At 16 KM, your brain and body disconnect. Your body doesn’t seem to want stop, even after you severally will it to. You ask yourself why you are doing this again. Your answer? The limbs keep moving, one after the other. You trudge along, and pray for the finish line.
That is what happened when I first ran 21 KM , the 2014 StanChart Nairobi Marathon. That and the fact that marathon running is one of the most individual and loneliest things you will probably ever do in your life. It is so lonely and individual that a simple gesture like a motivational word from a fellow runner appears so gargantuan that you do not forget them. That is why I have to apologise to a fine gentleman whom I had a conversation with in the last moments of my 21 KM Lewa run.
“Very tough.” He murmured, running beside me.
I didn’t respond. I was struggling.
“Very tough.” He repeated.
At this point I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself. I turned to look at him, he looked at me. He was talking to me.
“Very tough.” I intoned.
“Let’s finish this together.” I added.
“Let’s do it together.” He responded.
We ran side by side for a while. Then, a finishing kick.
I don’t know why. I just ran. I forgot about him. Till after the post marathon massage, and I have been feeling sort of wretched, like I lost a moment of forging a strong bond.
So, Antonio Arrrizabaloaga from Cisco, I am sorry. I have since learnt your name from the results sheet. I hope you read this, and the next time you are in Nairobi, if you currently aren’t, you will be kind enough to let me buy you a drink.
Lewa marathon is a trail run, in a conservancy. The geography of the venue has made it one of the most difficult marathons in the world. The average elevation of the marathon course is 5500 feet. Temperatures sometimes hit 30 degrees celsius. They also get as low as 12 degrees. There are two hills, tiny, irrelevant when you drive by them. Imposing, domineering and scorching when running. Interestingly, these same conditions are the marathon’s selling points.
It is unto these conditions you plunge when, on a particular morning, late June of every year since 2000, you respond to the start call at the starting point of the marathon. The first two kilometres are pretty friendly, if you don’t factor in the the crowding around the track that slows your progress unless you are at the frontline at the start of the marathon. You are still under the cover of the some pretty green acacias.
However, you slowly edge away. The crowd breaks up as each individual falls into their own rhythm. You get into your pace and slowly edge into the clear plains, steadily meander up, down, across the conservancy. Slightly golden grass, and scant shrubbery occupy either side of the tracks. These are areas otherwise claimed by wild animals during the other times of the year. Maybe, a lioness dug into a buffalo neck at a spot that was struck by your shoes during the race. Somehow, you are not scared. They all seem distant. Trucks and game rangers dot the track at intervals that you feel like you are perpetually seeing them. Helicopters and a spotter plane, that had earlier helped push the animals to the edge of the reserve, constantly fly over the conservancy, with a particular bias over the tracks.
Water stations are plenty, the distance between them growing shorter as your distance piles up. It all makes sense as the marathon unfolds. As you move away from the friendly starting point, everything is changing as well, the early morning conditions start to give way to the mid morning conditions, which seem harsher. The sun seems to rise quicker. It seems to be chasing you. A friend of mine who had been having a good time the previous night was so motivated to run away from the sun that he clocked a very impressive time for the half marathon.
You start noticing those around you: The guys who breathes loudly, the really competitive guy who isn’t comfortable with anyone passing him, although he ends up being the one left behind. He particularly gets competitive when a lady gains on us, aggressively runs beside her, almost tripping her.
You notice the rhino with its young one down below. You later hear that they moved to the tracks and runners had to be stopped as they were being driven off the track. Of course, there were a lot of selfies being taken.
The second part of the race is more about you battling with yourself as it is about you battling the course. Your feet grow uncomfortable in your shoes. You seriously entertain the thought of you taking them off. Your body starts screaming at being pushed beyond its limits. Your movements are more mechanical than deliberate. You trudge along, severally asking yourself why you are doing this. You wonder whether it could have been different had you trained harder. You know it could have been, the good form you are experiencing so far is due to training.
I had done some good training in the period leading up to the race. But my knee had popped at one point which had me sit out for eight weeks. So, during the race, I was worried, listening for the slightest complaint from the knee. It started to appear at 16KM, I ordered the knee to behave. It did for the rest of the race.
The last three kilometres were the hardest for me. I staved off several temptations to quit. My lungs were already adapted but my legs were not feeling this thing. Ironical, considering that section of the trail was friendlier, shaded, greener and I could hear the music and the cheers from the finishing point. Eventually, I saw the “to the finishing point” sign for the 21KM.
For 42 KM? Turn right. You have to go round the loop twice. Twice!!!??? That punishing terrain, in those conditions! The 42KMs, I believe, is the reason why Lewa Marathon is referred to as gruelling and punishing, not challenging. Challenging is reserved for the 21KM. 21 KM alone can drive you bonkers; someone stopped right on the tracks and broke into a war cry, in Chinese. Another one stopped, and then suddenly fell face down and rolled for sometime. It pushes you. That is why it attracts the daring, the crazy, those who don’t really understand it or those who just want to test the limits. Like the army guys who ran 21KM in full gear, carrying loads of 20kg. Or the character who was asking for beer instead of water at water points.
I was more than glad to finish the 21 KM, in good time; sub two hours. That was my target. I felt extremely accomplished for the whole week after the marathon. I hope to be back next year to shave several minutes off my time.
Images by Eleanor Marchant