We survived! Just over 24 hours later and we’re hobbling around a bit, but ecstatic about how the race went.
We woke up at the butt crack of dawn. Well, I woke up at the butt crack of dawn (4:44 am, to be exact). After allowing Joost one more minute of blissful slumber, I woke him up by yelling, “WE’RE RUNNING THE KILIMANJARO HALF MARATHON TODAY! WHOOOO!!!” in his face.
Our driver drove Joost and me, our staff gardener and three other guests to the stadium in town, where the race was to start. We witnessed a stunning sunrise and even more stunning people watching.
We had just enough time for the boys to use the toilet and for me to realize that there was no way I could use a squat toilet while wearing my lucky Christmas underpants, tight capris AND a skort. Then it was time to line up! The racers inexplicably had started lining up backwards so that we would cross the finish line to start, but whatever. This Is Africa. Very little surprises me anymore.
There was a group warm up, which was one of the greatest things I have ever taken part of. Instead of the usual individual stretching and slow warm up, they pumped up the speakers and we had a dance party. Then all of a sudden, we were running!
The first mile was pretty crazy. We were being funneled out of the stadium and there were no corals, so people of all abilities were mixed up together. This meant that all the speedy runners (not us) had to elbow and push their way to get to the front. At one point, a guy grabbed me by my shoulder and yanked me behind him. A mile later, we passed him. Sucker.
The first 6.5 miles were brutal. According to my Garmin, our elevation gain was 1235 feet. Every time we crested a hill, I was certain that the route would level out. Every time, we were greeted with another hill.
Despite the huffing, puffing and cursing that took place, it went by quickly. We got to watch the elite runners come back and pass us–they were flying. And Kenyan, of course. We also got to watch the non-elite runners: people in Converse sneakers, Crocs and ballet flats. People ran in everything from jeggings to billowy pajama pants secured at the ankle with rubber bands to ski jackets. And we had a perfect view of Kilimanjaro the entire time.
After the turnaround point, we flew! My glutes were rejoicing. Despite the downhill remainder of the course, I struggled a bit. I’ve been dealing with some issues in the nerves on the bottom of my fight foot. It’s totally fine when I’m running on uneven terrain or a trail, but the hard, constant, repetitive motion on an asphalt road creates a fair amount of pain and discomfort. I also realized that all of my Gu (an energy/electrolyte/fuel source you can take while running) had fallen out of my pocket earlier in the race, so I was dragging a bit.
Once we were near the end, we decided to pick up the pace for the final mile. We were passing people left and right as we entered the gates leading to the stadium. I was so busy running my tush off that I failed to notice a speed bump in the parking lot we were running through. The good news is that the speed bump did its job. I slowed down. In fact, I came skidding to a complete stop as I totally packed it into the concrete. I was pretty lucky–a bruised forearm, a few pebbles embedded in my palms, torn tights (DANG IT) and a bloody knee. Since nothing was broken or twisted, I quickly got back up and we kept going to finish strong.
We sprinted into the stadium, around the dirt track and back across the finish line in a surprising 2:33:09 (our goal was under 3 hours)! Immediately after crossing the finish line, we were directed into a long, unmoving line. There was no place to stretch or cool down and no water. Instead, there was a densely packed group of sweaty, smelly bodies pushing me and sweating on me. Not ideal.
After a lot of asking around, we were told that we were in line for medals, t-shirts and water. The woman in front of me was close to passing out, so I gave her the remainder of my water, which I later regretted. We stood for about a half hour before the chaos started. People were exhausted, dehydrated and in desperate need of moving around. The crowd slowly started pushing towards the medal tent. I couldn’t see what was happening, but luckily Joost is freakishly tall, so he was able to inform me when the front of the crowd trampled the tent and security gates and started rioting. People were mobbing the area to steal medals and t-shirts.
When you’re my height, and nearly everyone is taller than you, any sort of mob/mosh pit/crowd is a scary place to be. It’s easy to get elbowed in the face or pushed to the ground. One of our guests, who was about my height, got caught in a group of people pushing and pulling, fell, and was stepped on by multiple people until she crawled out. Thank God she wasn’t injured, but she said it was terrifying. Joost and I were towards the edge of the crowd, so after realizing that this was going nowhere good, we pushed our way to the back, stepped over the trampled fence and walked away.
I was a little teary and sniffly at this point. The police were coming in and waving huge metal poles and batons around in the crowd, I was starting to get dizzy from dehydration, and I was sad that we weren’t going to get a medal. Our gardener, who had finished an hour before us, saw me from afar, and before we knew it, had walked right into the mob. We walked around to the other side to see if there was any chance of getting in from that direction, but it was just too crowded and chaotic. At times, the police had it under control–just barely. Then one person would start pushing, or someone’s hand would sneak into the medal box, and chaos would break out again until the police started smashing around their metal poles again.
We lost sight of our gardener a couple times, but after about 45 minutes, he emerged holding a medal in his hand! Just for us! We are more than happy to share one, in this case. I had spent most of the time praying that he wouldn’t get hit in the face with a baton, but the brave, sweet guy was our hero yesterday!
It was a scary scene to the end of a wonderful race. More than anything, it was heartbreaking to remember how desperate and impoverished many of these people are. People who hadn’t run were stealing medals to sell. Children were picking up discarded race bibs on the ground in an attempt to get into the mob and steal medals. People were pushing each other and stomping on each other over cheap, poor quality medals and cotton t-shirts.
It was sad to think of all of the runners who actually finished the race and didn’t get a medal. Here in Tanzania, there are so few places where honest hard work is rewarded. It’s not like America, where everyone gets a trophy just for showing up. Here, clever students aren’t praised by teachers. Parents aren’t proud of their children’s accomplishments. Adults are able to best advance their careers with bribery. Finishing a race like this is one of the few places where there is a clear link between an accomplishment and recognition of that accomplishment.
Overall, it was… an experience. We’re ecstatic about our time, it was a gorgeous course and I got to check off a race on my third continent–but, I will never run a race in Tanzania again.