We're off to East Africa and Uganda's 'Land of Champions'. US pro runner Najim Mahmoud is about to take us on a running tour of Kapchorwa.
Tell us a little about yourself and your relationship with running?
I decided that running was the sport for me during the summer of 2013. The freedom and empowerment that running provides makes me happy. I grew up in the vast wilderness of Alaska and spent my childhood taking part in mountain sports like snowboarding, snowshoeing, mountain biking and hiking behind my mother. This was the perfect foundation for my current career - professional mountain running.
Being a pro runner allows you to travel, meet new people and experience new cultures (and food!). Running was the only thing I knew that would allow me to do that for a living. I'm still very early in my journey in this sport and learning all the time, if you would like to follow along you can find me on Instagram and YouTube.
I ended up in Kapchorwa because I felt I was not improving as an athlete in traditional 'western' style camps. I was keen to step outside my comfort zone and try a completely different approach. I knew I wanted to specialise in mountain running and when I saw that that the Ugandan men had swept the podium at the 2018 World Champs, I thought: "that's where I need to train!"
Describe the running culture in Kapchorwa?
Very relaxed! There is no urgency with anything here. On one hand, this is good because there's very little stress. However, if you're planning something, it can be frustrating. It's easy to survive here because the way of life is very simple and everyone really looks out for each other. This reduces the 'noise' of everyday life, makes you feel calmer and allows you to concentrate on your training.
There is more unity among the athletic community in Kapchorwa. You can feel alone and isolated as an athlete in the US but here it's like a brotherhood. Everyone here still wants to be a champion but they're not afraid to work together to get there, unlike in the US where rivals would not consider working together closely.
The wider community really appreciate what you are doing. Locals will stop and thank you for running and for your hard work. Runners are accepted & respected here, they know what running and runners are doing to lift up the community and economy. In the US, you feel more like a minority and are a lot more self-conscious when out running.
The undeveloped terrain and enormous hills make training more difficult. Having to negotiate these make you stronger as an athlete and improve your balance - it certainly saves you a lot of time in the gym! Not to mention when it rains, it's like trying to run uphill on ice (wearing work boots) as the mud clings to the soles of your feet.
The last thing is the impact that the running culture is having here. We are definitely noticing more recreational runners now whereas before it was just elites. This is encouraging and positive for the health and wellbeing of our community.
Where are the best places to run in Kapchorwa?
This route is super close to our camp and the town but it feels like an escape into the wilderness. I love the soft grassy trail that climbs away from a waterfall and immense rock face. It's really nice for a recovery run after a tough session in the morning or previous day. There's also the opportunity for a bit of rock scrambling if you decide you fancy a climb upward.
Amazing running through single track trail in dense forest at 2700m-3000m altitude. There's a bit of steeplechase thrown in as well to avoid fallen trees. You can see monkeys and antelope while running through here - it's like a mini safari! After 10km, the forest thins out and you're back on the brush and rocks. This route offers a really nice variety of terrain and awesome views.
As a bonus / punishment there are ice-cold rivers for an ice bath afterward (beware of the crabs).
A 35% grade hill with 250 metres of elevation gain in just 1.4km. Absolutely brutal and perfect for mountain running.
Najim working hard during a fartlek session down on the plateau in Cheptui near Kapchorwa
Are you a member of a running club in Kapchorwa?
I’m a proud member of High Altitude Training of Arizona (HAT of AZ Elite for short). We are a non-profit, professional running team that values clean athletics, environmental sustainability and the improvement of economic stability among athletes.
Where is the best place to buy running gear in Kapchorwa?
There is nowhere to buy running gear in Kapchorwa! Some athletes will receive clothing and shoes from their management but for most, if you need something, it's a six hour trip to Kampala. However, you're always running the risk of the gear being counterfeit and poor quality so it's a bit of a gamble.
Tell us about the best local races in Kapchorwa?
There are not really any local races up here. The only domestic options are the UAF national competitions such as the National Cross Country or National Mountain Champs (which is held on Mount Elgon).
There are very few commercial races in Uganda. The biggest is the MTN Marathon which is held in Kampala every November. Very occasionally, there will be a low key local race held by a development organisation as part of their community outreach.
Can you recommend a local dish/venue to eat after a long run or race in Kapchorwa?
For breakfast after a session, I love mandazi (local donut) and milk tea with sugar - much to the annoyance of my team manager aka mother Julie Mahmoud. For something more hearty, I will eat katogo which is green bananas stewed with vegetables / 'meat'.
For main meals, I'm now fully into the local food - irish (potatoes), greens and eggplant cooked with groundnut sauce (a healthy alternative to cooking oil). The diet of the athletes in our camp is predominantly vegetarian, although there is an occasional outing for nyama choma (fried chunks of beef).
Finally, all runners up here swear by the magical power of ugali / posho - maize flour porridge.
With thanks to Najim for taking us for a run around Kapchorwa, Uganda!
One last thing...
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