A nun looms over me, dressed in full habit, and starts to pummel my thighs in a punishing massage. Nearby my friend Kaz is lying on a hay bale, face contorted in pain, as another nun digs her knuckles into his calves.
We’re in the middle of a safari conservancy just north of the equator. And we’ve just run 26 miles. It “only” took 5 hours 35 minutes and I didn’t get lapped once!
Thinking back over those five or so hours is as surreal as the sports massage. After many, many months of training and slogging to get ready for the Lewa marathon, I can’t believe it can really be over so “fast”. Can I really have been running for half a day?
To be honest, I don’t know how to describe it. From the early 5:30 am wake-up call to scoff peanut butter and jam sandwiches, to congregating on the start line in the hazy golden morning, to watching the helicopters hover overhead scouting for any elephants, lions and buffalo that might be trying out the track in front of us, to the Masai MC reeling off the names of corporate sponsors; it was unlike any event I’ve taken part in before. And I loved it. Seriously loved it. Wanted-to-go-again-as-soon-as-I’d-finished loved it. All despite the fact I couldn’t talk and still can’t walk properly two days later.
Bear with me and I’ll try explain the enthusiasm…
Being billed as the one of the hardest marathons in the world at an average altitude of 1750m with temperatures reaching 30 C – and in a rather obscure location – there were just 1300 runners limbering up at the start line and only 122 of us went on to complete the full distance. At 7am the sun was already high in the clear blue sky, dotted with tiny planes and helicopters checking for animals as there would be no fences between the track and some rather awesome predators…
I squeezed myself to the front of the pack keen to check out the sinewy and impressive Kenyan athletes, among them the winner who would go on to complete the marathon in a mere 2 hours 14 minutes. I found myself stood between the defending half marathon champion, too tense and concentrated to crack out any dance moves like his buddies, and a tiny man of 84 years named Robert who had run the race every year since it started. This extraordinary man came to be my pace setter for the first 13 miles and ran with a British flag on his head, a Kenyan flag in his hand and a look of peaceful determination.
Spot Where’s Wally!
The course consists of two meandering laps that go up hill and down vale through a stunning, golden Savannah landscape and before the race you would have heard me be one of the first to complain that having to go round the same track twice didn’t seem like it would be much fun psychologically. But how wrong was I!
The first time round the temperature was gently warm and the path ahead full of runners. The light was crisp and sharp in that uniquely African way that makes everything look like it has been etched by a fine needle. Every 3km or so there were amazingly well stocked water stations with brilliant volunteers cheering you on, proffering an array of drinks and oranges and squeezing cool water sponges down your back. Even more awesome were the “misting stations” with finely sprayed water that did little to cool down your core temperature but gave you a little high, like a hyped-up version of the joy of dancing in the rain.
For the majority of the first 13 miles I felt like I was flying. Unfortunately I’d lost the team before the start but there were plenty of interesting characters around. I ran with Robert, the 84 year old, and marvelled at his speed then chuckled as he cracked out some dance moves for five very well-camouflaged soldiers sitting on a tree at mile 11. I came across a man running BARE FOOT. Not barefoot as in wearing swanky, very thin running shoes that simulate being barefoot. I mean totally bare foot. On a dusty, rocky, off-road track. Then there were the twins who had me confused about how I was being overtaken repeatedly until I realised they were different people.
The second lap could have been a different race entirely. By now the sun was beating down upon us – the few that remained. The light had gone hazy and bleached the gold to white. The track ahead and behind was almost empty and for miles at a time I wouldn’t see anyone except for at the water stations where the volunteers had tracked down our names from our race numbers and cheered us on personally.
Lap two was also when the pain set in. Having not run for around a month the inevitable happened and my muscles seized up. My run became a shuffle and while the first lap took me just over two hours, the second took three and a half… But it was incredible. With fewer runners on the track the animals came out to have a peek at the goings on. At one point the horizon was full of giraffe. At another, a zebra trotted across the track in front of me before cantering off into the bush.
So hard was it to take in the vastness of the landscape that at points I just stood and stared, no longer caring about finishing times, already sad to think I might never do this again.
But eventually it was over and the rest of the team trickled in over the finish line full of their own stories: elephants re-grouping on the horizon as the track quietened; being lapped and not really caring – in fact marvelling – the super speedy Kenyan winners who were completing their second lap as Morvs and Kaz approached the half way point; comparing which miles marked the transition from ability to run, to jog, to shuffle then, finally, to limp; the hills; the love/ hate relationship with Isotonic water; the best water station volunteers and the crowd who cheered us on “for the last few kilometres”… whose faces changed to pity when they realised we had a full more lap to go.
But how wrong were they! Lap two might have been more painful but I wouldn’t have skipped it for anything.
Thanks Team SBS for making it what it was. You did bloody good.