“Looking good, mzungu, looking strong,” cries a band of beanpole-framed Kenyans on the dirt track ahead, their beaming grins as wide as their outstretched, waving arms. As the only mzungu (white person) in sight, their praise is flattering, if a tad generous; panting hard and sweating profusely while trudging up a hill, I’m hardly at my best.
Setting out on foot across an African wilderness of flat-topped acacia trees on a sea of golden grass, with roaming wildlife, glorious sunshine and piercing blue skies, is a privilege but it’s also a gruelling, surreal punishment and I’ve only got myself to blame. Fearlessly — or foolishly — I’ve signed up to run 42km across the scorched, undulating hills of Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, with temperatures pushing 30C at the lung-bursting altitude of 5,500ft. A stroll in the savannah, this isn’t.
Kenya’s annual Safaricom Marathon is organised by the conservation charity Tusk and lures over 1,000 runners from more than 20 countries to not only raise vital funds for local conservation and community projects but compete in one of the toughest races on the planet on the stomping ground of some of the world’s fastest runners.
A protected 62,000-acre wildlife sanctuary, Lewa is home to many of East Africa’s most endangered species, and, for one day in June, herds of runners, who can be observed migrating across two 21km loops. I could have opted to run just one lap but I’d convinced my ego that half-measures were for amateurs. If I was flying thousands of miles to run alongside elite Kenyan athletes over epic African plains, then only a full marathon would cut it.
Approaching the halfway point, I begin to question this logic, doubting a decision I optimistically made months ago while sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned office in London. The steady procession of runners I’ve happily kept company with since the starting gun suddenly all turn left towards the finish line while I hesitantly turn right to run another 21,000 metres. It feels oddly deserted as I cross the start line again with the cool, crisp dawn a distant memory and the sun cranking up its searing heat. A couple of hours ago this place was heaving with runners and spectators while music, microphone announcers and circling helicopters ratcheted up the excitement.
But now it’s just me. I look back to see if anyone’s following but the only signs of life are two gun-wielding rangers, nestled in the shrubs, evidently more interested in encroaching big cats than cheerleading runners. I resist the urge to stop and ask where the hell everyone is — I later learn only 10% of participants run the full Lewa marathon — telling myself to focus, to keep going and finish this race before the heat becomes unbearable.
I also try assuring myself that, now safely past the halfway point, I’m virtually on the home straight, with every stride one step closer to the end. But the fact is I’m running back over a road already travelled, only this time with rapidly dwindling energy and enthusiasm. After running close to 25km it’s like I’ve made no progress at all. The ground feels drier and sandier, while the once cool breeze has vanished leaving my exposed skin to wilt in the savage heat. This marathon is only just beginning.
The road to Lewa
The journey from Nairobi to Lewa had been a six-hour, bumpy drive up-country but the real journey has taken six months. As any marathoner will tell you, the race itself can be one of the most physically and mentally trying things you’ll ever do but the hard graft comes in the days, weeks and months of training. With a handful of marathons under my belt, I knew the myriad demands of training, but the prospect of attempting one at altitude, and in high temperatures, was a whole other beast. To competently survive 42km across the high African plains I’d have to take things up a gear.
The long road to Lewa began in the cold, dark days of December in the run-up to Christmas. It was the season of indulgence but my sights were already fixed on June and making the starting line in decent form. Fast forward to April, with a running average of 50 miles a week following regular 10k races and a ‘warm up’ marathon in Brighton, I was confident I could run among some of Kenya’s most promising runners without looking like a maimed, stumbling impala.
But hearing cautions about Lewa’s punishing hills and altitude, I needed something extra to prepare me for the draining effects of breathing less oxygen. London might not have any mountains but it is does have the London Altitude Centre, a specialist training facility housing a sealed hypoxic chamber whose oxygen level is reduced to simulate being at altitude. After a six-week programme of high-intensity treadmill runs and courses of intermittent hypoxic exposure — a technique involving breathing shorts bursts of mountain air through a mask — I was itching to put all the training to the test.
Come race day I’m up at the ungodly hour of 5am with just enough time to wolf down some porridge, bananas, a couple of energy gels and as much water as my bladder can hold before walking the short distance from camp to starting line, where a motley crew of runners is gathering, from bleary-eyed Brits and pumped-up Americans to long-limbed Kenyan elites and villagers in clapped-out trainers.
With a 7.15am start time, I barely have time to do a few warm-up stretches before the gun sounds and all hell breaks loose. The packed crowd surges forward with runners frantically finding their feet amid a sea of lashing legs. I try to stick to my plan of starting steady before building speed but adrenalin and pent-up energy prove too much, forcing me to sprint ahead. Thankfully, the mass of bodies soon disperses, allowing me to settle into a comfortable stride over the first 5km, while desperately trying not to buckle on the rubbly road. I think of the nimble Kenyan athletes I’d watched warming up, gracefully stroking the ground with their forefeet, and keep my steps quick and light, making as little sound as I can.
A third of the way into the first lap, with the course set to climb for an eye-watering 7km, I’m confident I’ve built a decent level of altitude fitness. My pace slows slightly to adjust to the long climb ahead but still I’m sailing up the hill, passing dozens of already struggling runners. I was worried I’d find it tough on the ascents, with my lungs gasping for air, but I’m surprisingly relaxed, and for the first time appreciate the setting. With the soaring peaks of Mount Kenya and Ol Lolokwe overlooking the vast bushveld and rolling valley, it’s hard to imagine a more breathtaking place to run. Scarlet-chested sunbirds chatter in the trees, untroubled antelope graze in the sun and far in the distance zebra forage the plentiful scrubland. Perhaps, like me, they’re happy knowing Lewa’s predatory cats have moved on for now. Runner safety is paramount, so the course is watched over by helicopters, which drop down low if necessary to move on some of the conservancy’s more imposing creatures.
Ironic, really, because these creatures are one of the main reasons I’ve come here. Over the past 15 years, the Safaricom Marathon has raised over US$4m (£2.4m) for a range of conservation and community projects, from helping replenish a black rhino population destroyed by poachers to building new classrooms and facilities for thousands of schoolchildren. Since the event’s founding in 2000, these worthy causes, plus the chance to run wild over an iconic African landscape, have captured the imagination of runners the world over.
Over the wall
The first lap of the course is a happy blur of sun, sweat, sand and shuffling feet with spectator cheers providing welcome bursts of support to us runners as we charge through water stations. It’s only when I’m alone on the second round that I realise I’m starting to struggle. My legs feel sluggish and heavy, as if my feet are turning to stone in the baking heat, while a growing tiredness swamps me. My gentle patter of feet has turned to thuds and each swing of my arms feels limp and laboured, reducing the run to a churning grind.
Delirium might be setting in but at 30km I’m certain nature is conspiring against me. The hills grow steeper, the energy-sapping earth turns to rock, the sun burns hotter by the second and the high air is running out of oxygen. I need a boost fast. I reach into my pocket and pull out two energy gels, ripping them open to suck out every last drop of the sickly sweet gloop, praying they inject new life into my crumbling body.
It might only be less than 10km to the finish line but, reduced to a slow jog, the 1km markers seem further apart then ever. A torrent of emotions and self-doubt floods my mind. How did I end up in Kenya? Why am I doing this? What’s the point in running? Why don’t I just stop? I haven’t just hit the wall; I’ve slammed into it like a hurtling crash-test dummy.
In danger of being physically and psychologically beaten I empty my head and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Speed and time are irrelevant — just getting to 42km will be a triumph. I take long, exaggerated breaths, filling my lungs with as much air as I can take, and imagine my arms as pistons driving me forward as the burning road stretches on. If I stop now, I may never start again.
Focusing on form seems to work as I push on through another series of steep climbs, summoning up every last ounce of energy and willpower. Water stations provide vital hydration and support from the few remaining spectators — charging me up for the next section of parched track. At 39km I feel a wave of joy but also a pang of doom for the 3,000m still to go. It’s all downhill from here towards the Lewa swamp and finish line but progress is slow, with my legs stiffening like tree trunks and breathing reduced to feeble wheezes. Turning a sharp corner I startle a gang of baboons in the bushes. They scream and jump; their flushed red bums in the air. I can’t work out if they’re running away or giving chase but the commotion gives me a hit of adrenalin for the last mile.
After a succession of twists and turns obscured by trees and shrubs, I turn a final corner to see a crowd willing me over the arched finish line. I sprint the remaining metres before my buckling legs grind to a halt. It’s over. I’ve finished. I’m done.
I check my watch to see I’ve clocked a time of four hours 29 minutes, over an hour slower than my normal pace, but I’m just relieved I don’t have to run any more. I stagger towards the recovery tent, where endorphin-flooded runners offer hugs and high-fives among collapsed bodies on bales of hale. The air is thick with sweat and muscle rub. Jubilant crowds are everywhere, enjoying music, dancing and food stations before the eagerly awaited prize-giving, but it’s all a little too much. Exhausted and dazed I head back to the Run Wild Kenya camp to quietly reflect on the day’s events with an ice-cold beer.
Relaxing with fellow runners, the mood is jubilant as we chat about the dominance of Kenyan running and the beauty of the landscape we’ve just traversed. And with an African safari seen as a once-in-a-lifetime experience I look ahead to the coming days where I’ll be treated to epic game viewing and luxury at the Aberdare National Park’s The Ark resort and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s Sweetwaters Serena Camp. But a marathon safari, running 26.2 gruelling but glorious miles through a private reserve where the only living things sharing the wide-open space with you are wild animals, will sure take some beating.
Kenya Tourist Board. magicalkenya.com
Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn. RRP: £11.99 (Faber & Faber)
How to do it
Sports Tours International offers a six-night Safaricom Marathon package from 25 June-1 July with one night in Nairobi, a night at The Ark in the Aberdares, two nights camping in Lewa with Run Wild Kenya and two nights at Samburu National Park, from £1,329 per person, based on two sharing, including full-board accommodation and ground transfers. Excludes flights. For additional nights, rooms at the Nairobi Serena Hotel cost from $240 (£149) a night, with breakfast. A stay at the Sweetwaters Serena Camp costs from $280 (£174) a night, full-board including one game drive.
London Altitude Centre offer fitness sessions from £29.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)