So, you work in the city, you do some running, you do the 5k Park run most Saturdays. Then someone in the company offers you a place on the team for the Safari Marathon, in Kenya – and you accept. The adventure begins.
For the overseas runners it is an unforgettable, almost magical experience. It is like a dream, but real. You have had an eight-hour flight, a night in the Norfolk hotel and a drive through the teeming traffic-choked streets of Nairobi to Wilson airport. Then you are on a small plane and the outskirts of the city give way to ridged hills and streams, farmland, a patchwork of little shambas growing maize, beans and bananas. The land becomes dryer, you can see Mount Kenya looming up, and then you are bumping down onto a red earth strip. Nothing is familiar. There are no streets, there is no tarmac; you are running on dirt trails, some dusty, some hard-packed red murrum. You are sleeping in a tent, looking out through thorn-trees onto the plain. Not far away you can see giraffe and impala, beyond that dry volcanic hills stretching away towards the North, to the Sudan and towards Ethiopia. At night there is total darkness, total silence, broken only by the cry of a jackal or the snorting of buffalo.
Of course, it is the fear of the unknown which makes the event so challenging and so attractive to runners from outside Kenya – and equally so for the large number of city-based Kenyans, for whom this is a once-a-year experience. Although we try to reassure the runners that every possible precaution is taken – a spotter plane in the air at all times, a helicopter circling the course to drive away elephants, armed rangers every few hundred metres, these precautions only seem to emphasize that a risk exists.
So, there is the altitude, the animals, the hills, and the dust – and there is the sun, for Kenya is on the Equator. The night before, drinking a Tusker beer with your mates, beside the camp fire, you felt pretty heroic, but walking down to the start line at 6.30, you don’t feel quite as brave. You are glad that you are in the half marathon and not having to go round a second time.
The scene at the start is one that you never forget. The air is crisp, because the sun has just risen and there is no heat in yet, but it lights up the plain and the thorn trees, and on the Southern horizon you can see snow gleaming on the peaks of Mount Kenya. Packed on the start line are a hundred and fifty schoolchildren, lined up for their 5k run, barely held in check by a line of rangers. Behind them is a motley crowd. There are maybe fifty elite Kenyan runners, very thin, very serious. A high placing here can change their lives. There are a hundred or more serious runners from overseas, for whom this race, ranked as one of the world’s toughest marathons, is another notch in the belt, and there are another nine hundred in the Half, some of whom will take five hours or more.
If you are a serious runner, of whatever ability, the first few kilometres are deceptively easy, and you concentrate on getting into a nice rhythm and finding space to run. The dirt track is good to run on, but not very wide. There are markers at every kilometre, so you can check your speed. You climb a little to the 5K feeding station, then have a nice run down into the valley. There are drinks at every 2.5 km, so you take more water to get ready for the climb. After 8km it starts to get tough – a winding staircase, over a mile long. This is where you really feel the effects of the mile-high altitude. When you reach the 10k station there are views in every direction, craggy hill-tops, more thorn trees, distant mountains – maybe some grazing antelope or zebra – but no cars, no tarmac. This is the time to enjoy being in this place, in this moment. You have a long slog to the finish, and you won’t get a fast time, but when you do make it back to the safety of the encampment, the crowds, the medal, the goody bags and the cold beer, you know that you have lived. You have done something quite unique.
Open Gallery4 Images
By Bruce Tulloh
Bruce Tulloh, who started the Safaricom Marathon in 2000, is a former British and European 5000m champion. He also set a record for the Los Angeles to New York in 1969 and is the author of many books on running and fitness.