In honor of Global Running Day, I’m writing about my international running experience in Kenya. The last time I blogged about the honeymoon in Kenya and Tanzania, I wrote a review of climbing Mt. Kili. Right after climbing, we took a rest day and then went on a three-day safari. I don’t feel like writing about that now (don’t worry, we had a good time), so you’re going to get a post about running with Kenyans.
One of the things I desperately wanted to do (Ben would say that I desperately wanted to do everything) was to go running with Kenyans. We were going to be in Kenya, we were both runners, it seemed like a crime to go to Kenya and not run with them.
The famed fleet-footed elite Kenyan runners belong to the Kalenjin tribe. There is huge ethnic diversity in Kenya; the exact number of tribes is controversial, but there’s at least nine different ethnic tribes, plus a number of immigrants from other countries, like India. Whenever we spoke to other Kenyans about running with Kenyans, they all said the same thing, “The only people who run in Kenya are the Kalenjin.” We found this interesting. In the US, we tend to think of Kenyans as a monolithic group, but once you’re in the country, you start to see the differences among the Kenyans. They, themselves, don’t see themselves as Kenyans, but self-identify as a member of a particular tribe.
If you want to run with the Kalenjin, you need to travel northwest of Nairobi to Iten. It’s about a 215 mile trip. A distance that takes only a few hours in the US, but it’s a six hour trip by car in Kenya because of the poor infrastructure. As much as we complain about potholes in the crumbling freeways, lost mail in the postal service, or the institutional racism in policing, the US has one of the best infrastructures in the world. When we “planned” our honeymoon, three weeks in Kenya and Tanzania seemed like an awful lot of time. In reality, it was just enough time for us to to the most important things – climb Kilimanjaro and go on a safari. A number of our days were sucked up in traveling to and from locations. Because the roads are in poor condition and often, there isn’t a simple straight freeway going from one location to another, it takes forever to get anywhere. Even though in terms of miles we may not have been traveling all that much, Ben and I often found ourselves using up an entire day just to get to our next place. If I really wanted to run with the Kalenjin, I had to make a choice – either we go on a safari or we go running in Iten.
As much as it seemed Iten would be a cool experience, I couldn’t give up on my desire to go on a safari. Running I do all the time. Safari, on the other hand, was a unique experience. After we finished our safari, we made our way back to Nairobi to recuperate. Ben and I both came down dreadfully ill from our allergies and we were looking forward to sleeping in a clean hotel bed for the next couple of days.
While on our trip, we had been reading Running with Kenyans by Adharanand Finn, a British journalist. In 2011, he moved his family to Iten for six months to try to discover the secret of why Kenyans, specifically the Kalenjin, were so fast. It’s a delightful fun memoir and we both enjoyed the stories that he had of being a slow mzungu, white foreigner in Swahili. As a journalist, Finn certainly knows how to tell a story and I recommend this book to anyone curious about elite running in Iten. The book is more focused on the human side of the story of elite running and less on the science, so don’t expect a lot of hard information. The most frustrating part for us was that a lot of the stories seemed unfinished. After we read a chapter, we wondered what happened afterward. Ben asked me, “What happened to X? Do we ever get to find out?” because I was a few chapters ahead. I sighed and replied, “I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about X again. Maybe he will later.”
Anyway, the book made me firmly resolve that one way or another I was going to go running with Kenyans. I googled running in Nairobi and I discovered Go! Running Tours Nairobi that offered running tours of Nairobi, including running with elite runners in Nairobi. I was keen on going, but Ben balked at paying over $100 each for running. We googled some more and found much cheaper options with running clubs in Nairobi.
“Look, they’re Kenyan,” Ben argued, “That’s good enough for us. You want to run with Kenyans. We’re in Kenya. They’re Kenyans. No one back home will know the difference.” Unless I blog about the difference . . .
After a little bit of searching, we found some running clubs in Nairobi that held group runs. The Urban Swaras hosts a weekly Saturday morning run, which worked perfectly with our schedule. They charged only 500 KSH (~$5) for guests. I emailed the coordinator, Joyce, who promptly responded. After a few exchanges, she arranged for someone to come pick us up at our hotel at 6 am Saturday morning.
Nairobi is a large bustling city. Before arriving in Nairobi, we read quite a bit about safety concerns and figured that in general, as long as we were aware and not attracting attention, we would be okay. While we were not told NOT to go out on the streets at night, we were definitely discouraged from doing so by the hotel staff.
At 5:45 am, we went down to the lobby; Joyce had instructed us to wait out by the driveway of the hotel so that the car wouldn’t have to go up and go through security in order to pick us up. In the lobby, a hotel staff member politely asked us what we were up to. I take it that tourists don’t normally leave the hotel this early in the morning unless they’re heading to the airport. Based on our attire, we were not going to the airport. We said that we were going running. He told us where we could find the gym. We clarified that someone was coming to pick us and we were going out to meet them. He looked out and said that there wasn’t a car out there. We reassured him that the car was coming and we went out.
We walked down the driveway and waited for our car. Two minutes later, the same hotel staff member rushed out and urged us to wait inside the hotel because it wasn’t safe for us to be outside. Amused, we said that we were okay. There was a lot of traffic on the street and the street lights and the hotel lights were on full force, so we felt quite safe. He said it wasn’t safe for tourists and we really should go inside. Ben got a little exasperated and worked out a compromise with the hotel staff member. We would stand right underneath a street light on the hotel property that was halfway up the driveway. This way we weren’t right out on the sidewalk where we could get snatched by a car that happened to be passing by looking for mzungus to kidnap. He was much happier about our new waiting location. He walked back . . . about 20 feet away and waited out there with us.
Later on, I told Ben it was a good thing that we didn’t tell the staff member that we were getting in a car of a stranger whom we met on the internet. If he had known, I think he would have dragged us back to the hotel.
A few minutes after 6, a car showed up and we hopped in. Well, if we were going to get kidnapped, this was it. Our driver turned out to be Joyce herself. Another Urban Swaras member was already in the car. On the 45 minute drive to Kikuyu, we chatted about running in Kenya and how we came to find the Urban Swaras. Ben explained how we wanted to run with Kenyans. They broke into laughter and exclaimed, “We’re not those type of Kenyans. We’re slow. Not fast. Not like the Kalenjin.” Aside from the Kalenjin in Iten, apparently running is rare in Kenya. Pretty much no one else runs. Non-Kalenjin Kenyans running were an oddity. Considering how much we associate Kenya with elite running, it was strange to think that for the most part, there isn’t much of a running culture in Kenya outside of Iten.
The meeting location in Kikuyu was difficult to find, so we were grateful that we got a ride from Joyce. We realized that if we had tried to find it on our own with a taxi, we would have never made it. About fifty runners appeared and we were told that this was a small group. Normally they have far more. There were a fair number of mzungus; we weren’t the only ones. Some of those people were visitors like us, but many were expats who were living in Kenya or people who were temporarily living in Kenya for internships or volunteer opportunities.
The group runs were nicely organized. There were several different distances prepared: 5K, 10K, 15K, 20K, 25K, and 30K. We all started together and then at different points along the course, there was a mark indicating where a runner would turn off if doing a shorter run. This was Kenya so no one was doing the 5K option. Because I wasn’t feeling 100%, I decided to do the 10K route along with a few other people. Most of the runners were doing the 25 or the 30K routes. We thought it was interested that so many people were doing the longer routes. In our experience in the US, usually there are way more people doing the shorter routes. Even in the NYRR marathon training runs, I would say there are more runners who do the shorter options than the full 20-mile training run.
The elevation of Kikuyu is 6,444 ft (just under 2000 meters). We both felt the altitude while running. While having bronchitis/asthma wasn’t great for breathing, the altitude contributed to losing my breath quickly. It was a nice day so I ran easy and simply had fun.
The distinction between road runner or trail runner doesn’t exist in Kenya. Everyone is a trail runner. Running in Kenya isn’t easy. You can’t run on the streets. It’s not safe. There is too much traffic. Sidewalks aren’t found everywhere and if there is a sidewalk, most of the time the sidewalks are quite narrow and full of people. When we asked people where they ran on their own, they usually went to one of the many large parks found all over Nairobi.
It was cool running on the vivid red dirt trails of Kenya with its lush countryside. Somewhere during the second mile, we came to a swamp that we crossed using wooden planks that were laid on the boggy ground. I tried to keep my feet dry, but one landed in water. Ew.
Since I was only running about 10K, my turn off came after about 3 miles. When I reached the finish, which was the same as the starting point, I found Ben waiting for me. He had decided to do the shorter 10K route too. The altitude had sent his heart rate soaring. By the time I arrived, he felt fully recovered and not tired because his legs hadn’t worked much. Maybe this is the secret to fast running. The high altitude gets your cardiovascular system to work really hard, but your leg muscles don’t take much of a beating in comparison.
After the run, a restaurant provided a runner’s breakfast of different types of potatoes and yams (carbs) and a boiled egg for 500 KSH. We drank some coffee and chatted with different runners. Joyce found another runner heading back to Nairobi and we grabbed a ride with him who very graciously dropped us off back at our hotel.
We enjoyed our Kenyan running experience with the Urban Swaras in Nairobi. Joyce and the other club officers work hard to provide a wonderful supportive running experience for interested runners and are very accommodating to visiting mzungus. I appreciated interacting with locals and seeing what running is like in another country. It’s not the elite training experience of Iten, but this is very much what running is like for everyone else in Kenya if you’re not an elite. Personally, I love these types of experiences where I see what a normal everyday life is like.
If you ever go to Nairobi, definitely check out running with the Urban Swaras.
Also another cool experience was that I found another Simple Hydration user in Nairobi.