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The Safaricom marathon 26.2 miles in the Kenyan bush

12:00 7th June 2013 By Jacob Thrall
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When it comes to marathons, Kenyan athletes tend not hang around. If you cast a quick eye over the official top ten list of best ever marathon times, you’ll notice that most of them were posted by Kenyans. If there was going to be a sporting event in Kenya to raise funds for a good cause, then there was always a fair chance it would be a marathon.

Running though the epic scenery of the African plains. Photo: Neil Thomas

Running though the epic scenery of the African plains.
Photo: Neil Thomas

The annual Safaricom Marathon takes place over two loops of a 21km course – which naturally lends itself very well to the half marathon too – and as well as being a major event on the Kenyan sporting calendar, it now draws athletes from all across the world.

So, what makes it so special?

Besides the immense amount of good work done by the charities who benefit from the funds raised, what really sets the Safaricom apart for the competitor is that it takes place within the bounds of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, 140 miles north of Nairobi. As well as making a truly stunning backdrop to the race, Lewa is home to a pretty impressive list of creatures you’d be unlikely to encounter on, say, the London or New York marathons. A list of creatures which includes, in no particular order, buffalo, elephants, rhinos, lions and leopards.

Oh, they have armed patrols and aerial surveillance during the event to keep things nice and safe but still, the thought that you’re sharing the course with a leopard could be responsible for some pretty quick times being posted…

Not Just A Race

It began back in 2000, when the race had 180 entrants and managed to raise $50, 000 – which goes a fair way in Kenya – but since then it’s grown massively. Last year’s race saw 1000 runners competing, and raised an impressive $574,000, which goes an awful lot further. Though the race may be an unusual opportunity for runners to compete in incredible surroundings, this fundraising is what’s really behind it, and to date the event has raised over $3.8 million.

This total has been used for a variety of projects, not least Lewa itself. Originally a 5,000 acre portion of land set aside from a ranch as a rhino sanctuary in 1983, it proved so successful that by the mid ‘90s the entire ranch was dedicated to wildlife conservation, and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy came into being. Nowadays their work extends to community development, healthcare, water management, and a range of other schemes: without the support of local people, the original goal of wildlife conservation would have some massive hurdles to clear.

The race itself is organised by Tusk Trust, a UK based charity which, as well as supporting Lewa, runs dozens of projects throughout Africa. Like Lewa, their holistic approach to conservation extends a long way beyond simply offering sanctuary to the local wildlife. It’s not just a question of setting aside land and providing well equipped rangers to protect it: Tusk also build schools, clinics, roads, roads and airstrips, as well as buying vehicles and aircraft that use them.

The Main Event

So, the causes for which the race raises funds are undoubtedly excellent but, on the day, what can the runner expect of the race?

There’s the distance, of course, but that’s pretty much a given. If you run marathons, then you know you’ve got to cover 26 miles. Not everyone who runs marathons will necessarily feel ready for a 7am start though! If you’re not really a morning person then your body clock may complain about this, but it does make sense to get going before the heat of the day is at its most oppressive.

Ah yes, the heat. The temperatures may be as low as 12-15°C in the morning, but they climb to more like 35°C when the sun really hits the sky. There are water stations every 2.5km around the course but that doesn’t change the fact that if you’re not used to this sort of heat, it can feel pretty overwhelming. Especially as the course is at about 5,500 feet above sea level, which is not something it’s possible to achieve in the UK without flying, so unless you’ve taken the time to get yourself well acclimatised, it will feel even more exhausting.

As far as the terrain goes, the ups and downs are not as severe as those experienced by mountain marathon specialists, and the dirt roads may feel more forgiving on the joints than the murderous tarmac nemesis of the road runner, but loose-surfaced miles of undulating, dusty savannah can nevertheless take their toll. Like all elements of the race, if it’s unfamiliar, it’s something else for your body to adjust to and it clicks the challenge up another notch.

At least they're not to eat you. Photo: Neil Thomas

At least they’re not to eat you. Photo: Neil Thomas

That’s the name of the game…

So, to the elephant in the room. Sorry about that, but if you can’t say “elephant in the room” when it’s a real, actual elephant, then when can you say it?! The raison d’être of the land through which you’ll be running is to provide a safe environment for thousands of wild animals and this is, of course, what makes it so exciting! If all you wanted to do was run 20-odd miles in sweltering heat, well, you could put a treadmill next to a radiator. No, the draw is the prospect of seeing giraffes graze the sweet leaves from the tops of acacia trees. Of seeing the majestic elephants, trunks swinging idly as they watch your loping strides eat up the hazy scrubland. Maybe somewhere, a distant voice starts to sing Hakuna Matata…

It’s easy to get rather romantic about it all, but the chances are you will see that sort of stuff. It’s an incredible place to be. As if all that wasn’t enough, the very fact that you’re there and taking part means you’re helping to ensure it stays that way.

If the proximity of the local fauna sounds a bit daunting though, you need not be too worried. As mentioned before, there are armed rangers, planes and choppers about for the duration of the race so you won’t actually find yourself in the position of having to outrun a lion. Lions aren’t that picky. You just need to outrun a slower athlete…

The Facts

The Safaricom Marathon

Distance:

  • Full marathon: 42.2km
  • Half marathon: 21.2km (marginally more than half due to the shape of the course)

Record Time:

  • Full marathon: 2.19:04
  • Half marathon: 65 minutes

Typical Time:

Times can vary with the conditions on the day: more cloud cover means less oppressively hot temperatures, and so better times. At this altitude you can expect to run at least a minute per mile slower than you do at sea level.

  • Full marathon: 4 to 5 hours. Very few people – aside from the elite Kenyans – ever manage it inside 3 hours. There’s a 3 hours 20 minutes cut off point too: anybody slower than this around the first lap will not be allowed onto the second.
  • Half marathon: enormous variation! From a little over an hour to upwards of 4 hours.

Difficulty:

Take the Quiz! Are you:

a)     Kenyan?

b)     Ethiopian?

c)     Other?

If you answered mostly a) score 1/10, mostly b) score 2/10, or mostly c) score 9/10.

Seriously though, probably about 6/10 if you’re properly trained and acclimatised, but keep counting if not.

Overview

As mentioned, the distance and the height gain aren’t the most major of undertakings for anyone well versed in marathon running, and there’s no need for the navigation and routefinding associated with adventure races. Nevertheless, this is a challenge, and one which is heightened by the altitude, the heat and the pepper mites chomping at your ankles. Animals rather larger than that can make it more interesting too, of course! This is an opportunity to not only experience this incredible landscape and move among the creatures which are fortunate enough to call it home, but to be a part of conserving it.

Whether you do it for the sport, for the cause, or both, the sense of achievement will be immeasurable.

When is it?

This year’s race is on 29th June, but registration is now closed. There’s always next year…

What do I need

Running gear for hot conditions, obviously, and shoes suitable for dirt roads. In addition to that, make sure you’ve got decent amounts of decent sun-protection. Sorry to keep banging on about this, but this is direct, high-altitude, equatorial sunlight. Staying protected from it is massively important.

Make sure you’ve got insect-repellent too. The natural remedies, unfortunately, are not as effective as the harsher chemical ones. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine reckons DEET to be one of the most effective repellents available: take DEET.

How to prepare

Marathon training advice fills countless books, web forums, magazine articles and online tutorials, so we shan’t attempt to add to that here. As always though, don’t just run, try to train for this event. Acclimatisation to the heat and the altitude is the tricky bit of course. If you can’t get experience in-country, then maybe you could get yourself on a course of hypoxic treatment at an altitude training centre, to kid your body into thinking it’s in a more rarefied atmosphere.

There are medical concerns you’ll need to think about too, especially if you’re intending to stay longer in East Africa and not just fly out, race and fly home again. Speak to your GP about malaria prophylaxis, yellow fever and other associated jabs.

Similar events

South Africa’s Big Five Marathon: If you get a taste for running through an African game park, then this may be worth a look. It’s more of a safari holiday with a marathon thrown in, so it’s not really the same feel, but as an activity it’s certainly comparable.

Further Info

Safaricom.co.ke: The official site, for all things Safaricom Marathon.

Lewa.org: Where it all happens. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, with info about the location, as well as their work and their history.

Tusk: The race organisers, with their fingers in about as many African charity pies as is possible.

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