Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Marathon

Hillary has been busy working. She has taken over an organization that was in decline and needed a turnaround. She is very competitive, and this helps drive her. It can also have her running off a cliff. Or at least through a game preserve. Our friend Laura tapped into this instinct of hers and challenged, although she’d say invited, Hillary to run a half-marathon at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Hillary, who was – pre-Bodie, pre-Alfred – a runner of marathons, accepted.

Bodie, Hillary, Laura and I, along with Laura’s good friend Kalin, (aiming for the medal to be awarded to the first Bulgarian to cross the finish) left Nairobi early on Friday morning to make the four-hour drive north, past Mount Kenya to Lewa Conservancy. Lewa has 62,000 acres that include black rhinos, elephants, lions, warthogs, a rare, endangered type of zebra and pretty much any African animal you can think of. The area is savanna, vast grasslands with clusters of trees, and stretches as far as you can see. Driving through the park to the campsite, we saw grazing elephants, giraffes and zebras.

A sign welcoming everyone to the park read: "Warning. Endurance running in a a wildlife conservation area is an inherently risky activity. You participate entirely at your own risk."

The campsite teemed with hundreds of tents. Sponsored by Safari.com, the largest cell phone company in Kenya, there was a bar tent, music, and Masai dancing. About 600 people (fact checker - please verify) were running, of which 150 were running a full marathon.

We camped around a campfire with others from Laura’s company, Pesa Point, who were part of the team. Here is where some of our planning fell short. When camping with a two-year old, it is important to think through a few basic questions in advance. Like, for instance, where is he going to sleep? We had a tent, two pads and two sleeping bags. In camping, it is protocol to bring your own stuff. “Bodie, where’s your stuff?” we asked. Nothing.

So we zipped two mummy-style sleeping bags together and tried to settle Bodie down to sleep. Sleep? Why? There is a tent to bounce in, and soft sleeping bags to bounce on, and animal noises and people talking around a campfire outside, and, did I mention that there is a tent?

Strike 1: Hillary had been busy at work and had amassed total training mileage the month before of, oh, zero.

Strike 2: According to experts, sleep may be a factor in how one feels and performs the next day. This thing that we call “sleep” was not so evident the night before the marathon.

But offsetting the strikes – we camped in a stunning game preserve. We heard animals through the night – elephants, a cheetah (Hillary swears) although I’m guessing it was a warthog, maybe hyenas in the distance, and saw more stars glittering in the night sky then we’ve ever seen before. We stood at our tent and watched the sun setting with an elephant no more than a hundred yards away. A family of baboons sat on fallen trees, staring at the campers waking from tents when we woke up.

During the marathon, Bodie and I raced around in a pickup truck to catch up with Hillary, Laura and Kalin and cheer them on. I scanned the savannah, trying to eye different game. Bodie was more preoccupied with the two helicopters that were hovering in the near distance, scaring off the animals so they wouldn’t munch laggardly runners.

At the mid-point, Bodie handed bottles of water to passing runners. Well, he stood for a good four minutes, arm outstretched, but everyone seemed to choose water at waist height. When Hillary showed up, Bodie yelled, as we’d practiced, “go mama go!”. She stopped, hugged him, and started to go. He burst into tears, to which Hillary replied: “I feel your pain.”

The folks running the full marathon were mostly Kenyans, with many world-class runners taking part. This is a different type of runner than we normally see jogging around the park. They are thin, all muscle and sinew, with legs that run from the ground directly to their shoulders. At the finish, they were ahead of most of the runners completing the half-marathon, and strode in, after 26 miles in the hot sun, at full bore. It was stunning to see these human gazelles effortlessly loping across through the savannah.

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