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Kenya’s Entirely Exotic Half-Marathon

October 7th, 2013 · No Comments · Kenya, Sports Journalism, Travel, tourism

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We were riding in the Land Cruiser over the broad and grassy uplands of the Masai Mara, looking for a leopard, when we saw a tent-like structure on the horizon.

What could that be, out in the middle of the game conservancy?

A watering station for some truly exotic creatures who would be traversing the area in the morning.

Humans.

We happened to be at the Safari Club the day of the annual Masai Mara Marathon, staged right out there among the wild animals.

We were lounging in the lodge when staff members adjusted the one TV in the place to the domestic channel showing the start of the run — which actually is a half-marathon of “only” 13.1 miles.

But still crazy.

The day before, and the day after, predators stalked prey in the same areas the runners were negotiating.

The whole of the course was open country, and organizers had been out the day before spraying white arrows on fields and staking up a few flags to serve as directional markers.

That helped runners find their way, but it did nothing to ensure their safety.

The Safari Club did its part by sending out the half-dozen-strong fleet of Land Cruisers to patrol the course; just by driving in the area, many predators are spooked and stay away. (Though African buffalo don’t seem to be spooked by anyone or anything.)

The race began later than you would expect for a distance run, at about 10 a.m., with the sun already high and warm. The late start was made for two very good reasons.

–Many of the competitors came from some distance, preferring not to spend the money to stay overnight nearby, and it is difficult to drive anywhere in a hurry, in Kenya. A 10 a.m. start allowed people from outside the immediate environs to arrive at the starting line.

–By 10, many predators have called it a day and retire to the shadows of the brush.

One particular concern was a lioness and her cub, seen the day before the marathon. Runners coming past at 8 a.m. might have had some trouble there. At 10? More likely the lions would be in the shade of the deep brush.

The race made for some extraordinary TV viewing. One shot showed runners running along a ridge line in the distance, with gazelles loping behind them, before them, and among them.

It was odd to think of hundreds of people out there where the rest of us never ventured unless inside a big motor vehicle.

We also marveled at the runners’ ability to stay upright. We knew from rough experience how uneven the ground is, in part because of middens, small hills, often created by elephant excrement. In part because vehicles traversing the area during the rainy season create deep ruts, which then bake into a rock-like hardness when the rains stop.

Several employees of the Safari Club ran in the race, and their colleagues mocked them for being slow. Kenya is the epicenter of distance running as a way of life, and apparently if you are not world class, your co-workers will make jokes at your expense.

We saw one familiar face on the screen, after the winners had come home — a young American who had traveled from Los Angeles specifically to run in the half-marathon.

He was introduced, with great fanfare, as “coming from the United States” and finishing as “the fastest tourist in the race”.

He was asked about safety (which at the moment had dual meanings; it could have been a reference to being in Kenya two weeks after the terror attack in Nairobi … or it could have been about running around the savanna without a gun or even a spear).

The cheerful Yank said he never felt in danger, that he was concentrating on not rolling an ankle on the rough terrain, and remarking how many Kenyan runners passed him.

And while he spoke, I said: “Hey, that guy is staying here!” We had seen him taking meals with three friends. The staff thought that was amusing, as well, and they gave him a round of applause when he returned to the lodge.

The TV guys estimated that about 10 “elite” runners had competed, and the top five finishers will be flown to London, on Air Kenya, the sponsor, to compete in the London Marathon. And the winners (male, female) each got about $5,000. The male winner said he would build a small house with his winnings, to give an idea of real estate prices in Kenya.

Had I known about the race before I landed, I might have tried to write about it professionally. Talking to experts about the danger of animal attack, and running on a rough course.

Still could make for a very good feature story — and perhaps is an excuse to consider returning to the Masai next October.

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