Note: In July 2017, I completed my quest for a marathon on each of the seven continents, when I completed the Amazing Maasai Marathon as part of a Marathon Tours package. In all, I spent three weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, including a stay in the Maasai Mara at the beginning of the Great Migration, and a climb to the top of Kilimanjaro. It was a very rich experience, and I’ve only just now gotten around to the marathon writeup. Enjoy!
The Amazing Maasai Marathon, Laikipia, Kenya
July 25, 2017
“Who’s going to see the blind rhino?”
Two hours plus a steady flow of Tusker beer and local Kenyan merlot have whipped conversation up to a volume rivalling the rain pelting down outside the vinyl tent walls surrounding the patio. The race briefing won’t be happening tonight.
Just a few days earlier, I’d been puffing up the hill behind Aberdare Country Club, our small group of runners leaving the golf course and colonial brick buildings behind, up into the forest where waterbucks came springing out of the brush and across the trail before the startled frontrunners, until the bush opened out into a plain populated by giraffes, zebras, elands, gazelles…. In my head, at the base of my brain, a voice said, this is the reason you run, this is where your ancestors took to two feet, this is the most human thing in the world. After Aberdare, we’d spent several days at Sweetwaters, a luxury tented camp overlooking a watering hole. Mornings before breakfast and in between game drives clumps of runners paced the perimeter just inside the electric fence, spurring the occasional grazing ungulate to spring back over it.
This reception, at the lonely Morani’s Cafe in the middle of the Ol Pejeta preserve, comes at the end of game drive at the end of a long day. The rain has blessed the restaurant grounds with a flood. As the evening winds up, we’re led out the back way to our land rovers.
Next morning the Marathon Tours group, 20-odd runners, pack up our luggage and we all pile back into our utes to head out to the marathon camp. In east Africa it’s customary for the six-lane divided highways to be punctuated with speed bumps that bring traffic from a sprint to a crawl. At each bump entrepreneurs can be found selling everything from bottled water to pineapples. However, we opt for a Western-style supermarket for last-minute supplies – peanut butter, bottled water, birthday cake – before heading off to Kimanjo Secondary School in rural Laikipia County.
The funds raised by the Amazing Maasai Marathon go towards high school scholarships for young Maasai girls whose families couldn’t afford school fees and would otherwise go directly from primary school to marriage and childbearing. In addition to further education, simply having the extra few years to grow up can have a dramatic effect on their quality of life.
The school consists of several one-storey buildings in a landscape that looks quite a bit like the Sonoran Desert, minus the saguaros. We’re invited into the cafeteria for a tasty lunch of githeri, a local bean-and-corn stew. (Most of the food we’ve seen at our hotels & safari camp has been Western or South Asian.) The girls sing their school song for us in wonderful harmony; then the scholarship girls give a short speech about their favorite subject or career goals. After lunch there’s free time to walk the grounds. This is a co-ed campus; the boys are compelled to stay in class while the older girls walk the visitors around, but there’s not much instruction going on as the attraction of the lesson plan wanes in favor of watching, and showing off to, the foreign visitors and our cameras. There are several classrooms, a science lab, a library so far devoid of books, and a vegetable garden where they’re using some familiar xeriscape tricks like the sawed-off upside-down soda bottle for irrigation.
All the non-local runners stay in the marathon camp the night before. The two-person tents line the bank of a deep and dry river, with small toilet and shower tents behind each, basically a rustic version of our tented camp at Sweetwaters. Around bonfires in the river bed that night we finally get our race briefing: the elephants that were in the area earlier have been shooed off into the valley, so we don’t have to worry about them on the course. That’s always good to hear.
Next morning we’re driven to the start line in the middle of a dirt airstrip. A crowd of locals have already gathered, most of them schoolkids here to run the 10K. And since you’re probably wondering this, no, we’re not running alongside any of those elite Kenyan runners you’ve heard so much about (and seen immortalized on T-shirts, bumper stickers….)
The first mile or two of the course is what I call a “stealth hill”, a gradual uphill grade that looks flat. My favorite. Not. At the first water station I stop to stretch out my already-wooden calves, and the lady in charge provides me a calf massage before sending me on my way! Overall the course is undulating but not horribly technical. The path/road is the one used by the locals on a daily basis, and weaves among family compounds where children rush out to grab the hands of passing runners, and hillsides scattered with goats. Although I brought my hydration pack, there are plenty of water stations along the way, manned by people in traditional Maasai garb, and by soldiers with rifles to scare off the wild animals that never make an appearance. The closest we come to elephants is a group of camels that wanders across the airstrip as I’m coming around to close up my first loop. The half marathoners, who have all finished, cheer encouragement as I go past.
In what seems to be becoming a pattern this year, I run out of steam soon into the second loop. The day is getting warmer, and the altitude – although everyone in the Marathon Tours group has had a week to adjust – is also getting to me. A Maasai gentleman greets me, clasps my hand, and wants a closer look at my hawk tattoo. There’s a little double-back at the top of the hill, where I can look back and see that there are two runners behind me as I drag my sorry butt along. (This turns out to be my big-hearted tentmate Nissi and an injured runner she chose to walk with.)
So here’s where I need to discuss something unfortunate. Apparently, in previous years some runners or other tourists handed out sweets to the children along the route. People, F*CKING DO NOT go to foreign countries and give candy to strangers’ kids! Their parents don’t want them begging from strangers, and it is not the least bit cute to be struggling along at Mile 20 with little fingers prying into your pack and little voices pleading for chocolate like some kind of Bizarro World* aid station! End of rant.
It’s a long slog up the airstrip to the finish line, but somehow I manage a leap into the air, nearly catching the race organizer / photographer off guard. A cute little girl puts the medal over my head, and my seventh continent is done!
Back at marathon camp, the staff have filled our shower bucket with hot water and I have a good scrub to get all the dust and salt off. That evening we drive to the top of a hill overlooking the camp for a “sundowner” – an adult beverage and a variety of delicious nosh. That satisfies my race-stressed stomach, and I turn in early while down at the mess tent the party carries on.
*For those unfamiliar with Superman mythology, Bizarro World is a planet like Earth where they do everything backward