Kenya Marathon: Running with Kenyans

Updated: May 25, 2020

The continent of Africa was a tricky marathon to settle on. I was intrigued by South Africa, attracted by safaris and in particular chimpanzee tracking, but also fascinated by the famous town of Iten, home of the most famous Kenyan runners. After stumbling upon the “Kenya Experience” training camp, I simultaneously found the Great Rift Valley Marathon, hosted the first week of the camp, it seemed meant to be.

The training camp in Iten and the marathon were two separate events, but being the multi-tasker I am, I decided to do both. The

other attendees of the camp thought I had lost my mind running a marathon in Kenya at 8,000ft elevation, 2 days after arriving, and then participating in a running camp the following week.

After almost 3 days of traveling (with a 4 flight itinerary, 2 missed flights, and a bird smashing into the cockpit re-directing my travels) I arrived in Iten and met our guide Timo Limo. Timo is a 1:45 800m runner, and Olympic hopeful. He was our tour guide for the trip and would be our guide leading us on track workouts, fartlek runs, visits to the local primary school, training camps and several lectures throughout the week educating us on the Kenyan lifestyle and training. We asked him at dinner the first night, “Who are the runners here Timo?” He responded and chuckled “The skinny ones,” no kidding!!

The high altitude-training center (HATC) where I was staying is the temporary home to professional and Olympic runners. An ideal training destination at 8,000ft elevation with miles and miles of dirt track for low impact running in rural Africa where there aren’t many distractions from training. All meals are provided (ugali is the center piece, a type of polenta which is made with corn flour and water), as well as access to the facilities gym with weights, a pool and a massage therapist. I was lucky enough to have a couple of treatments with Hillary, who is Mo Farrah’s therapist (10K and 5K Olympic champion and fellow Brit who I met at the camp).

The first morning we set out for an “easy” run and I was quickly alerted to the influence of the altitude on my pace. Still having slept about 4 hours over 4 nights certainly didn’t help! After my trip to Machu Picchu last year I wasn’t worried about the altitude, but what I didn’t take into consideration was the difference between a 9,000ft gain marathon hike/walk and a full on marathon run. Different story.

After a good nights sleep I felt like a champion the next day and became very excited for the race. The bus our host had arranged for me was to come at 5:30. Now Kenyan time, 5:30 could be anywhere up to 6:30, they don’t exactly run the gauntlet like I am used to over in the northeast of the States. It was a very chilly morning and I dressed up with plenty of layers and lugged my 5-liter water to the gates of the HATC. Finally after 15 minutes which felt like 5 hours (what exactly was my plan b if the bus didn’t show?) Miles, a Scottish man who had arranged the transportation came to my aid and kindly gave me the front seat of a caravan packed with Kenyans. Once in the van, I opened up my pre-race staple smuggled from home Ezkiel bread almond butter sandwich and tucked in, strategically eaten 2 hours on the money from the “gun time.”  The Kenyans looked at me confused, I had learnt by now that they are not exactly as reliant on nutrition to fuel their runs and aid their recovery the way I am.

After an hour drive we arrived at the race and I quickly realized this was a local Kenyan race. I certainly wasn’t going to be fighting for an age group award here. We got out of the van and I approached the table labeled “pre-registered.” The lady asked me if I was going to win, and chuckled and said I would just be happy to finish before everyone packs up to go home! I met John, the race director, who I had been in contact with and he smiled when I asked what time we were heading off. Of course I had my pre-race warm-up and last minute preparations to account for. I met some other westerns and felt in good company as they also expressed concern about the difficulty of the course (2,000 feet elevation gain) 100% trail conditions.

With the start time of 8am, we all gathered around the start line around 8:30, and it wasn’t until 9:30 that the race director gave a speech about being fair, honest and not cheating. I typically get as close as I can to the start line and prepare myself like a 5K runner on the track. On this occasion, I hung back and let the masses take off like Ferrari’s. My goal for this race was not to set an amazing time, I am focused on the Boston Marathon in April and really wanted to save my legs for the workouts next week in Iten. That being said, 26.2 miles, 2,000 ft elevation gain at 8,000 ft altitude is a challenging course no matter how slow you run!

The course was as challenging as they had prepared us for, but was beautiful and the scenery was breathtaking. We ran through local Kenyan towns, with little children watching and joining us for stretches of the run. They were so sweet and were so curious where I was from, what my name was etc. My balance bracelet fascinated one little boy, so I gave it to him, he ran off with a big smile of his face after giving me a big hug. Not your typical marathon aid station experience…. They were all cheering me on throughout the course and the nature of the 2 loops meant that they were to see me again. The chilly morning faded and I was thankful (although my sunburnt arms were not later on) that I had taken off my long sleeved t-shirt. The children loved it every time I got to an aid station I got them to pour water over my head and they all laughed, giggled and cheered as I went on my way.

Things got pretty tough with the heat beating down around mile 16. I reminded myself of how at ease I will feel the morning of Boston after having slept in a bed without a mosquito tent, and showered without the company of several bugs watching me. One of the reasons I wanted to do the 7x7 challenge was to take me out of my comfort zone. Asking myself to perform and race in challenging conditions makes it that much easier when I go to race at home.

The support on the course was amazing and around mile 20 I took first place (for the white people!!!) Once I got back to the race grounds there was a grueling 1-mile loop around the field, so I unclipped my fuel belt to lighten the load. That mile felt like 10 miles, but I finally crossed the finish line not in my usual sprinting fashion. A sweet man had picked up and bought me my belt. I searched for water, extremely dehydrated, but quickly realized that unlike my usual races where I am one of the first to finish, coming in close to last means the resources are a bit depleted. My caravan driver found his sister who was kind enough to give me her water bottle where I mixed up my recovery drinks much to the fascination of the Kenyans. We took some pictures and headed back to the HATC, no need to hang around for post-race awards on this one!!

The next week in Iten was amazing after a day’s recovery to a safari. I learnt so much from the amazing runners and I got really excited about one day training exclusively for a marathon. They seemed to think I was 2:40 marathon runner, and that is something that one day I hope to prove them right in. The training camp could not have come at a better time as I return home I am in the mist of a 3-week training block with a run focus in preparation for Boston in April.

So what’s next? After Boston my attention will go back to the Ironman, specifically for my 70.3 in Eagleman in June. I am so passionate about triathlons and so in love with my pursuit for Kona, the Ironman championships, but am also excited about the prospect of continuing my 7x7 challenge and one day fixating on a marathon time without the distraction of swimming and biking. I am fortunate and lucky to have that decision to make and at my age the time to experiment with both.

Thank you again to everyone who helped me to surpass my pre-race goal for fundraising for my 7x7 challenge before I left for Kenya. Knowing I had your support helped me every inch of the journey. I will be giving out more information about my week at the training camp in a few weeks by hosting a presentation “Train like a Kenyan,’…..stay tuned!!

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