The annual MTN Marathon in Kampala is Uganda's biggest running event. Now in it's 16th year, the race began in 2004 with just 1500 participants and has grown to a record 25000* in 2019. This year's edition offers a range of distances from 5km to 42km and a disability race with the 10km being the most popular, mass participation event.
*This is the number of race packs distributed by the organisers and does not necessarily reflect the number of participants on the day, this number tends to drop off dramatically.
The MTN marathon (as it is widely known) is a race I've been keen to run since I first visited Uganda in 2015. Between not being in the country at the right time or just being mortally afraid of running Kampala's chaotic streets, I kept missing out. This would finally be the year I'd give it a go, even if I wasn't really in marathon shape (or any shape for that matter) after the punishment of running the Thames and taking things fairly easy since.
The race packs for the marathon had sold out several days before. The way race registration works over here is that you wait to hear of the race announcement on social media, purchase your place with mobile money or in person (entry fee is 25000 UG shillings so around £5/$7USD) and then pick your race pack from a shop. Once there are no packs remaining, the race is sold out. No race website, online registration, expo or any of that nonsense. You then show up at dawn, preferably dressed in the bright yellow MTN race vest and optional sun visor/phone armband.
A group of five of us had planned to make our way to Kampala for the event but we'd completely missed the boat on the race packs. However, we had picked up some of the famous yellow vests the previous week in Masaka whilst taking part in one of three regional runs that MTN organises in the run up to the event. These 10km promotional runs bring all too rare organised running events out to various towns in the country where there are few opportunities for beginner runners to sample the sport in safe(r) conditions or talented young athletes to gain vital experience in competitive races.
In true Ugandan style, we decided to show up on the morning and just run.
We arrived on the Saturday afternoon. Unable to find an apartment, we had booked into a small backpackers sitting on top of a gravel track a few minutes out of Kololo, home to the race village. Being serious running types, we opted for the tried and tested marathon eve prep of a couple of beers and some football in a nearby sports bar.
Upon retiring to bed, we soon realised that the all important pre-marathon sleep may not be forthcoming. The group had been spread across three dormitories and our small, smelly box of two bunks was a hive of activity. A portly Indian chap happily snored like a hippo with a heavy cold, blissfully unaware that his phone was receiving regular notifications throughout the night sounded by a loud whistle. As frustrations rose, at 3am, our host decided to accommodate a group of students who had been out for the night. He led them through the premises, loudly outlining the extensive rules and regulations as well as demonstrating the multiple lighting systems and how they could possibly work in conjunction with one another, concluding with a short yet impressive light show. He also made sure to mention the importance of adhering to the quiet period rule to ensure that everyone could get a decent nights sleep. Oh, the irony.
We all abandon sleep after this latest commotion and gather at 5am to compare tales of the night's highlights. To say the team was looking slightly ragged and a little short of rest was quite the understatement. This tired state and the swapping of stories made for much hilarity over a feast of toast and dry Weetabix. It was at this point we received a verbal warning for disturbing the sleep of other guests. The level of farce we had reached had become far too much for any of us to cope with and we left the building with at least one team member (Gee) in tears of laughter.
6.15am and it's time to make our way to the Independence Grounds in Kololo a.k.a the old airstrip (built in the 1930's and only used briefly. Kampala does not have an airport). We join the mass of yellow-shirted runners flagging down motorcycle bodas and leisurely making their way to the start. One thing that you get used to when you are attending events in the region is that they NEVER start on time. Except when they do. Then everyone is caught out.
As we walk the final 800m or so to the start, the 42km marathon runners are gathered on the line and it appears the starters gun is imminent. We move into the crowd of excited runners, a gun goes off but only some of the runners move away whilst everyone else stands absolutely still. It transpires that the 21km start is in another 15 mins and those runners had already gathered excitedly to toe the line, leaving a number of confused 42km runners to try to fight their way through a bunch of stationary bodies to start their race. The three of us who have chosen to run the marathon (Rob, Teale and myself) hurriedly leave the other two (Andy & Gee) behind and emerge from the crowd unscathed, laughing and belatedly get our race moving.
The start of the MTN Marathon 21km and 42km race outside Kololo Independence Grounds
If you've ever been to Kampala, you'll know that the roads are utter chaos. Even the most basic rules are ignored (see motorbikes riding amongst pedestrians on the pavements) and crossing the street is a high risk activity as bikers sneak amongst the long queues of traffic to try to reach their destination faster. Only a hardy traffic officer bravely stepping in to the madness is able to bring some order amongst the congestion. Because of this, having the opportunity to run in a group on calm, closed roads is a) extremely rare & b) absolute bliss. For a brief moment, the traffic sits impatiently revving engines, held back by a cordon of police and marshalls. We marvel in this experience as we run past the golf course, knowing that it's probably not going to last very long. Closed roads are just not a thing in this part of the world, especially not for a running event.
As we move into the arterial roads, the organisers have attempted to cone off safe spaces for the runners. The traffic begins to build and this slight protection is welcome, although there is always the occasional boda weaving in and out to keep you on edge. We're not long into this coned section before we see the train of brightly coloured race shirts of the elite runners in the 21k approaching us from the rear. We shuffle to one side and run in single file as they speed past in a blur.
Races in Uganda don't tend to pull in many spectators. Running is still seen as a bit of an oddity by the majority (apart from in the running mecca, Kapchorwa) but there is the occasional shout from a rank of bodas, guards standing outside the imposing gates of huge houses or marshalls on the course. A wiry man in his sixties passes us in a traditional dress shirt and baggy shorts, shadow boxing. The locals absolutely lap this up and scream encouragement at him.
The lads have a 3 hr 30 min target, we stick together for the first 10 miles or so on that pace until Teale flags that he has a rather pressing requirement to visit to a toilet (these are not in plentiful supply) so ducks into a hotel whilst Rob & I continue.
Every now and again we're directed into a road where the partial closures mean one side has a long queue of backed up traffic belching exhaust fumes into our path. You can feel the shite they are emitting gathering in your lungs as you pass - it's not pleasant. We reach halfway and I decide to back off as I'm not feeling brilliant and recent niggles from the summer challenges are all creeping back. I'm not really fancying a second lap of dust, dirt and avoiding marauding traffic but as I've finally made the effort to get here, I'm keen to get my 20th marathon in the books so press on.
As with a lot of two lap races, if there's no crowd interest and interaction, it can get a bit bleak and lonely between 13 & 20 miles, draining your motivation. I enter a particularly grim section of the race, an industrial area filled with paint warehouses, hugging the side of the road as traffic passes far too close for comfort. I pass a chap who is running in his socks with his head down, looking like his race is very much run. He lets out a rallying cry of 'WE GO!' before pulling back alongside me for a couple of hundred metres then whispering 'I'm tired' and disappearing. The next time I see him, he's passing me on the back of a motorbike with a guilty smirk, one of many runners getting a little motorised assistance to the finish line.
My lack of preparation extended to completely forgetting to bring any fuel with me and I was fading fast after almost three hours on the road. There are no feed stations (other than plentiful water) but a lovely lady is kindly dispatching sugar cane & bananas out of the rear of her car. I grab one of each, hoping that will be enough to get me to the finish line.
As the time approaches 10am, in another tradition, the marshalls and police have started to lose interest, either abandoning their positions to go and get some food or just preferring to have a chat with each other or check their Facebook. I approach one junction and there's no-one to be seen. I make a guess and find myself on one of Kampala's busiest streets, very much in peak Sunday mode and very much not part of the race route, I jump on to the pavement to avoid the traffic, resort to walking and weaving between Sunday shoppers and waiting carefully at pedestrian crossings that are not to be trusted. I'm wandering aimlessly and thinking that this is probably the end of my race when I spy the high-viz vest of a diligent marshall at the top of a hill in the distance and after climbing the rise, discover that I've managed to find my way back onto the course.
From this point forward I'm regularly having to stop at junctions and ask for directions, being pointed along the route. I begin to feel very tired and remember that I'm not far from a coffee shop so as I approach it and hop in for a friendly chat and an espresso. This results in probably my slowest mile in a marathon ever but frankly, it was just what I needed and I would wholeheartedly recommend a formal espresso station to anyone as part of your marathon fuelling strategy.
The (unofficial) MTN Marathon espresso stop at Java House
I check my watch and figure I can still make it under four hours with a run-walk strategy so just walk the hills and run everything else. A couple of miles out from the finish, I hit a section that runs alongside a busy road with no protection from the speeding traffic. It's seriously dangerous so I jump onto the pavement until it turns off into the quieter, safer streets of Kololo. As I near the finish, I begin to run into the masses of 10km finishers leaving the airstrip, first on the pavements and then flooding onto the streets. By the time I turn what transpires to be the penultimate corner (I had to ask someone, obviously), the crowds are walking amongst traffic in the street and blocking the way for the many runners still on the course. I move through this congested area and make it to the (thankfully) closed airstrip, speeding up for the final few hundred metres to the finish line. A very unofficial time of 3 hours and 51 minutes including a coffee break.
So that's the tale of marathon number 20. My skin is thick with dirt and my lungs heavy with who knows what nastiness. Running races in this part of the world is certainly an experience unlike any other but it's perhaps not advisable for those of a nervous disposition. I think the term for my current mindset regarding marathons is 'semi-retired' i.e. I don't feel like doing another one anytime soon.
An interesting post-race stat was the number of finishers. Of the 25,000 places quoted, the official results only recorded 100 finishers in the marathon, 1419 in the 21k and 6145 in the 10km - a grand total of 7664. Whilst there were many runners who didn't complete the course, missed the timing mats or ran without numbers, it does appear that a vast amount did not attend the event. Whether that prevented others participating is debatable as those without kits still turn up to run but it may suggest there is a significant dropout rate for races in this region.
To finish on a big positive, one of the most encouraging sights afterward was to see Ugandan runners dominating the prizes. Usually, it's Kenyan runners grabbing the podium places so with Ugandan athletes winning a clean sweep in the 10, 21 & 42km races, perhaps that demonstrates progress for elite running in Uganda and arguably more importantly, the benefit of taking events outside of the capital to create a wider opportunity for participation in running for everyone.
Squad finishing line photo at the MTN Marathon finish line in the Independence Grounds, Kololo
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