Game For A Marathon: Running The Kenya Safaricom

It's a marathon serious enough to attract the world record holder, where elephants, nervous Westerners and thousands of locals all play their part...


Posted: 18 July 2005
by Ashley Smith

RW website member Ashley Smith ran the Safaricom Marathon in Kenya on July 2, 2005. Here's his story.

Last December my friend David – who lives in Kenya – asked me to come out and join him in running the Safaricom marathon, rated as one of the world’s 10 toughest marathons. The course is 1650m above sea level, and it’s in a game reserve. I told him he was mad.

He kept badgering me, until eventually I was converted to his way of thinking, much to my wife’s disapproval.

Altitude was certainly going to be a problem, so I embarked on a course of hypoxic treatment with The London Altitude Centre 12 weeks before I flew out. Another consideration was heat; being a few miles north of the equator, temperatures can easily exceed 30°C even in winter. I invested in a treadmill and embarked on an acclimatisation programme with the aid of a 2kW heater and lots of water.

I flew overnight to Nairobi, and after resting on my first day did a 10K acclimatisation run, which went well. David had taken a couple of days off work and arranged for us to drive to the Sambura National Reserve for some game spotting before returning to the Lewa Reserve for the marathon the following day.

The journey involved a six-hour drive on the worst roads I have ever experienced – definitely a case of shaken and not stirred. Whilst you can fly, the advantage of driving is that you get to see the country’s people, their homes and their towns; this was especially poignant as the G8 conference and Live8 was being held back in the UK to highlight world poverty the same week.

We followed the main route over the equator towards Ethiopia, along a road of compressed hardcore which had so many holes we often had to leave the road and drive through the surrounding scrub land. Many people were walking along the side of the road, often barefoot, some carrying their wares to market and others herding their goats cattle, or, as we headed further north, camels.

All entrants have to stay the night before the race in the Lewa Reserve, either supplying their own tent, or staying in one provided. We took the five-star, option which proved to be both spacious and very comfortable.

A pasta party is held the night before the race and this was a great way to meet some of the other competitors. Among them was a Kenyan who had just been invited to join the national squad. He was a great guy who had come from humble beginnings but who had set himself the target of setting a world record for the marathon distance. With a PB of 2:06, set in Kenya, he said it was his aim to enter either London or Chicago next yea. If his current form is anything to go by I certainly hope it will be London so that I can see him achieve his goal.

An early rise was required as the race start was at 7am and with 400 to feed, the queues for breakfast, and the loos, were very long. With a full English buffet on offer there was still plenty left over for those of us who decided to have an extra hour in bed.

At 7am (and not marred by previous year's delays, when some cheetahs were found to be warming up at the start line), the klaxon was sounded and the race commenced.

Having been ill the day before the race I was doing the half-marathon, while David stuck with the full marathon. Marathoners had to complete two laps, while walkers and half-marathoners completed one. This was great, as it meant that there was always someone on the course you could walk - er... run - with! It was especially good for the slower runners and those needing some inspiration given the harshness of the terrain. The scenery was so breathtaking that I repeatedly stopped to take out my camera to record the magnificent curves as the mountains descended into the plains below.

The first three kilometres were a nice gentle loop across the plain on a dirt road which was flat and even - in fact it was of a far better quality than most of the main roads we had driven on our trip up from Nairobi. Things soon changed, and over the next few kilometres we climbed and descended over several steep hills. Then for about seven kilometres, from about the 9K point, it seemed to be a constant climb.

All along the route, runners and walkers chatted, and as at so many events, there was a great spirit of camaraderie. The water stations were plentiful, with sponges, oranges, energy drinks and water in cup or bottle. Sadly, Sarah the hand-reared giraffe (who in 2003 wandered around the course and helped herself to oranges from at least two water stations) was not present this year.

Those with aching legs who yearned for a nice, flat section were not in luck, as the course suddenly descended down a very steep incline for a kilometre. My big toe met the front of my trainers for most of it, and I found that the rapid drop in altitude left me quite breathless. At one point the runner in front of me raised her arms high as though she was about to take off, and I was reminded of the slope in Only Fools and Horses where Del Boy goes hang-gliding.

I was overtaken by the first Kenyan marathon runner around the 18K mark (39K for him) and from then on by a steady stream of runners at the rate of one every 30 seconds or so. Can those guys run!

It was at around this point that I also spotted a herd of elephants meandering and eating the juiciest leaves and grass just 300m from the edge of the course. The last two kilometres of the race was around the Lewa airstrip, a barren, desolate but completely flat loop, with sand paths through the scrub. This made way to lush green grasses and the shade of trees in the final 500m. The finish line crowds were as tightly packed as at London, and there was a real party atmosphere, with a band playing and thousands of spectators watching and cheering.

As I crossed the line a young girl ran up to me with my finishers medal (which has a Rhino cast on it) and a boy gave me a goody bag containing chocolate, energy drink and a great Kikoy (an African sarong).

What an event. It was as well organised as any of the best races in the UK, with a field included world marathon record holder Paul Tergat, and the UK's Ben Fogle. For the statisticians out there the half marathon was won by Joseph Kariuki in 1:06:52, with Cecilia Wangui completing the course in 1:21:30 to win the women’s race. The marathon (two laps of the above), was won by Daniel Yego in a very impressive 2:22:14 while first female Judy Kariuka completed the course in 2:53:51.

As for me, well, I came in at 2:37 - 50 minutes behind my PB, which I ran at the Tunbridge Wells Half in February 2004.

My next race will be the Kent Coastal marathon, and maybe – if I do well and can convince the wife to let me out again – Nairobi marathon in October, just after my 39th birthday.

For details of the 2006 event contact sarah@tusk.org or visit www.tusk.org


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 Masive heat but sounds good!

 Dino,

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Posted: 26/05/2011 at 12:19

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