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As I was cycling along, about half way from Cape Town to Borana, I suddenly thought it would be a good idea to volunteer myself for the Lewa Marathon. I was midway through an effort to cycle 10,000km through South East Africa in aid of Save the Rhino. Believing that my fitness would be the best it’s ever been on arrival at Borana (where I have been given the amazing opportunity to help out for a couple of months, as an over-age ‘gappy’), I thought it’d be a doddle to run a half marathon... There were (un)fortunately no spaces left on the Borana team. All I can say now is – Thank. God.
The role of leading the front-runners, the really (really) fast guys, on a bicycle, fell to me. Oh dear. Having been proudly boasting to everyone with an ear about my trip, I suddenly became very nervous. Kenyans are amongst the best marathon runners in the world, what if they caught up with me?! So much for a Trans-Africa cyclist... Embarrassment loomed.
The Lewa Marathon, in aid of Tusk Trust really is a mammoth event. I have never seen anything quite like it; hundreds of people lining up to run a 21km half marathon, (or for those who dare - the full 42) in the burning heat, at an altitude of 5500ft, with buffalos, lions, rhinos and elephants never far away from the track, choppers whirring above, and water stations manned with eager volunteers ready to quench. All of us with the shared vision of protecting Africa’s precious wildlife. I was in total awe.
In the typical African drama that preceded the race, I was quickly briefed that as the lead runners approached the starting line for their second lap that I should cycle ahead, clearing a path for them through those still running, and warning the water stations; “the leaders are already here!”.
Heart pounding (I can barely believe I was so nervous – I was on a bicycle for goodness sakes, everyone else was running!), I saw the group of seven runners round the corner, having completed their first lap in a nail biting one hour and seven minutes. I set off, trying to keep about 500m between them and I. As soon as I had reached the first big hill, after about 7km, I knew I might be in trouble, they were gaining on me. I just couldn’t get my head around how fast these guys were.
Whilst irritating everyone else on the track barking that they ought to “Keep to the left please!! Leaders coming through!”, and trying to dodge my way past those with iPods firmly plugged in their ears I came to the big hill. A quick glance over my shoulder, yep, still gaining. I pedalled as hard as I could, past the awe inspiring amateur runners, all digging as deep as they could to navigate the climb. On route passing the collective Security Team from Borana and the other nearby Conservancies, running in full military gear, complete with gun and 30kg backpack.
“If these guys are running it, I can at least do my part and cycle as fast as the leading men. Come on!”
As I climbed over the crest of the final hill, I was slowing down to see if I could take a break, NO, Number 2, had broken away from the others and was less than 5 meters behind me! Needless to say, I flew down the hill.
Keeping a steady pace on the final flat, I managed to stay in front, with the helicopter slicing alongside us - filming the leader, we zipped passed the impeccable and cheerful Borana water station, feeling almost as if I was winning the race myself.... As we approached the finish line and saw the huge crowd of support (some of them teasingly chanting ‘cheat!’ at me) I pulled over and let Number 2 pass me and cross the line.
I was exhilarated and knackered (imagine how he felt??) but had just about saved myself from embarrassment.... The marathon not only showed me that these professional runners are faster than you can really imagine, but also that the non-professional runners were braver than I can imagine. Cycling in that heat and at that altitude, I found extremely tough (and I have done a LOT of cycling recently), to run it really is something special. What an incredible introduction to life on Borana and neighbouring Lewa. I stand by my relief at not being able to run. Astounding stuff.