Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Running in Kenya does not a Kenyan runner make

At an altitude of almost 3,000 ft and under the equatorial sun, I'm not exactly churning out record-breaking times when I go running here. Running in the Mara is, needless to say, quite different from running in the States. Technically, I don’t run inside the Mara, I run just outside the border, through the Maasai community that neighbors our camp.
The landscape is a far cry from my typical suburban route—rolling hills of savannah, dotted with acacia trees and wildebeest, spread out to the south. To the east and north are mountains, and to the west are manyattas (Maasai homes—see photos), which are mostly made of dried cow manure. The view allows me to see rain coming from miles away, as opposed to at home, where dense trees and buildings make any jog a guessing game weather-wise. The river that forms the border of the park separates me from any carnivores, buffalo, or elephants that might present a threat (or at least that’s what I tell myself, although I haven’t seen anything more than a gazelle so far).

After I cross the river from camp, I make my way through a few bushes and out into open fields, all of which have been grazed down to mostly dirt by the Maasai’s livestock. I follow a cow path onto the road and turn west, making my way up the hill into the Maasai community, all the while avoiding piles of poop and mud puddles. Sometimes cars with tourists will pass me, and I love seeing the confused look on their faces at seeing this random white girl running in the middle of a Maasai community.

As I approach the first cluster of manyatas, I’m usually spotted by a child or two, who shriek to their friends that I’m arriving. Within seconds, kids pop out from every corner and gather at the road ahead, grinning and waving and shouting things in Maa (the Maasai language) that I cannot understand, but presume to be something along the lines of, “Crazy, crazy white lady, why are you in such a hurry?” Usually the kids will join me for a few hundred yards, running by my side, peppering me with questions that I can’t answer. Sometimes the crowd gets so thick—yesterday I had about twenty kids and two dogs with me—that the kids trip over each other and fall. Despite my rudimentary Swahili warnings of “pole, pole!” (“slowly, slowly!”), this inevitably cracks them up and they waste no time in catching up to the group. The kids range in ages from two to about fifteen, both boys and girls. They laugh hysterically as they weave in and out of my path, and love high-fiving me.
Most of the time, the children will run with me for a few minutes and then stop before they stray too far from home. Occasionally, though, I’ll acquire boys walking home from school. These boys are typically on the older side—between nine and fourteen, I’m guessing—and will often run with me for a mile or two. Given that they are wearing sweaters and carrying backpacks, this never fails to impress me. I have to admit: although I enjoy the attention of the younger children, it can be exhausting trying to make sure I don’t run anyone over (harder than it sounds), so I much prefer the older kids. They’ll stop walking when they see me, and as I reach them, they’ll casually say hello and fall into step right next to me, matching me stride for stride. They will run silently next to me until we pass their manyattas, at which point they will wave goodbye and abruptly veer off. I find these kids very comforting, because instead of being my spectators, they are my companions—they’re not in it for me, they’re in it for the run. When they leave, I shout, “Very good! Goodbye friend!” after them, and they grin as we go our separate ways.


Anonymous said...

All that running had better come in handy in January when you get back to Art's.

Katy said...

This blog makes me miss Kenya even more, if possible :) And I've got to say, the kids are much better running companions than the baboons, whom I've had beat their chests at me as I've run by. No contest - they win.

Dan said...

Runners can actually be at a disadvantage training in Kenya. While the high altitude causes your body to produce more red blood cells due to the relative lack of oxygen, the lack of humidity makes it difficult for runners to adjust to race conditions in another part of the world with high humidity. Obviously, that didn't stop Sammy Wanjiru in Beijing.

Just some things to consider during your Olympic marathon training. :)

dp said...

So vivid. My colleagues would often run in the areas surrounding our bush camps, with much the same reception. They would also run in Kampala when we were there, where people spoke enough English to shout "what's your hurry crazy white ladies?" such that they could understand.

Leslie said...

well, Dan, I guess that explains why when we went running in Boston last week while I was home, you said your knees hurt from "running so slowly." :)

James said...

I with Seth. You're going to have to stay in shape to earn your place on the Art's team. You have new competition. We may even have to have trials.

Dan told me his knee hurt because he has been playing too much Golf. I guess it is tough doing all what walking in the rough to find his ball.

And as for me, I've been keeping in shape by carrying all your belongings into your new place here. I'm ready for Olympic weightlifting now.

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