•AK Mountain Running Championships in Naivasha was a baptism of fire for most athletes who had never participated in mountain running.
•10km race route comprised 930m of a steep climb, 330m downhill section and a kilometre of rocky and hilly terrain.
•However, most athletes admitted that the event had helped them improve their endurance levels and enhance preparations for future races.
Have you ever wondered why many runners shy away from mountain running?
This is because it is not for the faint-hearted as over 100 male and female athletes who participated in the inaugural AK Mountain Running Championships in Naivasha found out.
It was a baptism of fire as most athletes could not only rely on their nimble feet to navigate through the 10-km rocky and bumpy terrain of Mt Longonot.
Indeed it was a course that required the use of hands and even knees to navigate hilly sections.
World Under-20 3,000m steeplechase silver medalist Leonard Bett, who was among the debutants in the sport, testified that mountain running is no walk (or run) in the park.
“Today’s race was difficult, unlike the steeplechase we are used to. The hilly terrain made it cumbersome although I was not particularly looking to win,” Bett said.
Similarly, Paul Kipsiele Koech — the world’s third-fastest man in 3,000m steeplechase — found the going tough as the heat of the day coupled with the challenging course stretched his endurance levels to the limit.
“It’s a race that I am not used to so it was obviously a bit tough. However, it has been a build-up for myself and many others for upcoming races,” the 2004 Athens Olympics 3,000m steeplechase bronze medalist said.
The 10km race route — beginning at Cornerstone Preparatory Academy along Mai-Mahiu-Naivasha highway — comprised a steep and downhill section of 930m and 330m, respectively.
The ultimate kilometre was a rocky and hilly landscape culminating at 2,685m above sea level, the highest point of the course known as Kenton in Nyandarua County.
It is at this point that many were forced to use their limbs to emerge on the last stretch leading to the finish line.
As one of the athletes later attested, it was a moment that had his heart pounding rapidly as the fear of slipping and rolling downhill constantly played on his mind.
Indeed, anyone with a phobia of heights would describe this moment as his or her worst-nightmares-come-true.
Little wonder that most athletes crossed the finish line at a walking pace and with muted celebrations in contrast to track and road events whose finishes are often characterised by wild celebrations during which athletes have the energy to embrace and congratulate one another.
For debutants, such as Koech and Bett, they could be forgiven for struggling to adapt to mountain running — and in particular, Naivasha mountain running.
However, the course was also not a respecter of seasoned mountain runners as Emmanuel Bor found out.
In February this year, Bor won the Mt Kenya Mountain Running Championships in Meru County.
However, after finishing a distant fifth in Naivasha, Bor admitted that he had not prepared for the shock that the race offered him, courtesy of the mountainous terrain.
“In Meru, the last kilometre was flat hence it was easy to maintain the momentum to the end. Today, the last stretch was hilly and rocky and it was, therefore, easy to tire out,” he said.
The sweet struggle
Nonetheless, the saying “no pain, no gain” holds true when it comes to mountain running.
It is noteworthy that most of those who registered for the Naivasha meet had never attempted mountain running but were keen to test and enhance their endurance levels.
Equally encouraging was the fact that there were a few families in attendance to tackle the challenging terrain.
In a year in which Covid-19 pandemic halted sporting activities, participating in mountain running was an opportunity for many to gain race fitness ahead of the forthcoming season.
After his successes in 3,000m steeplechase, Koech will be transitioning to road races next year and what a better way to prepare himself for what lies ahead by sampling the pain of mountain running?
“My participation in the mountain race was not about winning but building up on my preparations for marathon running. I am targeting an even better career on the roads than I did on the track," Koech said.
His experience in Naivasha will undoubtedly benefit him when he later chooses to try his luck at April’s Boston Marathon, which is regarded as one of the world’s toughest marathons owing to its approximately 35km of hilly terrain.
Other marathons in this category — during which Koech could summon his experience garnered in Naivasha — include Inca Trail Marathon (Mexico), Great Wall Marathon (China), Sahara Marathon (Algeria) and North Pole Marathon (Alaska).
Likewise, Bett was quick to pick out positives from the race beyond a podium finish.
“My main aim for participating in this race was to improve on my endurance and am happy that I have achieved that because of the terrain. I believe that my experience today will prepare me for better fortunes in the races I want to participate in next,” he said.
The race was a curtain-raiser to Athletics Kenya’s official embrace of mountain running as a sport that warrants serious investment just like cross country, marathon, track and field events.
“Mountain running is now part of our calendar of events and we will be using the events to gauge our runners for major mountain running events,” Paul Mutwii, AK Senior Vice President and director of competitions, said.
As AK president Jackson Tuwei attested to in Naivasha, Kenya is a vineyard of talented mountain runners that are ripe for international acclaim.
“When I spoke to you at the starting line, about 90 per cent of you said that they have never participated in mountain running. With what I have seen today, I am confident that we will be sending more of you to represent the country in international mountain running events,” Tuwei said.
Considering that Patrick Kipngeno, who won the 10km senior men's race, had never participated in mountain running before, Tuwei's words could not be farther from the truth.
Second-placed Titus Kimutai similarly had never participated in mountain running before.
"I never expected to achieve this result considering that this is my first time in mountain running. It is an experience that will be useful as I target the upcoming cross country series," Kimutai said.
The ultimate goal
Mountain running is an avenue through which Kenya can add more medals to its athletics stable and cement its prestige as a running nation.
Naivasha was the start of a mountain running championship circuit that includes Bomet, Nyamira, Taita Hills, Nandi Hills and Kilgoris.
The federation is working on popularising the sport and encourage more athletes to embrace it.
They may have just earned a new convert in Bett, who admits that he would definitely participate in mountain running if he is given another chance.
"The more I grow, the more I need challenges and longer distances like marathons and mountain running. I would consider participating again if AK organises other championships like this one," he said.
"AK will be working on a calendar during which we will communicate the dates for these events at the respective venues," mountain running head coach Joseph Ngure said.
Already, Lucy Murigi and Geoffrey Gikoni have shown that the country is a factory of talented mountain runners courtesy of their exploits worldwide.
The former is a two-time world mountain running champion.
With proper sharpening and diligence, the pain experienced at Naivasha may instead be a precursor of the pleasurable experiences that await many budding talents when they finally follow in the footsteps of Murigi and Gikoni by hoisting the Kenyan flag high.