It is Saturday morning and I’m awakened to the sound of the animals in what I hope is the distance. I promptly get out of bed, mix up the magic potion of applesauce and oats and begin the pre-race breakfast routine. We are to meet the rest of our group outside at 5:45 for our 45-minute jeep ride through the Lewa Conservancy to the race site. When the tent is unzipped we look outside into complete darkness and are guided down the path by the very bright stars above and a little help from our trusted flashlight so as not to stumble along the way. This is almost surreal when I think about it. Just yesterday on a game drive we had the lucky opportunity to come across 6 cheetahs, a mother, 2 cubs and 3 males. It was amazing to watch them interact with each other in their natural habitat unaffected or just not concerned about us snapping pictures while they played and rested. I only hope that our paths do not cross today along the race route!
The Safaricom Marathon pre-race talk by the race director will forever be etched upon my mind. It was not, by a long shot, your typical briefing. The race director did give us the usual hot, dry weather precautions about over and under drinking, attitude (approximately 6000 feet,) where the aid stations would be located and general course directions (follow the dirt road!). Then came the serious part. This race is considered to be one of the top 10 most difficult in the world. This distinction was given not just for the weather conditions and terrain which are extremely difficult off road trail running but also the animal component! We were instructed on what to do should a wild animal approach us while rounding a corner. Now mind you we’re not talking about a dog, cat, goat or horse. We were warned about elephants, gazelles, giraffes, zebras and oh yes, the occasional large, fast rhino!! Should we have the misfortune to come face to face with one of these, our instructions were to stop (of course), make eye contact (preferably at the animal and not in the direction we want to retreat to), and slowly move backwards!! Now, I think that if I was able to get my heart out of my throat and my legs unstuck, well, I might possibly be able to move slowly backwards. We were all happy to hear that they had the helicopter and planes buzzing the course to move most of the large animals back and had 30-armed guards along the route as well. Now I thought, that is reassuring, I’ll just stay close to the guy holding the gun…. hope he’s running the race!
Once at the race site Michael Herbert from Caron Renaissance happily greeted me. I had no way of contacting him as we were staying in two different locations, I was only aware that he had checked in at registration. We were both excited about the run ahead of us as we moved into the participant areas. Here it became a little unorganized as everyone, all half and full marathon runners, were lumped together. It was a mass start along a very narrow, uneven road for about 2 kilometers. Somewhere during this time I managed to maneuver myself forward weaving in and out in order to run more quickly and consequently lost contact with Michael. This was a two-loop course so I tried to mentally mark the difficult areas. As it turned out every mile of the course was difficult. The altitude and dry heat were to become a large obstacle for me but did not compare to the toll that the uneven, rocky, hilly terrain would have. It became apparent very early on that I would have to be very cautious not to overheat. I am used to running in hot, humid conditions but when subjected to dry heat I find that my body does not eliminate the water so my cooling system is less than effective.
The aid stations were very well marked with large banners flying high into the air and at the 3K mark the Masai Warriors chanting greeted us. It was an incredible site to see them moving along the road all wearing their traditional red clothing. I made sure that I accepted the water at each station as well as sponges to cool me down. The beginning of the course was a combination of rolling hills, however, once at about the 8K mark we began to climb and it did not seem to stop until well into the last 5K. Here, happily, the downhill stretch began. As I approached the point at which we were to begin the loop again I spotted Randy, his half sister Susan, her sponsored son Titus, his cousin and Susan’s traveling friend, all cheering and waving. Slowly I exchanged my aid bottles thinking that I need to make it around the corner because if I slow down too much I most likely would not want to make the loop again…..I knew what awaited me….and it was beginning to progressively get more hot!!
Now is where the race truly began for me. On the first loop I was among others traversing this rugged terrain but now, I was completely alone. There were over 800 people in the race with more than 600 in the half marathon (smart people) while 120 something were running the full marathon (all the type A personalities!). I must say that as I began to maneuver along the trail, which was surrounded by beautiful yellow straw/grass brush, my eyes and ears became highly tuned while my mind began to run amuck. There was one point where all I could see ahead was field, no people, no planes flying overhead and no guards anywhere in sight. I thought that I had spied something off in the distance approaching. It looked rather dark and appeared to be coming straight toward me. I began to slow my pace, while my heart began pounding and my head saying, “what is that, don’t panic, oh my god, it’s coming straight toward me!” At this point I decided to stop and to my surprise and relief what I thought was a large rhino was just your lowly two-wheeled motorcycle!! As it went past me I think I started to laugh at myself and from then on was able to keep my mind and thoughts in check. I mean come on; this is a race that has taken place for the past 9 years. I’m sure the animals are aware of that and wouldn’t want to ruin it for everyone!!
So now it was back up that tremendously long uphill onto the top of what seemed to be the highest point in the race. Here the sun began to beat down and those sponges were looking even more appealing to me. The cups of water went sparingly into my mouth with the rest over my head…can’t wait to see the pictures of that one! The balls of my feet ached as I ran while my ankles also were feeling the pain. Just staying upright was a challenge. My eyes were constantly looking down at the ground as menacing potholes and large tire tracks consumed the course. Finding even ground was literally impossible so I searched for the least amount of slope as I could find. Way off in the distance I could spot the flags again knowing that the last 5K was approaching. Oh how I couldn’t wait to cross the finish line, but that would have to wait for at least another 40 minutes. One last uphill approached and another walk was all that I could muster up. At this point it was sheer survival that kept me going. As I crested the hill I spotted the only shaded