Lewa Marathon: Acing one last test before I leave Kenya


Photo by Bess Brownlee | http://www.bessbrownlee.com

Steady now, steady now / don’t fear what you can’t see – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, “The Lion The Beast The Beat”

“Don’t try to wipe your sweat. It’s like trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Forty-five minutes into a 90-minute Bikram yoga class, the instructor was trying valiantly to stop fidgety yoga-ers. Oddly enough, I was one of the only people in the class to laugh.

Funny how memories like that come to you in the middle of a marathon.

That might have been around the time I realized I’d never hit The Wall.

You know, The Wall? I vividly remember hitting it like a speeding-Mack-truck-meets-stationary-object during the 2010 Pittsburgh Marathon. If it weren’t for my friend and running buddy dropping in to run the last 10K with me, I wouldn’t have finished. Blood blisters the size of Texas might have had something to do with that particular agony.

This time, after months of preparation and a whirlwind road trip north with a few friends, I ran Lewa.

Such simple words to convey such a complicated thing, training for and running a marathon.

Maybe the reason I didn’t hit The Wall is because everything leading up to it was The Wall.

Remember my bucket list conundrum?

Well, let’s just say I managed to cross a horde of things off it within a few months. Thanks to my family’s generosity, I was able to raft the Nile River in Uganda and climb Mount Kenya. I traveled around Kenya and Tanzania, meeting SIM workers, seeing what they do and helping them tell their stories in different ways.

It was crazy busy, as they say. During three and a half weeks in May, I only spent a total of 24 hours in Nairobi.

So, how on earth do you get the training you need?

Hot yoga. That’s right. I said, “hot” and “yoga”.

You know something is going to be intense when your stated goal in the first class is just to stay in the room. No wonder: it’s 104 degrees Fahrenheit (or 40 degrees Celsius). It’s humid. It’s a 90-minute class – and the poses are tough.

My first introduction to yoga was not long after the 2010 marathon. My legs were trashed for weeks afterwards, and I needed something that would help me get limber again.

I found a yoga workout on Netflix and figured, Hey, I just ran a marathon. This shouldn’t be too bad.

It was 40 minutes long. I lasted 10.

At least I was in the privacy of my own living room, sparing myself the humiliation of an entire roomful of yoga-ers bearing witness to my demise. I was not about to let a super peppy yoga video instructor get the best of me though – and a few weeks after my initial defeat, I made it through the entire workout. I’ve become a yoga convert since then.

I still haven’t figured out the breathing normally part though. “Twist yourself into a four-leaf clover and BREATHE NORMALLY.” (emphasis mine)

In all seriousness though, it helped with this marathon training program. As I shared early in my training, finding good places to run, especially for long training runs, can be difficult in Nairobi. Meaning a lot of road running, which tears me up.

I wanted to do cross training that would help with strengthening and also flexibility.

Bikram yoga did all that and more.

Here’s what I hadn’t planned on: Remember the Hyner View Trail Challenge 25K last year? Oftentimes, distance races are head games – and I’ve had some less than pleasant experiences in that area.


Photo courtesy of Patrick Mwangi

This time around, as I navigated the congested first loop of the course clogged with half marathoners, more than one half-er told me I was crazy.

My mental response in the past would be something like this: “Who you calling crazy?!?! Let’s take this outside, punk!” I can neither confirm nor deny that it would’ve been accompanied by a death look.

This time, I smiled with zen-like calm and said, “Maybe I am. We’ll see” as we picked our way along the uphill-angling trail. All the while, the little voice in my head went, “Whaaat?!? Who IS this person and where did Rebecca go?”

No, I haven’t completely drunk the Bikram Kool-Aid. But more than once, I thought, “Seriously, Rebecca, if you can put yourself through that ridiculousness for an hour and a half at a time, you can certainly run around a 21K course twice.”

Or something like that. My thinking was a little fuzzy. More than once, I pondered the likelihood of walruses coming out of the river and attacking me.

Hippos: possible. Walruses: not a chance. 

Running buddies

There are multitudinous African proverbs. One, in particular, resonates.

If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.

The same thing applies to distance training – at least it did this time around.

I don’t think I would have been ready if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of the Urban Swaras, the running group I was able to plug in with for the past few months. They remind me of a group I started running with in Salem, Ohio, before I moved to Kenya. I think a number of my former higher education colleagues-turned-runners would fit right in too.

It continues to prove that runners are some of the most down-to-earth people I know.

I am no speedster, but I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with the Swaras. Really.

Upon hearing I finished in 5:37:18 – “Oh, great job. Next year at Lewa, you’ll do even better!”

To which I replied, “Uh … thanks. I mean, I’m pretty happy with my time and all.”

But hey, who knows. If I stick with them, maybe I’ll be tearing it up with the best of the Kenyans soon. I already got a taste of elite Kenyan training in Iten – maybe next time, it’ll actually sink in.


Photo by Bess Brownlee | http://www.bessbrownlee.com

Unlocking the secret

I found the heart of a lion / In the belly of the beast / And I held it in my hand, and I could feel / I could feel, feel the beat – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, “The Lion The Beast The Beat”

I confess: I’ve listened to “The Lion The Beast The Beat” about 800 times since Lewa. Borderline obsessiveness could be a side effect of marathon brain – or at least of my marathon-fogged brain.

I think there’s a lot of truth there. But it’s not just about what I was able to do. I think it was also a time for God to work on me. There’s a lot swirling around my head as I count down my last few days in Kenya.

In other words, there was a lot to keep me occupied during a marathon.

When I prepared to split off from the half-marathoners to start the second loop, the transition was stark. The thumping music of the finish line and booming voice of the announcer and the clusters of runners faded into quiet forest with a few bird calls to break the silence.

“All right, Lord, it’s up to You. Because another round of this course seems a little insane right now.”

I can honestly say, as prepared as I felt – even climbing Mount Kenya seemed to help with conditioning – God gave me the strength I needed.

My book of choice on my trip to Kenya last year was “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. As I shared early on, being able to lace up the running shoes and pound out an hour or so was an unexpected gift.

I wanted to run a marathon, but for a long time, it seemed like a pipe dream. Not anymore. I am so glad I had the chance to do it. Is it weird to say that it was even a relief?

I actually had a moment a few miles out from the finish when I pondered how short a marathon suddenly seemed. Not a normal thought, I admit.

Remember though: walruses.

In “Born to Run,” McDougall talks about the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico and what makes them such great distance runners. His conclusion:

They’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running.

I guess that’s the key. Out along the dirt track, weaving through the acacia-studded hills, waving to the swooping helicopters on large animal patrol, I found joy.

In the midst of the emotions of leaving, in the midst of the chaos of the questions unanswered, it was a constant. For five and a half hours, I got to run. To experience an amazing slice of Kenya by way of my own two feet.

What a privilege.



5 responses to “Lewa Marathon: Acing one last test before I leave Kenya

  1. Pingback: Saying goodbye when I don’t want to | from the writer's notepad·

  2. Wonderful story. So glad you were able to climb a mountain AND run a marathon. You are an inspiration! Praying for you adjustment and what God has planned for you. Thank you for sharing! Oh what an adventure!

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