessie Webster were the quickest mzungus in the men’s full and women’s half marathon races. We also watched in awe as the ForRangers team jogged past in formation, carrying heavy rifles and backpacks.

Later that afternoon, once the runners had recovered, we convoyed north in search of a good sundowner spot. Along the way we drove through a 200-strong herd of buffaloes, and past large herds of Grevy’s zebras and oryx. We stumbled across hyena dens, and spotted black and white rhinos. Then, completely by accident, we found Pombe Rock – an incredible viewpoint overlooking the Isiolo Valley. In a haze of golden light, a herd of elephants wandered across the plain below. It was a fitting finale to another memorable marathon weekend in Lewa.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation