As this past week has been relatively uneventful aside from slowly recovering from a busy week of ROPES Camp, this is a good opportunity to reflect on another little excursion which fell by the wayside amidst the hullaballoo.
I have hinted before that although I had left the PA trail race scene behind, my training never stopped. The running scene over here is refreshingly different from what I had been accustomed to in rural eastern Pennsylvania. Even though I was fortunate to have a small nature preserve only a mile from home, I still had to drive to trails if I wanted to get off the pavement. Here, in rural Uganda on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, one only needs to step outside his front door to pick up a trail headed in one direction or another. These trails vary from simple footpaths to narrow “roads” traversed by bodas to dirt roads which are used by every size and type of vehicle. One thing you will not find within 20 kilometers in any direction is a paved road. This is a real treat for me as I often set out for my weekend long run in one direction that I have not explored previously. Taking only my Tomtom watch, my waist pack with a small water bottle and electrolyte gummies, and sometimes my phone for photos, I have at times found myself looking for any kind of edible, if not ripe, fruit to refuel when my route became longer than anticipated.
I have had many interesting encounters with others commuters on my runs. Walking is the primary mode of transportation for many of my neighbors, so you can imagine that the idea of wasting energy by running for any reason other than football is a foreign one. More than once I have been stopped by curious folks wondering what I am doing. A simple explanation that I am exercising or training is usually sufficient to get me dismissed with a smile and a shake of the head. I have been held up at mid-morning by a very drunk young man who desperately wanted another drink from my bottle. I just smiled and picked up the pace till he stumbled off. I have passed school children and even adults who fell in beside me and ran along until our paths split, much to the amusement of everyone we passed.
One of the challenges I faced immediately was the elevation here. Although we are only a little over 4,000 feet above sea level, it was enough to shake up a Pennsylvania boy who had never run much above 2,000 feet. Fortunately, I was able to work hard on hill training well above my aerobic threshold as well as plenty of low intensity long runs. I am still fascinated by the unusually high heart rates recorded on my runs, but I am certainly seeing improvements in stamina and strength.
Even before I flew to Uganda I was researching the local trail running scene and found one by Activate Uganda which caught my eye. This event held in Mpanga Forest Reserve offered races ranging in length from 5K up to 21K. While I had my eye on the 21K race as the Ugandan equivalent of my favorite distance, the half marathon, I was very uneasy about running my first race at altitude with an unknown amount of elevation gain and technical trail. Eventually I opted to bite the bullet and registered for the 21K despite the unknowns. I reasoned that if I fell apart at any point during the race I would consider it an educational experience and train accordingly.
Now that my mind was settled, I set out to find someone to travel with me. Kevin and Angela Blank decided to take the family and make a weekend out of it. This took care of the question of transportation for me. We struck out for Kampala Saturday morning, November 4, did some shopping and met a mutual friend, Mike Fisher, for lunch. After a few more stops we checked into our guest house and arranged to meet my friend Merle Fisher and his colleague Marcus for an outdoor dinner at a local Ethiopian restaurant.
The following morning, KB took me about 10 minutes away to where a shuttle was scheduled to leave for the race at 6:29 AM, Ugandan time. As our departure time was typically delayed and we made multiple stops on the way while fighting the infamous Kampala traffic, more than one of us was a little nervous about getting in any kind of warm up before the race start. We did eventually arrive just minutes before the race was scheduled to start, and in true Ugandan fashion, the start time was pushed back until everyone had found their bibs and was somewhat situated. Just like that, we were off!
I felt very fresh going into the race and started out picking my way through the pack at a somewhat rapid pace.
We started out on a wide trail through gorgeous forest over rolling hills. As we navigated into narrower single track, we encountered many fallen trees and large tree roots which were an interesting trade off for the typical Pennsylvania rocks. After several kilometers of this forest, the trail turned and followed the side of a hill with the forest to the left and gardens to the right. This was the beginning of the mud fest, courtesy of the heavy rains throughout the week and even the night before. I marveled at the sure-footedness of the runner ahead of me as I slid all over the treacherous trail. It was only after we turned uphill along a hard(er) road, that I realized he was actually wearing football cleats! It appears these are a viable option where mud is plentiful and rocks are few. From here, the route followed dirt roads past houses, gardens and countless cries of “Muzungu!” I held on to the thin thread of hope that this meant I was the first white person in the pack. I picked up the pace on a long downhill section and left behind the pack with which I had been running. At the bottom of the hill I turned left to follow the flags marking the route. I followed a slight grade uphill several hundred yards when a man started shouting at me excitedly from his yard. I took it as encouragement and picked up the pace. He finally stopped me by telling me I was heading the wrong way. After arguing with him for a few minutes, I reluctantly took his advice and turned around. Sure enough, as I backtracked I saw the pack I had left earlier pass by and continue on where I had turned left. Oh well, I fell in behind them somewhat discouraged about the time I had lost. I started up the longest hill of the route at the back of the pack and eventually reclaimed my spot near the front of it, embarrassedly congratulating everyone as I passed them a second time. This wrong turn may have been providential, however, as I picked up my first pacer soon after I rejoined the pack. A local boy who looked to be about 12 had joined in with the pack as they passed his house, and had the ego to stay just ahead of the pack even though he had left the house in flip flops. At least, he had one flip flop on his right foot and the other in his hand. This youngster was a huge motivation for me as we ascended one slimy clay road after another before reaching a gorgeous section of steep single track with some technical parts. Two of the runners I had passed earlier were still ahead of me, but even occasional glimpses of them ahead did not have the energizing effect that my new friend running with me had.
As we reached the top of the hill and followed the top of a scenic plateau I passed one contender and as we started back down an easy grade I passed the other, while my pacer slowly fell back. I was sad to leave him behind, but found new motivation ahead. The track was laid out in a figure eight with a long connector between the two loops. Soon after heading back downhill we rejoined the connector part of the trail and immediately met a flood of runners coming the other way. I suppose these were a mixture of slower 21K runners as well as shorter distance runners who had had a later start time. Either way, it was energizing to encourage and high-five those coming the other way! I was soon past the halfway mark with lots of short ascents and descents. On nearly every ascent I was passed by an Italian whose name I later learned to be Roberto. We played a sort of tag game as I would exploit whatever downhill speed I had left to pass him when the tables turned until the last real ascent where he left me in the dust to finish nearly two minutes ahead of me.
By the halfway point I was regretting my somewhat fast start and thankful for the many distractions from what my body was telling me. At the bottom of one hill I was met by a group of kids whom I guessed to be about ages 6-9. They cheered loudly at my feigned enthusiasm and marched me right up that hill before heading home again. I had no way of knowing where I was placing by this point, but it was really irrelevant as my only focus by now was finishing strong. I always commend runners who pass me in the second half of any race while mentally chiding myself for blowing it early on when I was still feeling great.
When I reached the last aid station I knew I had less than three kilometers left and that now was the time for my one last push. I started downhill past a group of cheering youngsters. Fortunately for me, these lads had fresh legs and a need to run just when I came by. They ran, barefooted, alongside me down the hill and along the treacherous single track beside the forest. Several took the lead as we entered the forest and coaxed me along faster than my mind could coax my body. A very happy and competitive bunch they were, indeed. With nearly a kilometer left to go, I heard an exclamation of alarm and warning. I was a bit confused until I noticed just behind me the runner I had left behind before the long downhill. I smiled weakly and let her pass to claim second place in the women’s division. Being the true competitors they were, my little friends left me behind to keep up with the competition. I never did find them after the race to thank them and take their photos, but I hope that they grow up to be runners in their own neighborhood and abroad.
One of the interesting elements in a trail race is the fact that each one is a little longer or shorter than advertised. This one was no different with the total distance over one kilometer shorter than advertised. Even with this shorter distance and an elevation gain of only 1,500 feet, I was elated to realize that I had shattered my goal of 2 hours and 30 minutes. A quick glance at my watch told me I had finished in under 2 hours, a solid 20 minutes faster than my previous half marathon PR. When the official results were posted later in the week they confirmed that I had finished in 1:58:11, good enough for 10th place overall and 8th place in the men’s division.
Now, if only I had not started so fast, or taken that wrong turn. . . . .
So goes life. We live, we learn, we improve, and we enjoy every step of the journey. When we choose to do so.
Until next time, run with endurance!