Running The Roof of Africa
My first view of Mount Kilimanjaro in the Fall of 2013, was in the light of a rising full moon as we drove to the town of Moshi in Tanzania. The 36 hours of travel did not dim my enthusiasm to stay awake in the fading light, to catch that first glimpse.
It towered over the surrounding plains, its flat peak poking through the clouds and the last of its vanishing glaciers trickling down its sides. This is going to be a long, long, run I said to myself.
How in the world did I end up here?
Running has taken me to many beautiful places over the years and now I was fortunate enough to attempt to become only the ninth person to circumnavigate the mountain on foot by trails and dirt roads, a distance of 180 miles over 8 days.
The run is fully supported with breakfast and dinner provided. Our gear trunk would be transported to a pre-determined site at the end of the day where we would then camp for the night. One only had to carry food and water for each day's leg of 20-25 miles.
The group of five consisted of myself, two great friends from Idaho, and two young German runners. We were joined by five Tanzanian Guides/Runners and our Trip Leader Simon Mtuy who had spent years creating a route that would highlight the mountain and give us a glimpse to the culture. I would later learn that are guides were all accomplished runners having run sub-2:20 marathons. How fast is that? 5:15 a mile to be precise. We were also joined by Tanzania's fastest woman marathoner with a 2:27. Oh my gosh. We soon learned they were there to run with us and support us all the way, never leaving our side no matter what the terrain and pace were like.
Day One was an eye-opener. A big smack to my smiling face. I have run lots of races, trained thousands of miles, and yet that 20-mile plus day was the hardest I have ever done.
As we left the gate at the entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park on a counter-clockwise loop around the mountain the trail wound through small fields of maize and corn and into lush coffee fields. Time out. Coffee. I became like a mule that doesn’t budge. “Please can I have just a little taste?” All I got was a bean to chew on. On and on we hiked and ran, further away from the comfort of our cottages. On and on, up and then down and then repeating it all again. There were lush green valleys and open fields and dusty trails. Hills so steep you could reach out in front of your face and touch them. We struggled, we fell, we got up. It wasn’t that the climbs were really long, it was that they were short but steep which made running impossible at times. We would often regroup every hour or so for a short break. The goal was to always stay together for if we strayed down the wrong trail, the day would become longer, much longer and we could end up hopelessly lost. Red ribbons were tied on trees and painted blue arrows periodically guided us, yet they were few and far between. I have to say that our guides had an uncanny sense of direction. They always knew which way to go and often the trail would vanish into a small sliver of bushes and branches cut in the canopy to lead us forward.
Our first night was spent on the grounds of a secondary school in a tiny village. As we ran down the dirt road I could see school children dressed in green shirts and blue sweaters waiting for us. In a place, so remote was such happiness. A school with no windows, a chalkboard and wooden desks, yet order and discipline and uniforms but most importantly smile. I could never really get over the white teeth that every child possessed. Perhaps it is the lack of sugar in their diet. Perhaps we could take that as an example to curb our western eating habits.
Our end of days became a ritual of washing up in a small bowl of hot water, top to bottom with the feet last. Oh the glorious feet, my dogs as I affectionately called them, were unrecognizable. Just flesh and orange dirt. After cleaning up we would relax in the dining tent with tea and papaya and popcorn. Dinner would come around 7 p.m. and consist of different nightly soups as a first dish. There were succulent pea, banana, cauliflower, and sweet potato soups followed with fresh baked bread and loads of butter. When you burn so many calories, the body cries out for things you may not normally eat. My body was crying and I wanted butter. The main course would always be rice and potatoes with chicken or beef on the side. Perhaps some peanut sauce, plates of green beans, and onions. Oftentimes we would have a stew and always a finale of fruit medley. Beautiful sliced papaya and mango and bananas, rhubarb, and strawberries. Life could not be better in those moments at dinner time.
Retiring to our tent, I would load my small pack with food for the next six to ten-hour day and then crawl into my bag to fall asleep to the nightly sounds of birds and monkeys in a sweet serenade.
From those first few days of deep valleys and gullies, we emerged on the drier northeast flank of Kilimanjaro, very close to the border of Kenya in a place called No Mans Land.
Here I would see the harshest living conditions yet. Small wooden shacks in a line at least a half-mile long. No electricity. No water. Dirt everywhere. Small plots of wheat and corn. Stray dogs. Barefoot children wearing Sesame Street shirts staring at us as we ran by. I can only compare it to conditions in our country hundreds of years ago. I now understand the water problem in Africa. Young girls carried 5 gallon jugs after filling them from a small well three miles away. I now understood why this run was guided and supported. Water is life. Without it, we could not survive, let alone run.
In a Maasai settlement, we camped in another schoolyard. A soccer game was being played by the young men of the village most I assume were not Maasai, however one was as we could tell by his clothing. He was tall and thin and wore a flowing red robe and his sheathed knife hung from his hip. Periodically he would stop and answer his cell phone. What a contrast between the past and present. His heritage infiltrated by the progress of the world’s technological advances.
The next morning, an orange fireball sun rising in the east gave a hint to the temperatures that would come that day. Morning coolness surrendered to heat and humidity. We were beyond thankful to see our driver Joseph midday waiting to refill our bottles. What had been comfortable running at 75-80 degrees was now testy and miserable at 85-90 degrees. That night we were fortunate enough to have an overnight with dinner and shower at Simba Farm. Established in 1918 it exists on 6000 acres. With whitewashed walls and open verandas, it was truly from the “Out of Africa” movie set. There is something comforting about hot water and a shower, of watching three days of sweat and dirt run down the drain that makes a glass of wine at sunset taste oh so much better.
With those sunsets came satisfaction and often remorse. Each step was the last on this path through the forest or down a dirt road or a farmer’s field or village. Each glimpse of Kilimanjaro through the canopy of foliage brought a sense of beauty and finality. Running brought me here and it was taking me away.
The days that followed took us through forest reserves where active logging takes place. Tanzanians take a conservative and long-term approach to their future. They meticulously clean the brush and then replant for harvesting ten years from now. They do not believe in slash and dash and immediate profit but in continued replanting and profit. They manage their natural resources and logging for longevity.
As we exited these lowlands the forest walls steepened and we entered a densely settled area of Arabica coffee farms. These farms used centuries-old irrigation canals dug along the mountainsides and our trail wove for many kilometers along them, shrouded by huge Eucalyptus trees, shading us from the sun.
Perhaps the best part of each day was the mornings. The forest would come alive with the sounds of birds. Too many different songs to identify. Often you could hear the hum and drone of the bees as they moved back to their hives. Then one of our Tanzanian friends, Idde, would arrive with our morning coffee from the freshest beans. Life was very simple. Coffee. Eat. Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. No computers, no phones, no traffic.
Just the pleasure of propelling myself forward with two legs.
On Day Seven we would spend our final night in that same shadow of Kilimanjaro that I had seen on my drive from the airport. The valleys and forests and waterfalls would soon be left behind.
Kidia was the first European settlement in this region and the original church and mission station are still intact. The mountain ridges in the area speckled with huts are predominately Lutheran or Catholic depending on the first mission group that settled there.
As the sun set and the dissipating glow touched the flanks of Kilimanjaro I realized that my days, these miles on these trails, these valleys and villages had all passed in a blur. But that is how life is, a blur of years, people, and places.
With morning came coffee and papaya and Spanish omelets with toast and avocado. Smiles and anticipation.
Our last breakfast over, the final day began. We finished where we had begun but our finish was punctuated with a plunge into a deep, cool pool beneath a waterfall.
My running has always consisted of a set point in the distance. Be it a finish line, a state, or as in this run, the next tree. Now lying here I look at two legs bearing the scrapes and scratches of falls on those African trails and close my eyes.
I hear the whispers through the trees, I feel the sweat on my forehead, the labored breathing of endless climbs. I feel the joy as I run in a cocoon of my Tanzanian friends, surrounded by their grace, beauty, and speed as we plunge down a forest road. I smell those early morning aromas of fresh coffee, taste the first splashes of papaya and mango on my tongue. The wind touches my skin and cools me. The same winds carried over the summit towering above me. I have been blessed by it all, to see with eyes that still glimmer in the golden years of life, to feel each step through my legs, absorbing another journey, sunrise to sunset. One hundred and eighty miles. Success. More importantly, though, I learned that success comes to us every day in some way and often cannot be measured by a did or did not, a win or a loss but what you take from your journey.