The Amazing Maasai Marathon
A race to support girls' education in Kenya
Race Day began at 04:45. The riverside camp site, full with local students and international runners, was pulled into action by the same blaring horn that would later start the race. The scouts, medical crew, aid stationers and Molly Fitzpatrick, Race Director, had woken-up an hour earlier to prepare – and now it was our turn. The start line was lined with banners and race course well-marked with flags, thanks to the race sponsor Maurice Duteau of TEMCO. The race would not have been possible without him!
Early-morning operations centred on the camp’s communal area, a large stone “banda.” Runners gravitated here from the darkness of their tents, to fuel their legs with a breakfast of carbs and caffeine. Anticipation was whipped up in the chilly pre-dawn air. I fiddled with the safety pins on my race number.
It was six o'clock when we started our ascent to the start of the race, twenty minutes up the hill in a bus. As we were driven up the dirt road, the pink Kenyan sun was beginning to light-up a cloudless sky. It was going to be a long, hot day!
Sprint-starting a marathon
We emerged from the bus to the sight of a mass of Kenyan runners, who were already congregating around the start banner. This was really a realrace now! Some of the Maasai were sprinting up and down by way of a warm-up, which I found rather entertaining (who else would bother warming-up for a hilly marathon at an altitude of 6,000ft?!) With no ambitions to compete with the Kenyans, I made my way right to the back of the pack, well out of the way of the large-lunged running machines.
I have run a number of marathons and ultras, but never before had I ever been part of one that begins with its participants crouching, ready to sprint. “On your marks, get set…”The Maasai men took off like bullets at 06:30, and I was left in their dust, running quite contentedly alongside the students of St.Francis Girls Secondary School (they ran a 21km race). I wouldn't see the male Maasai again until the finish.
Molly Fitzpatrick, Race Director, had fired the start gun, while our local Race Director and all-round-hero, Solomon Kimani, ran the marathon course. After Solomon completed in 3hrs 17mins, he then took over the management of the races, locating himself at the finish line. At that point, Molly switched to run, keeping the ultra-runners company towards the end of their race. Of course I was never aware of this, since I was plodding along the course…
Running with the locals
The first 20km of the race was a steady climb up to the nearest main village, Kimanjo. All the locals were out to watch, and intermittently throughout the race children of various ages joined me to run. At one point, as we neared the 20km peak on a long curving stretch of dirt road, an older lady in traditional Maasai clothes jumped into the road and started running ahead, as if to catch up with the next runner. She must have been about 65-years old kept but she kept up a nice pace for a good few minutes before stepping back, grinning, to re-join her family by the side of the road.
At points of the race I was lucky enough to run with the effervescent Bec McHenry, from Australia,and I also ran with my Irish buddy Aidan Ryan. But much of the running was solitary. I enjoyed the quietude, so alien to me, coming from my base in China, and I was so happy just taking in the scenery and wide open spaces. It had rained the week before, so the bush was surprisingly verdant for Race Day.
Every so often a race vehicle came past, either full of the wildlife scouts or cheerful volunteers. Depending on how I was feeling at the time, I would either wave back or keep my head down, singularly focused on the white lime course markings on the ground.
Blistering heat of winter?
I was not having a lot of fun around the 50km mark, and my calf was causing me quite a bit of pain. I'd drawn on at least one energy gel by that point, and was trying to get my head around running another 25km in what was fast turning into the blistering midday heat of winter in Kenya.
Ending on a high!
The second part of the ultra is more of descent than ascent, which brought comfort as my legs grew tired. It was quite easy to run from 55-65km, since it was all gently downhill. Just before the 60km mark on this downhill, I passed a number of camels and two small boys in the road. The boys shooed away the camels and abandoned their yarn football to run with me to the next aid station. They were quite vocal (in English) about how unimpressed they were with my pace, as they darted around in front on nimble little legs. I remained very grateful to them for their company!
After what seemed like very many energy gels, gallons of water and hours later, I came through the finish line, holding the hands of two girls who had run the last 5km with me. They were six-and seven-year olds, namedAlice and Lucyrespectively. What a way to finish! The race was held as a fund-raiser for scholarships to send girls in the area through secondary school, so I was so grateful to have them there, quietly running by my side.
Soon after I finished, I received news and updates on the front runners and their times. Winner of the ultra-marathon was 19-year old Maasai student David Simpiri, who completed the race in just over 6 hours, having decided on a whim to continue running after completing the marathon distance. Rumour has it he didn't even bother to stop for water. A few hours before, local marathon veteran, Sapuk Safari, had taken first place in the 42km marathon, speeding around the hilly course in just 2 hours 41minutes. Those Maasai are so fast, even the girls! The female winner of the marathon was
20-year old Lucy Sembe, who had been training in the local area for the race for a number of months. Everyone achieved something to be proud of that day, and it was a great
atmosphere at the camp.
The prize-giving ceremony was held the next day at camp. It was a colourful affair, with traditional dance performances from the students of St.Francis' girls school and also the ladies of the local community. After we presented certificates to all the runners, our ultra-marathon winner, David, was awarded his prize. Seeing that cow led onto the “stage” areas was a scene I'll not forget quickly!
After many months of preparation – an ultra-marathon of a process in itself – the race was over and, what a relief, it had been successful. Having received so many donations and sponsorships in the run up to the race, we could now look forward to putting that money towards the girls' scholarships.
Thank you to everyone who supported the Amazing Maasai Ultra 2011. We are so close to reaching our fund-raising target of $20,000 now!
Please check on our fund-raising progress here: https://amazingmaasaiultra.myetap.org/donate/
by Sarah Edson
Co-Race Director Amazing Maasai Marathon