A few weeks ago I began my Kenyan journey unfit and out of shape and in desperate need of some motivation. Now as I sit at the airport waiting to return to South Africa I feel like a runner, perhaps not quite yet at the Kenyan level, but a runner nonetheless, which after a year filled with injuries and disappointments, is a very comforting place to be. It’s incredible that a few weeks of consistent training in the right environment can bring about such a shift in outlook – both mentally and physically.
I can honestly say that whilst I may still not be running as fluidly the East Africans I most definitely did my utmost to blend in and feel like one of the locals. In fact, if you discount my ability to run like a Kenyan you would be surprised at how well I learnt to fit in…
In the first week to compensate for my lack of fitness I braided my hair. I felt that this not only helped me to feel like a local but it was also a very practical way to focus on what I was here to do – train. No more fussing about hair ties and ponytails – just get up and run.
As I got progressively fitter (which I measured in terms of not needing to take walk breaks up the hills) I attempted to tag onto some of the local groups. This became somewhat of an interval session which can be described as follows: Run along waiting for the ground to start shaking in anticipation of the pack of Kenyans out on a group run… prepare yourself for the speed. As the group engulfs you attempt to stay in the group. Note how heavily you are breathing whilst they are clearly enjoying an easy run. Anticipate a few stares followed by a few cheers as they realise and appreciate the exertion. Start to fall off the group and give it all as the back of the group shouts “come, come” whilst tapping their legs in the way you get a dog to heel. Have a walk break and watch the group disappear into the distance. Start jogging whilst you wait for the next group and repeat the process. Whilst playing this rather fun game of “Running Like the Kenyans” I thought it would be great fun to share it and took out my phone to take some pictures. I took a picture and a spectacular tumble from which not even my braided hair could restore my dignity. I was literally left in a pile of dust and shame but at least I had a photo with which I can cherish that memory forever.
After my first week I started feeling adventurous and decided to take some new routes and use my Garmin Navigation tool to get me back home. The Garmin “Back to start” feature on my watch is pretty awesome and will guide you back on the same route from which you came with a dotted line. As all the roads and scenery looks so similar it would be rather easy to take a wrong turn and get lost without this feature so it made exploring possible, without the fear of getting lost, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At some point however, I started to get frustrated with the out and back routes and decided to attempt to create a loop course. In this case I would use the “Straight line” Garmin navigation tool that just provides an arrow in the direction one should head to return back to ones starting point as well as the distance (in a straight line) which one is away from that point.
During my last week I had a 22km run planned and decided to put my own navigation skills to the test. This was a bad decision. I thought I had a pretty good idea of the direction the roads were heading in and had visualized this large 22km loop in my head as a trotted along the open dirt roads enjoying the freedom and beautiful scenery. From about 18km I started to look out for familiar landmarks. At 20km I realized I had no idea where I was. It was time for Garmin to step in and lead the way home. I stopped and loaded the navigation “Straight line” tool on my watch and to my horror was informed that I was more than 10km away from my starting point and had clearly been running away from the start rather than towards it. I took a few moments to compose myself and then turned around and followed the arrow all the way back home. I rewarded myself for getting back alive by taking the afternoon off and charging my Garmin.
During my time in Iten I managed three solid weeks of training. Week one was around 100km with my longest run being 21km. Week 2, I stepped up the mileage to 120km with my longest run being 25km and on week 3, I managed just over 140km with a 32km long run. I was feeling a little behind when hearing news of all those back home who had run their first marathons for the year already, but fortunately my Comrades hero Bruce Fordyce posted an article on twitter saying that Comrades training should only start in March and January and February is more about building a base. Thanks Bruce for calming my nerves. I am currently testing out this theory and will let you know in June if you are correct ;). I do feel that I am leaving Kenya in a good position upon which to build the tough Comrades training that is awaiting me from March. And leaving Kenya feeling fresh and fit is the best start I could have hoped for leading up that training.
My last long run was a little daunting. Despite not being close to a marathon in distance it was my farthest run since April last year (when I got injured) and I was scared. I was also doing the run alone and knew that I would probably need water along the way. As a result I decided to head out on the dirt path that runs parallel to the main road, lined with small kiosks where I could purchase water, towards Eldoret. I ran and ran and ran feeling fantastic. Ah, I thought… look at me running like a Kenyan. I marvelled at my pace and the ease at which I was floating along. After 16km it was time to head back and I turned around smack bang into a headwind and a long 16km uphill back to Iten. Not so much like a Kenyan after all, taunted the hill and wind all the way home. At 28km I was exhausted and had just used up my last motivational pep talk to not walk. I could feel myself slowly slipping from the bobbing jog into a heavy dragging walk when suddenly I was surrounded by a group of about 15 Kenyan children on their way to church. It was nothing short of a miracle and witness to God’s greatness to have these children dressed in their Sunday best and clutching bibles under their arms running along side me for a few hundred meters. The girls’ dresses flowing behind them as they asked me my name, giggling and bringing joy to my world before slowly falling back as they tired. It was all the motivation I needed to get me to the end of my journey.
And with that I say goodbye and thank you to Kenya. Thank you for the motivation, inspiration and hospitality. Thank you for the beautiful views and the long dirt roads. But most of all thank you Kenya for reminding me how it feels to love to run.