This is a long post. Long for the benefit of many who have asked me "How did it go?" and also long because it was such a great experience and I like writing about my running experiences.
ASSEMBLY AND WARM UP
We were up at 4.30am on Saturday. We picked each other and arrived at the venue at 7.00am as advised. Myself, Sikuku, Mwangi and Kamau. Ready to do battle. The weather was excellent. We ate carbohydrates and hydrated. The participants were few and the organizers were thoroughly disorganized. In fact one of my colleagues protested at me referring to them as "disorganized organizers", why not just call them "disorganizers?".
Sikuku, Kamau and Kariuki ready to battle. Kamau holding his store to show his high carbohydrate payload.
They were late in registering people and had officials who had no clue what they were doing registering people. I assured my colleagues that marathons don't just test your endurance: they also test your patience. So we warmed up and held on. The 10K guys ran at around 9.00am. By that time, we had warmed up twice and decided the best thing to do would be to keep warm and not lose any more energy warming up for a race whose start time we did not know. Ndakaini is at 2040 feet above sea level unlike Nairobi, which is at 1600 feet but that didn't bother us. The air didn't feel thin in any discernible way.
Me and Sikuku. Ready for battle.
JOHN, SIKU and Mr. DOH
We met three very interesting people who I failed to photograph. First was Shiko (Siku), a beautiful strong lady who had run the Kilimanjaro marathon, Lewa marathon and even ran full marathon last year in the Standard and Chartered. Siku belongs to a group of hobbyists who practice in Ngong and she was with a guy called John Juu, who is actually called John High but he says guys prefer to use "juu", swahili for high.
We quietly inspected Siku and decided that whereas she looked fit and beautiful in her designer shades, water belt and hairdo, we, in our chauvinistic shells would not be beaten by such a well-groomed lady. We had no clue.
John was tall but weighed only 82 and his Swahili was excellent. We also sized him up but decided this mzungu (white man) looked too athletic to take lightly so we decided we will see how we fare with him. He had run the Lewa marathon and a few minutes of conversation with him told us he was a seasoned runner. There was also another lady we whose name we did not get to know who also runs with a group in Ngong. We sized her up and quickly concluded that here was someone we could beat - we learned later that she panicked and did not run even though she had registered and had a bib. We also met 60 year old Mr. Dho. A South Korean from Korean Embassy, he had run in South Korea, Chicago and other Marathons. Full of advise, running experiences to share and wit and quite athletic. He told us that while running the Chicago marathon, he hit the wall and lied down for a full ten minutes before he proceeded with concerned runners looking down at him and asking "are you okay?" We laughed off that experience. We did not know one of us would have a similar experience together. We also sized him up and didn't know what to make of him. He later shared with me a chocolate bar he hid in his pants after the marathon. He had a PR of 1:45 for the half marathon. I didn't ask him how old he was when he ran that time.
Wait, I forgot to tell you about Wainaina. He was a guy in a red cap who also belongs to a running group in Ngong and had run the Mount Kenya run last weekend. He had a slight pot and I decided I could beat him even if he had run the God marathon. Again, I had no clue. He told me he had run the course and told me if I have run stanchart marathon, I should add around ten minutes to my stanchart time to estimate my time in Ndakaini. I quietly made a note to prove him wrong. He told me wearily, like an old man speaking to an impudent youth, that the course was tough. Tough my ass. I quietly thought. I had no clue. Sikuku also said we don't care whether hills and mountains are placed on the path: all we care about is reaching the finish line. We all agreed.
DIDNT HAVE A CLUE
A few things to note here:
I thought I knew what a hilly course was. I did not. In fact, after the race, we all agreed that the course we use for training is "nursery" compared to Ndakaini. We were like toddlers trying to play in the ranks of seasoned professionals. What I know as "hills" are inclines at flyovers and gentle slopes that rise at 10-25 degrees. Those are not hills. Those are flat courses. Period.
I also thought after a hilly climb, there is a downhill, then a flat course then another hill, and so on and so forth. In Ndakaini, one hill follows another. And every time you are going down its because you will be going up shortly. So every slope was a preparation for a nightmare ahead.
This photo shows the general topography of Ndakaini. Notice how the hills slope deeply and rise sharply. Repeat several times until you have 21Km and you have the picture.
As we waited, we met more people and watched the 4K veterans race and 3K children's race and 15K race. We were lucky because the sun did not come out. We were weary of waiting and many people grumbled and said if they knew the level of disorganization was as bad as it was, they wouldn't have come. There are people who decided to go for 10K since 21K would be the last. But we waited. All around us, we saw fit, lean runners wearing vests and shorts and we knew we were out of our league with our trucks and t-shirts. Siku also complained that the pants we were wearing were too heavy. We told her they weren't heavier than her water belt and designer shades and laughed it off.
I said I would run a sub-two hour race however tough the course was. I felt strong, had no injury, was well hydrated and felt perfect. Nothing could stop me. If the worst came to the worst, I emphasized, I would do one hour and 50-something minutes. I had no idea what awaited me. Anyways, the disorganizers (UAP insurance) finally had us assemble at the start line at 11.30am. Some politicians gave some tired, off-colour, off-putting, out-of-place speeches and then Samuel Wanjiru, the world marathon record holder and Olympic marathon champion encouraged us and flagged us off. The group surged forward and obliterated the tarmac with the rapid footfalls.
THE WHEAT AND THE CHAFF
In the first seven seconds, the group of about 60 runners divided into two. The first group had around 50 runners and the second one had around ten runners. Of course myself and all the people I met and knew were in the second group except for one or two people.
We watched the first group surge away like a flock of birds and settled into our paces. I had no trouble starting behind because I felt confident I would happily pass some of those speedsters at the 16th Km mark thereabouts after they had burnt themselves out. I was wrong. In fact, I never saw the group again.
Anyways, John and wainaina were around 80 metres ahead of me for the first two Kms. By that time, I had passed three people from the first pack. One was grimacing at the side of the road with a bloody knee injury and the ambulance came for him. Another was just sitting facing the bushes like he had lost something. A third was a lady in a stripped black and green tights. The size of her butts showed she clearly belonged to our group. She was one of the only two people I actually overtook. Unknown to me, Miss green and black would run behind Kamau for most of the race.
Anyways, Sikuku left the pack behind me and joined me at the 3rd Km saying the other group was too slow. I told him we should overtake John and Wainaina at the 5th Km mark. He agreed. They were around 100m ahead of us. We met the first hill at the 4th Km mark. My strategy with hills is very simple: never attack a hill. Dont slow down either. Just keep going. If it slows you down, slow down and keep your eyes down so that you don't get discouraged by observing its mammoth size.
This is where Sikuku fell behind and I passed wainaina and a boy from the first group. The latter two were walking up the hill. Little did I know that it was their strategy. Anyways, when we reached the top, they passed me and so began the loneliest half-marathon I have ever ran. I met one "fit" champ walking back after giving up for whatever reason and I passed two other "fit" champs who had stopped for whatever reason. I can boast that I beat three "champs".
At the eighth Km, a guy in red passed me and joined Wainaina and the boy ahead of me. John by the way, had left wainaina and I never saw him again until the race was over. When I reached the next hill at around the 7th Km, I tried to run slowly uphill but I was no better than someone walking and I knew I had to walk than waste my energy climbing that wall. So I walked and saw the guy in red, wainaina and the boy walk some 80 metres ahead of me (this scenario of me walking behind them would be repeated until the 17th K mark when Wainaina disappeared). When I reached the top, I saw them disappearing in the next bend. Again and again for around six hills. I finally passed the boy at the last water point and finished at the same time with the guy in red who we later bonded with. He was 39 and was running for the second time in Ndakaini and had improved his first time of 2:20. he admired my pace and explained his strategy for me: walk uphill and sprint downhill.
WAITING FOR THE AMBULANCE
Meanwhile, my buddies were in trouble. Kariuki's back brought trouble and he was picked by the ambulance. Kamau developed a stitch and walked in a doubled-up posture with one hand grabbing his painful side. The ambulance circled him but he waved them on. He soldiered on. Running, walking and painfully scaling the walls that were masquerading as hills. Later, one of his legs "died" and he was running sideways like a vehicle with a broken center bolt. The ambulance followed him quietly, waiting for him and his steely determination and pride, to collapse on the tarmac and roll downwards like a sack. He refused to come on board and dragged himself to the finish. At the 20th Km, they acknowledged that he was a warrior and left him to drag himself to the Finnish line.
Something snapped in Sikuku's knee on one of the hills. He had run with Siku for over 15Kays and had bonded somewhat. He struggled but found it impossible. He told Siku to proceed and leave him behind. She urged him on but continued alone at his insistence. He lay on the roadside waiting for an ambulance. It did not come. He arose after some minutes and decided to soldier on, one leg limp. The ambulance came at the 18th K and they asked him to come on board and end his obvious misery. He refused and limped as they followed him, watching him and waiting for a catastrophe.
After the race. We sit on a bench and observe the world, notice how the earth dives down sharply behind us only to rise up again some metres away.
In the end, I finished in 2:07 mins, Siku in 2:19 mins Kamau with 2:40 and Sikuku some minutes after Kamau. The first guy cleared it in 68minutes, 5mins slower than last year's time. The lady in stripped dark and green tights came just after Sikuku. My respect for her soared like a bird. She was tough! Too bad we never spoke.
ENTER THE VEGETABLE_WATCHERS
In a nutshell, we were the weakest and we were the last. But I think I will go back again to run on the toughest course on earth. Siku was very impressive for a lady and John was just a hard, experienced runner. Amazing guy. He later told me he ran all through and never walked on any of the hills. They urged us to join their running group. We weren't interested in the certificates being offered and left to eat and get our shredded, wounded selves back to normal. We decided we should go and see Kariuki's beautiful garden and forget tough, near-death issues like 21Kms, tarmac and Finnish lines.
We admire Kariuki's garden and take our minds off the torture and trauma of Ndakaini half-marathon
Here, Kamau tries unsuccessfully to become one with the vegetables. Knowing well that vegetables don't have to run 21K half-marathons.
I am surprised I did not get an injury because those hills were exactly designed to splinter people's shins. I can now give my compartment muscles a certificate of fitness. My glutes, hamstrings and quads are speaking in tongues today. I don't know how my buddies will fare with the injuries and all but we are meeting on Sunday 21st for 23K. At least now we know we have just been in a nursery thinking we are running a very tough course. We also know we will find Stanchart Marathon easy as pie and I will finally have my sub 2hrs half marathon.
Overall, we did well. We also know that the hardest iron goes through the hottest fire and that anything that doesn't kill you, hardens you. We will up our training and do much better in Stanchart Marathon.