You will never know what it means to have pain in some of the weirdest parts of your body until you do two things. Give birth, or run 21kms at the Ndakaini Half Marathon. I have done both, and if I should dare add, the former twice! Five days later, my mind and body are still reeling from the brutality of the verdant Murang’a county hills. They served me a humble pie, one that took a lot of grit to swallow.
Last year around the same time, my friends and I drove down to Murang’a for the same race, only that I was participating in the 10km run. I was a wiser woman then. I remember having signed up for the 21km race initially. One Saturday morning while training at Karura Forest, I was making small talk with some guys at the field where all runners flock to stretch. There’s this guy I had sported initially as I was setting up my running app just before I started my run. He did a few dynamic stretches and then took off. I trotted behind him and after about 500m he was out of my sight. I envied his pace.
Back at the field, as I swung my trunk to the left and stretched my interlocked hands to the right, I overheard some lady ask him if he had signed up for the Ndakaini Half Marathon.
“Definitely! The views down there are sublime.” He said.
“21 kilometres?” She ventured.
“Never!!” He barked, his response reeking of pain and fear. “I am only doing 10kms.”
“Excuse me.” I said to him. “Sorry to be intrusive but how far did you run today?”
“15 kilometres.” He said, his left eyebrow arched.
“I saw you take off like you run for the Kenya team. You also don’t look like you broke a sweat in your run today. Pray tell me, why would you not run 21kms at Ndakaini?” I pressed on.
“Are you running 21kms?” He asked me.
“Yes, matter of fact, I am.” I said.
“Have you ever been to Ndakaini?” He inquired further.
“Nope. But I hear Vietnam has nothing on its splendour!” I jested.
“There’s a point the hill is so steep, almost at a ninety-degree angle to the ground. It could easily slap your forehead.” He said then let out a rueful laugh. As he outlined the gory details, he had this distant look as if the memory of the marathon still frightened him.
“If you are prepared to run uphill then go for it.” He warned me and carried on with his stretching.
Later that afternoon, I signed up for the 10km run. It did not matter that I had already paid KSH 800 for the 21km one. I was prepared to lose the money but not my life!
Fast forward to this year when I felt that 10kms was too mainstream for someone who ran a minimum of three times a week. I mean, how does one step up their mileage from 10kms to 17kms while clocking impressive speed (best long run pace: 6:25 min/km); and then sign up for a 10km race? It would have been a grave disappointment to myself, my readers and most importantly the many people I have inspired to take up running! So, this year, I signed up for 21kms despite all the horror stories.
We started our journey at 5.50am. There were four of us; my good friend Raphael, two millennials- CJ and Nungari- and I. Raphael had this imperturbable composure like he was born to run. You could tell from how calmly he was driving. CJ was his supposed co-driver, never mind that he had just got back home from the party scene. He had been celebrating his birthday or something. In case you are wondering, he wasn’t taking part in the marathon. Nungari was a bunch of nerves. She barely slept the previous night for fear of missing the alarm and missing the ride. I slept alright but woke up feeling anxious, which had me sitting on the toilet bowl for about fifteen minutes emptying my gut. You would have thought I was producing Roadman Shaq’s Man’s Not Hot! So obviously, I did not have the guts to have breakfast since I had already emptied them haha (please don’t let that joke pass you!)
Rule #1: Never miss a meal prior to the run.
As we approached Ndakaini about 1 hour 15 minutes later, I was starving. But the sudden change of scenery took my mind off my woes for a while. Lush rolling hills cloaked in dense foliage. Further ahead was a dramatic stretch of tea fields and trees. The air was crisp and fresh. We were lucky enough to get VIP parking close to the starting point, otherwise most people had to park further away and walk about 5kms. CJ immediately jumped to the back seat, reclined the seat to flat position and snored away. The rest of us checked to see we had all our gear in order; ear phones, arm bands and fitness watches then headed towards the starting point. Thankfully, we came across a kiosk selling bananas and bought a bunch. I had two.
Raph and Nungari had registered for the 10km run which was slated for 10.00am. It was 7.45am and my race was starting in 15 minutes so I rushed ahead and joined the 21km squad. The adrenalized crowd was eager for the gun to go off and set them off on the treacherous road. Kenyans are a bunch of masochists.
I couldn’t see any familiar face. I called Roselyn who I occasionally train with on Saturdays but she was at the back of the crowd and the race would start in a minute. Immediately, I knew I was in trouble.
Rule #2: Always have a running partner, or better yet, run in a pack.
8.00am. Gunshot. Bang. As one heaving mass, we started to move.
The first five-kilometre stretch was a walk in the park. It was mostly downhill with very little elevation. My average speed was 5:45 min/km. I recall thinking to myself that had I signed up for the 5km family run, I would have done spectacularly well! I also imagined that the marathon was not as dreadful as the folklore stipulates. The weather was still refreshingly cool. Everything was just right.
But then, 5.5kms in, like a couple in their first year of marriage, Ndakaini revealed its true colours. This was my first taste of its savagery. We kept going uphill with no end to the ascent in sight. I reminded myself that the road would eventually flatten out and I would be so pumped up after persevering the hilly stretch. So, I struggled up hill, jogging at snail’s pace, but jogging nonetheless. My average speed had now come down to 6:23min/km. It was worsening quite fast and I was worried.
Finally, slightly after 7kms, we got to flat ground. I felt like I had spotted a well in the desert and I wanted to sit there and drink from it. Especially because I could see another hill slowly revealing itself about 200 metres ahead and it freaked me out. By the time I was crossing the 10km mark, my average speed had deteriorated to 6:48min/km. It dawned on me that it was impossible for me to finish the race at an average speed of 6:30 min/km, which was my initial goal. I set a new goal of 7:00min/km.
“I will humble the next set of hills. People have conquered more gruesome stunts.” I thought to myself. “Surely, it can’t get any worse. Unless we are running up Mt. Everest!”
With renewed energy, I picked up my pace and resolved to finish strong. That pep talk did not accomplish much as in about a minute, another precipitous hill presented itself. My eyes welled up. I threw in the towel and started walking.
Rule #3: Acquaint yourself with the race route (from the official map) before the D-day. It helps to avoid unpleasant surprises.
As I walked leisurely uphill, I thought about my choices in life. I wondered when this search for adrenaline rush will end. When was I going to be content with just walking to the kiosk to buy bread and going to church on Sundays and plaiting matutas on my kids’ heads? At 35 perhaps? Three more years of seeking outrageous thrills? I zoned out completely and only when some lady tapped me to ask for the time did I snap out of it. It was 9.24am and we were 12kms in. The sun was already out and burning furiously. I grabbed a bottle of water at the next water spot.
Between 12kms and 14kms, the terrain was still hilly but interspersed with several dips and levelled ground which provided much-needed breaks. It was also laced with a cocktail of cheerleaders who kept urging us on. Two five or six-year old boys dressed in brown mboshoris despite the scorching sun (kikuyus will kill their kids with heat!) were seated on a terrace outside a kiosk cheering “kaza kaza”. Further ahead, a gorgeous girl (possibly seven years old) with beautiful brown skin, decked out in a dirty floral dress and short hair stood in the middle of the road giving runners high-fives. It felt like she was feeding us with glucose because everyone who tapped her hand, picked up their pace. And then there were some elderly women that clapped their hands dramatically from the side of the road, and when I smiled at one of them, she reminded me to share the spoils if I won. The last cheerleaders were some high school kids in green uniform chanting victory songs. Finally, we were at 15kms.
I felt the sudden urge to pee and after holding back for a while, I ducked into the bushes. Suddenly, I was lighter and I had everything it took to trounce the remaining stretch and improve my speed, which was now at 6:59 min/km. But shortly after, all hell broke loose. We found ourselves on this dramatically steep 2.5km ascent which reminded me of the stair case to heaven that the Babylonians attempted to construct. I was sure the pearly gates awaited us at the top. And when I imagined we couldn’t go up any further, another hill appeared around the bend.
Eventually at 17.5km, the road levelled out but I could not be bothered to run. At 20km, I spotted two guys who were extremely determined in their run, despite their obviously knackered status. I joined them. Much as Ndakaini did me in, I wasn’t going to be those guys who walk to the finish line. I completed the race in 2hrs and 43 minutes. It was a miracle that I did not collapse at the finish line! My legs felt like stilts, my lower back was hurting and my hips were on fire. My hands felt lifeless.
Later on, I met up with my other crew who had driven down separately. Silvia Njoki flew down to Nairobi from Mombasa just for the run and flew back the same evening. She had a knee injury but finished her 10km run in decent time. The rest of the crew; Zawadi Nyong’o and Namnyak Odupoy as well Raphael and Nungari also did spectacularly well. I can’t remember everybody’s exact time but some finished in under 1 hour 10 minutes and others 1 hour 15 minutes.
We settled at the EABL tent thanks to some VIP passes that Zawadi got us. A hearty meal and about four doubles of Lagavulin later, all my pain was gone. We met Catherine Ndereba, such a wonderful soul and humble woman. Catherine broke the word record at the Chicago Marathon in 2001, having completed the 42km race in 2 hours 18 minutes and 46 seconds! She smiled at us and for our cameras and spoke proudly of her 19-year old daughter, currently studying at the University of Bradford, UK. Apparently, the running gene did not pass down to her but she is quite athletic all the same.
By 9.00pm I was sound asleep in my bed, but then I woke up at 2.00am with a nasty migraine and severe body aches. Every part of my body was crying for help.
Have you ever felt pain inside (not around) the small of your waist? What about that part of your foot that doesn’t touch the ground? Has that ever ached? When was the last time you felt pain in your derriere? And your eyelids? Elbows? No?? Then you my friend don’t know pain. One physio session and two Bikram Yoga classes later, I am yet to recover. The worst part is that the organisers of the Ndakaini Half Marathon never think it necessary to award medals to 21km finishers. After all that, I have nothing to hang in my wall of fame that will speak of my bravery and valor.
Thank’s Raphael for driving us down, CJ for being such a gentleman despite your fatigue (he helped with the photos), Silvia Njoki for being such a champ (knee injury and all) and for the photos, Zawadi Nyong’o for the VIP tickets, Namnyak for the wonderful company and Nungari for making me laugh. Above all, thanks to all of you (as well as Roselyn Omanga, Eve Serro, Christine Kagure, Mercy Mukami and Winnie Gechaga) for the motivation weeks prior to the race.
Thanks to my kid sister Brenda for editing this piece. I heart you.