To be truly alive, you have to have big goals. Ones that you dream about, but then move into reality. This has always been my life’s philosophy, leading me to one of my goals to run 7 marathons on 7 continents.
I’m just back from bagging my 5th continent, Africa. The Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon in Moshi, Tanzania is a memorable one, even if hitting 7 on 7 isn’t your goal.
I had climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro over a decade earlier, another great bucket list item, so I was drawn back to this part of the world to experience my African marathon. And it was one that did not disappoint, although it had its challenges!
I expected that heading to East Africa in March would be hot, but I didn’t get the full sense of it until we landed from Amsterdam at 9pm to an 80-degree African night.
And sure enough, the buzz around town was that it was going to be a hot run.
“Don’t run for time”, organizers pleaded. “This will not be a personal best. You have to pace yourself and stay hydrated!”.
It was the conversation during the check-in, with other runners and at the requisite carb loading dinners at the local hotels.
What struck me was how local this race would be. No chips for time, in fact no time clocks. At two points at the race, individuals would mark down your number on a piece of paper to validate that each runner had reached a particular point in the run. At the Keys Hotel, the central place for registration, there were no exhibition booths, or fancy check in spots. Essentially, it was 3 separate tables, manned by locals, who checked people in for the full marathon, the half marathon, or the 5k fun run.
Only 500 people had signed up for the full, while there were 2,000 for the half and around 3,000 for the fun run.
Maybe the small number of those running the 26.2 mile run should have told me something about what we were all about to experience.
On race morning, we were in Moshi stadium at 6 am, getting ready for the 6:30 start time and it was a balmy 70 degrees with a slight amount of light beginning peek through.
Off we were at 6:30 sharp and in actuality, the first 13 miles went smoothly. The temperature wasn’t too bad; the sun wasn’t fully up, although we did have some odd obstacles along the way.
In this particular race, none of the roads are closed, so there we were dodging cars and vans and motorcycles, and then goats and chickens and the occasional cow.
Local villagers stood on the roadside, but unlike other races, cheering was not the protocol here. They basically stood and watched the runners (probably thinking that we were crazy!) We ran passed Masai families in full garb and young Muslim girls in full garb. We found ourselves running through an early Sunday morning market, as women around us carried baskets of bananas on their heads and merchants went about their everyday business.
This isn’t so bad, I thought. The course was actually easy, there were plenty of water stations with bottled water (we hoped) poured into cups and it wasn’t actually too hot. And then it happened. Suddenly and without warning.
At the 13-mile mark everything changed. The sun started blazing, the temperature rose and the terrain of the race moved to a 40-degree angle up a hill and we learned that it would be that way for at least 5 miles!
And it was during that stretch that we all began to feel the heat and that fellow runners began to pass out on the sidelines and that some of us started to feel a little delirious.
At around 15 miles, something happened that I had never experienced in any prior marathon. The whole race stopped and people started to walk, up the hill, the long hill in front of us.
But even then, people stopped, exhausted, as I passed people laying on the roadside. Now here is what you need to know. The scenery was spectacular. There was majestic Kilimanjaro in the distance and there we were in the midst of beautiful coffee plantations. But unfortunately, all of our attention was on conserving energy and moving forward.
And it was at this point, that local kids came out in droves to help us along, holding our hands, singing, running along aside us in flip-flops, to encourage us to keep going. At 18 miles, we would turn around and do the uphill course in reverse, so all we dreamed about was the 8-mile downhill run. Until then, it was water. On our heads, down our back, in our mouths, to stay cool and hydrated. “It’s 90 degrees”, I thought. Just conserve your energy. Walk. Run. Walk.
Water. Think of that 18-mile mark at the top of the hill. Slowly, I got to 16 miles, then 17 and finally to the top of the hill, where I stopped for more water, even though I was drenched from head to toe, so much so that my socks were sopping wet.
Taking in the scenery for a moment, I began down the hill and let gravity take me, as I maintained a steady pace, knowing that my goal to reach my four-hour goal was behind me. My best time in a recent marathon had been 3:52, but the conditions were perfect and now I acknowledged that the organizers were right. Focus on finishing, not a personal best time.
For marathoners, we love the downhill portion of any course, and I made sure that I embraced it in both my body and my brain. And while I was exhausted from the long upward hill portion, I was now feeling a bit rejuvenated and let my legs enjoy the downhill. And before I knew it, I was at 23, 24, 25 miles, still dodging cars and people and goats. Stopping for water, smiling more, feeling like I was back in the game.
At 26 miles, there was a turn off the road that led back to the stadium and a final victory lap, and there I found myself at 4:29, crossing the line to the cheers of hundred of locals in the bleachers, who were there, all shaded from what I thought had to be at least 90 degree plus weather with bright sun.
Those of us who crossed the finish line, worked our way over to a hospitality tent, where it was a scene of happy exhaustion, as we cheered on the others who came in after us.
At the end of the day, what I learned is that of the 500 runners, only 238 finished that day and that I had actually placed pretty well in 139th. place. I also learned that I was the 11th American finisher and the 8th male.
It was the toughest marathon that I have ever run, but perhaps the most memorable to date. Imagine the idea of going to Africa to test your abilities and to challenge yourself. And to live your dreams and to live your life.
For those of us who are lucky to do this, we savor the moment and we continue dreaming. At the end of our lives, it will be these experiences that will make us remember that we have lived the full life.
From The Globetrotter Diaries by Michael Clinton, copyright © 2013, published by Glitterati Incorporated.