Nairobi, 2014. If you want to know how lonely running a marathon is, picture yourself in this year’s Nairobi Stanchart Marathon. Out of the 17,000 participants from 55 countries in six categories, those lining up for the 42km race numbered only 500.
Don’t get it wrong; any kind of running is brave in this hedonistic world. Why run when you can take a matatu?
Fittingly, the race T-shirt is blue, a cold colour. You could either love the ocean hue or see in it self-inflicted misery.
“Enjoy your race,” a friend told this writer as he laid out his kit. This is where you say thank you, but the writer spoke from his experience in previous editions.
“A race is not something you enjoy; it is something you curse yourself for doing until you cross the finish line and realise you’ve achieved something incredible.”
That said, it’s unremarkable if you only cover 5km, your kids tagging along in the Family Fun Run. It’s quite something if you do the 10km Road Race. It’s a leap of faith if you keep going for 21km. But it beggars belief if you do the full 42km, yet you are not a professional athlete. As a workmate put it: “You are mad.”
The organisers seem to realise as much, which is why they give the full marathon’s race bibs the colour code red. Danger! Stay away!
Since there are those who are foolish enough to come anyway (after all, full rhymes with fool), they put a Sh1.5 million cash prize on the line, imagining it’s the only thing that can motivate us to do something this crazy.
The next day, you only hear about the winners, how fast they finished, and how they literally ran into money.
Nobody remembers the amateur who sweats it out until midday from a 7am starting time, the old man who turns back the clock while just the thought of it tires youths, or the lady with no legs who pushes that tricycle up slopes that must feel like mountains.
Forget the glamour and the hype that looks good for the camera or the headline photos the next day. The true story of the majority who take part in a marathon lies in the journey of these ordinary folks.
Oblivious to this, the MC wages a class war on this 12th edition of the race. “Elite runners come forward,” he says.
Being one of a few hundred runners in this dreaded category is enough to make us all feel elite. The MC clarifies that he’s referring to those with an orange sticker on their race bibs.
In a country full of races, this marathon stands out for being the only one to feature on the international athletics calendar. That’s where being in that exclusive club of top runners counts. One gets the chance to go on an international circuit of Stanchart marathons.
“This is corruption. They don’t want others to win,” says a man beside you. You take it lightly when you notice he’s old enough to be your grandfather and stands no chance of winning the race, even if they gave him a 10km head start.
The elite runners are world-beaters, though, some upstart springs up from the villages every other year and upsets the favourites. That’s the fairytale story the media likes to have for breakfast.
The MC hops around the starting line, trying to kick up a buzz. The runners are initially not very responsive. “Liven up,” he says. “This is where there is money.”
He might as well tell it to the Marabou storks hovering statue-still on the acacia trees around Nyayo Stadium. These birds have dotted the tarmac white with their droppings, as if to say what they think of our chances.
We are flagged off by Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero while most city residents are still in bed, squeezing every last drop of sleep from Saturday night.
The route takes us down Uhuru Highway, around the central business district, off to the opposite side of town, back to the stadium, then on a stretch that feels as distant as the destination it is named after (Mombasa), before letting those still standing to return to the finish line.
Beside the junction into town, there are loud praise and worship sounds emanating from a church, as if trying to woo us to join the service. I imagine the preacher interjecting to offer a special prayer:
Father, there are lost souls who are running on a Sunday morning instead of coming to church. Help them see the light!
As if we had anything to do with the scheduling of the race! Or as if anyone who runs a full marathon on any other day of the week is sane.
Don’t worry about us missing church, pastor, you muse. By the end of the race, our muscles will be shouting hallelujah!
In fact, history has it that 'Sunday’ was once earmarked for worship of a Sun deity. As if on cue, the sun comes out very early today and tries to make us bow to its greatness. Not even a cap and shades can spare you a headache if you’re going the distance.
A group of youths chant from above a fence on Museum Hill. You wish there were more such cheering squads out there. Friends will tell you later on they were watching on TV but didn’t see you.
It figures. You see a car with a race board and outriders buzz around the leading pack. Some accredited journalist is leaning out with a long-lensed camera that broadcasts the frontrunners to those watching from home. Nobody wants to see those leading from behind; otherwise, they’ll be staring at their screens all morning.
The 10km runners storm into town as marathoners make their way out. Nearly all in the race kit, they look like a giant blue centipede.
It’s only in a marathon where you start getting aches on your back and joints, but keep going until you feel numb to them; where you see someone one minute, lose him in the crowd, then spot him a couple hours later while you’re both still running.
You know you are in the Nairobi marathon in particular when you get to the endless stretch of Mombasa Road. This is where your will is pushed to the limit.
Some skaters take advantage of the diverted traffic to have a field day. That says a lot about the gaps that have opened up between runners at this stage.
You see people fitter-looking than you pulling out. You mentally tap yourself on the back. At least you’ve outlasted them.
There are officials on bicycles whizzing by, conspicuous in their green reflective jackets. One suddenly shouts out, “What number is that?”
He points at a man in a wheelchair on the opposite tarmac road, which is several metres across rough terrain. “Eject that man, he’s cut the lane,” the official tells a colleague on the other side.
It doesn’t occur to you to cheat like that until you finish the lap on Mombasa Road, and an official asks if you’ve done the second loop yet.
By now, you’ve stopped to walk for quite some kilometres. Where will you get the energy to do another 10km? You branch off to the stadium, make-believing you have indeed finished the course.
A city clock at the turn shows you’ve been running for 3 hours 20 minutes. That’s a time most amateurs can only dream of.
Who are you kidding? Come on, be honest. Go back and do the right thing.
The sun has its say: You fool, there are no prizes for honesty. You’re finished! Go home!
In this moment of weakness, this writer recalled messages he saw written on the backs of other runners’ T-shirts. Some said: “In 2014, I believed I could, so I did.” Another screamed to the world: “Survivor!”
But this writer’s favourite was one that read: “To run and finish a full marathon is not a miracle. The miracle is the courage to register and start.”
You could get away with not doing the second loop and still receive a finisher’s medal, but this writer could not live with himself if he did that. So despite the blazing sun, he turned around and returned to the track.
Every now and then, you see male runners pause roadside and piss in the bush, even when there are mobile toilets a stone’s throw away. That short distance can seem like an eternity, though, to the legs of someone who’s run more than 32km.
It gets to a point where you feel like there’s super glue jamming your thighs. An ambulance is doing the rounds, like a vulture waiting for you to fall. You straighten your neck whenever it creeps up on you, but can hardly manage a decent turn of pace.
Some people on a side road are not happy to see you still ‘hogging’ the highway — football fans clad in green jerseys. They’re howling and blowing vuvuzelas, eager to embark on a bus trip to a match out of town.
They swarm around a traffic cop, who tries to calm them down. She mutters into a walkie-talkie, perhaps calling for back-up. Not long afterwards, the roads are opened up, and those of us still running have to make do with the gravelly sidewalk.
At the end of the day, the rowdy fans compete for headlines with the marathon winners after rioting in Machakos after their team lost. The governor puts the damage caused at Sh10m. That’s about Sh2m more than all the cash prizes in this competition combined.
If you want to know how lonely running a marathon is, picture yourself with blistered toes, throbbing headache, and the weight of the world on your shoulders, yet still smiling as you cross that long elusive finish line.
You could hug the volunteers who stay out there for four, five hours to give you that water, clap you on, and congratulate you when you finally collect your finisher’s medal, at a stadium whose spectators have long since left after watching the podium ceremony.
This writer collapsed his tired behind in the fan park for some refreshments. The pastor must have texted the organisers to make sure we get spiritual nourishment as well, as there was a gospel concert going on.
As one Gloria Muliro belted out her tunes, this writer thought back to a poem whose author has anonymously inspired millions of people. He now shares a version paraphrased for this context:
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill
When the finish line is farther than
The strides left in your faltering run
When the pace is slow and the sun is high
And you try to race but your muscles cry
When things seem worst, when you're hardest hit
Rest, if you must, but don't you quit.
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This piece was originally published on October 31, 2014 in the print version of the Star.
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