Finding a runner’s common ground in Kenya

When I moved to Nairobi, I knew I was leaving the trail running experience I loved behind.

Feet beating a muffled rhythm over a single-track trail, the noises of civilization giving way to that of birds and other woodland creatures calling to each other. The smell of pine, wildflowers and the outdoors filling the lungs. The burning of muscles put to the test over a steep, rocky grade. The rush of adrenaline as feet pick their way down a slope, gravity kicking momentum up a notch … then another notch … then another notch.

Trail running was, in a way, a redemption after a knee injury nearly derailed me five years ago. Along the way, it also helped to put the craziness of life into perspective.

The past couple of weeks have been full of orientation – to what SIM does in Kenya, to life in a city (the largest town I’ve ever lived in before this was 15,000 people), to life in a city in eastern Africa. I’ve met so many people, I apologize in advance. I’m not great with remembering names at first. Remembering this many at once? Good. Luck.

It’s a lot of new everything at once.

About a week after I arrived, my flatmate and I laced up our running shoes and set out for a run. You know that feeling you get when you slip on an old familiar pair of slippers or shrug into that ratty sweatshirt you’ve had for a decade? That’s what those first steps felt like.

Oh, to be sure, it’s different. Everything is when you’re “mzungu” (Kiswahili for white person) in an African world. You need to be prepared for the occasional comment or shouted English greeting from a passing matatu. Or for that random Kenyan spontaneously joining you for a while – and feeling somewhat schooled, no matter if it’s an adult or child. Or for the occasional cloud of acrid exhaust fumes from a passing bus. Or for the intricate dance required to cross any road. In no way, shape or form do pedestrians have the right of way.

But more often than not, my feet beat a rhythm on dirt, with the occasional sidewalk thrown in. Even though it’s winter, an array of vibrantly colored flowering shrubs hover near the roads. A sloping path can provide just as many obstacles as a single-track trail – although with a few more spectators waiting for the blonde mzungu to bite it on any one of the rocky stretches.

While not necessarily quiet or meditative, every excursion has required the mental focus of a trail run. With each one, I’m exploring a little more. Already, I’ve been introduced to the trails at Nairobi Arboretum. Trust me, I’ll be back.

I’m still re-acclimating to higher altitude running and easing into longer distances. The idea of doing a marathon here keeps popping up, but I’m pushing it down for now.

Over the years, I’ve had times when I couldn’t run – for one reason or the other. Every time, it helps me focus on why I do it: I love to run.

Christopher McDougall nails it in “Born to Run.” He researched the Tarahumara, a little known tribe living in the mountains of Mexico who have the distinction of being one of the last people groups who can run forever. He set out to figure out how they could do it, without fancy gear and seemingly without running injuries. Here’s his conclusion:

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running.

I’m still waiting for that first big “Oh man, I’m not in America anymore. Get me out of here.” moment. I fully expect to be involved in a proverbial train wreck of culture clashes at some point. No matter how many Snickers bars there are in the checkout lines, it’s bound to happen.

But as long as I can lace up my shoes and hash it out over a nice long run, I can’t help but think it’ll be all right. As McDougall says:

If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.


2 responses to “Finding a runner’s common ground in Kenya

  1. I live your blog. I love to run but I am now in the US. I always feel cheated when I am in Kenya since I cannot run outdoors especially in Nairobi. My hometown is in Eldoret so I get a chance to do a lot of outdoor jogging

  2. Pingback: Lewa Marathon: Acing one last test before I leave Kenya | from the writer's notepad·

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