The Uganda Marathon came to life in 2015 when three lads from the UK: Henry, Andy & Nick met an inspirational fellow called Moses Kigozi. Together, they decided to create a race and adventure in Masaka, Uganda. The aim was to show people from all over the world Uganda's beauty, the fantastic warm, friendly welcome of its people and the amazing story of hope and promise in the country.
The mission of the Uganda Marathon Foundation is to help the people of Uganda help themselves – using running and volunteering as a catalyst for change. Four years later, due to the generosity of runners and their supporters, the annual not-for-profit event has raised almost $700,000 USD toward community projects in the Masaka District as well as providing significant tourism income and employment to the region.
In 2015, I had been searching for opportunities to work with projects and initiatives that utilised the power of running and sport for community benefit, particularly in developing or disadvantaged communities. A social media post for a new community-oriented marathon in Uganda taking place a few weeks later caught my eye. I committed, flew out alone for my first visit to Uganda and spent a memorable week on top of a hill in Masaka. I met people who have become close friends, started a very steep learning curve about sustainable development, spent considerably more time at the campsite bar than one should in the lead up to a marathon, dealt with some gastro-intestinal nightmares both the day before and during the race (including a loud vomiting session in front of a bemused local audience) before a surprise fourth place finish. At the end of the week, with quite the hangover from the local gin, I (apparently) had a conversation with Henry to thank him for the wonderful experience and offered my services. The rest is history, I joined the marathon team shortly after as the ‘running coach’.
Staggering through the final 5km of the inaugaral Uganda Marathon in 2015 (after aforementioned vomiting incident) - photo credit: Peter Wilson
A Marathon in the Making...
Three years and two memorable editions of the Uganda Marathon (or 'UGM' for short) later, I was touching down back in Entebbe for the fourth episode of the adventure. After the knee injury I sustained at Boston marathon and made considerably worse by deciding to run London marathon six days later, (which turned out to be a grade 3 medial meniscus tear) I was definitely due some time out from training. Being involved in a marathon without actually running it was definitely what my body needed. I reacquainted myself with my favourite Ugandan pilsner and spent a few days neck deep in spreadsheets with Uganda Marathon's 'Queen of Operations' - Lizzie. In between consuming vast amounts of tea and chocolate digestives (and a visit to an excellent curry house - contact me for details), we planned the logistics of getting 200+ people from all over the world to and around a little town by the equator.
From Entebbe, it was on to Kampala with Henry to meet our 'men in Masaka', Community Partnerships team - Andy Bownds and Tom Tisay. We would spend a couple of days here for a media day to present the opening of the marathon with our key sponsors - Ugandans tend to leave it until the last minute to register for events and the local promotion is done fairly late by event standards. When you organise a community oriented marathon with a seriously limited budget, the support of brands and businesses working in country is vital. These partnerships allow us to maximise the funding that goes to the community projects. For the 2018 race we were fortunate to have great support from Rwenzori Bottling and the Uganda Tourism Board.
Uganda Marathon Media Day - UGM team with sponsors at the Uganda Tourism Board, Kampala
Once we’d completed our Kampala mission, it was time to head back to the home of the marathon and a reunion with our ever-growing event team in Masaka. From just one local employee in 2015, our Ugandan team has grown to over ten team members, five of whom are in full-time positions. This team are supported by five part-time employees either from or in the UK with the remaining four of the UK-based team being volunteers. One of the initiatives that we have introduced in recent times is trying to elevate our local team members to positions of responsibility and authority within the team structure, thus creating opportunities for them to lead with mentorship from the more experienced team members. This is with a view to handing the event over to the Ugandan team in the medium/long term. This mentoring programme has created an extra dimension to working on the event and I know this has been enjoyable and beneficial to both the Ugandan team and those of us working overseas.
The adventure is a year of planning and three weeks of execution and there was an awful lot for the team to think about this year - some familiar and some fresh ‘challenges’. The unpredictability and intensity of the rainy season and the associated logistical issues meant that the traditional hilltop campsite we transform into our Athlete’s Village was to be moved to the grounds of a hotel in Masaka (imagine trying to drive a bus up a mud slide and you get the picture). This meant a new build for the event to recreate the festival-type, communal outdoor space we have always had on the campsite. The concept for a ‘Glade’ with a dining room, bar, fire pit, furniture and stage was conceived, planned and created over three days. We also spent time with the management of the Athlete's Village and the hotel to make sure that the accommodation and all meals, with a myriad of different dietary requirements, were agreed, planned and ready for the arrival of our runners. From the running perspective, new acclimatisation/training run routes needed to be scouted due to the change of location. This is one of my responsibilities but was made slightly more difficult than normal because of my inability to do little more than hop. Fortunately, I was provided with a seriously unroadworthy mountain bike, plenty of help from the guys at Masaka Runners Club (another great community initiative born out of the marathon) and the more 'active' members of the marathon team - it's safe to say we're not all runners!
In addition to the above, It immediately became clear on our return that there were several ongoing infrastructure projects in Masaka that were over-running due to the rain. If these were not completed before the race weekend, they would seriously impact our established race route. Around 20% of the course was closed for a new road and we watched with horror from the Athlete's Village as the entrance to our race village (and home to the start/finish) was slowly paved over without a new entrance being created. That meant we needed to scout, measure and plan several alternative race routes that would avoid the construction work should it fail to complete (I think we all know how this is going to play out).
As well as these ‘challenges’, we also needed to prepare the fifteen 2018 projects for their 'legacy days' - a day where the runners spend time working alongside the community projects they have chosen to support. That meant briefings and dress rehearsals with all local project leaders and a team visit to all venues we would be using for the week to ensure the layout and activities were safe and would work. A busy couple of weeks as the remainder of the team began to descend in Masaka.
The first mile of the marathon course, shortly before race day. Not quite ready for a couple of thousand runners.
The UGM team at a dress rehearsal for the project upcycling activity at Masaka Vocational & Rehabilitation Training Centre. When it became apparent that this upcycled plastic recycling collection unit (or UPRCU) looked a lot like a bar, it was temporarily utilised as the bar at the Athletes Village.
The adventure begins!
Before we knew it, as we worked through these key preparation items and addressing the important matter of making sure the fire pit and bar were up to scratch, it was time for our runners to arrive. Arrival day is always chaotic and exhausting for the team and runners alike: tired bodies and minds after long flights during unsocial hours, missed connections and having people arriving from gorilla hikes and safaris from deepest Uganda. It’s quite some mission for those hospitable* souls looking after our runner's happiness to get everyone to their new home, a meal, (hopefully) a hot shower and bed before the adventure begins in earnest the following morning.
* those members of the team who aren't hospitable souls are asked to stay out of the way for this bit. I think this may just be me.
The first ‘proper’ day of the adventure is an orientation day. It’s a chance for us to welcome all of our runners and supporters to the community of Masaka, Uganda and Africa, find out a little more about each other and explain how the fundraising efforts of these runners and those before them are making a massive difference in the community. After an introduction and a little 'Africa expectation setting' from Henry, members of the Ugandan team take turns to explain the ‘why’ and a few pointers on Ugandan culture. The runners are then introduced to the brilliant Exile Medics who look after the health and well-being of all of us during the week. Finally, everyone is given a traditional Ugandan ‘clan’ for the week which is attached to the project they had chosen to raise funds for, my clan is Nvubu (hippo) which is a family for those supporting the work of HURIDEM (Human Rights Defenders Masaka). By belonging to your clan you are forbidden to eat that animal. No more hippo steaks for my guys.
After getting to know their clan brothers & sisters a little better, it’s time to walk the streets of Masaka for the first time. This expedition is led by a UGM team member who lives in the town and allows the runners to get a tour from a local expert - in our case, Jordan. Runners experience the buzz/chaos of a Ugandan town, explore the shops & markets and have lunch in a local restaurant. They also have an opportunity to spend time at Ddembe Home, a support service for youths living on the streets aimed at breaking the cycle of disadvantage, abuse, and addiction. Vulnerable young people are given access to education, vocational training, safe accommodations, drug and alcohol recovery counseling, and health care.
For the next two days, each clan would spend time together with those leading on the projects they had worked so hard to raise funds for, learning about the challenges faced in Masaka and Uganda and the changes these projects are working to effect. They would visit Masaka Recycling Initiative which is working to change the way Ugandan’s think about waste and part of the marathon’s ‘Carbon Neutral’ scheme. Here, they would spend their morning or afternoon building 'food farms' that would be used to provide education and training to local people and provide lunches to schools. They would also visit MVRC (Masaka Vocational & Rehabilitation Training Centre) to learn about upcycling plastic waste and build equipment for their chosen projects.
Whilst days were spent forging a deeper relationship with their projects, early mornings and late afternoons were a chance to train together as a larger group for acclimatisation training runs (Masaka is 1200m above sea level and 20 miles from the equator). Evenings offered opportunities for more cultural experiences with dinner and dancing at 'Plot 99', a local restaurant and Creative Canvas Uganda, an art/education project in the village of Ndegeya, where the marathon was conceived. There was plenty of opportunity for downtime outside all of this activity, gathering around the dinner table or campfire to share experiences over food and drinks. This was also the point that the team could take a couple of hours breather after the day's efforts to compare notes over a cold beer (or a very large local gin) and get an early/late night as their mood dictated.
Acclimatisation runs as the early morning mist lifts over Masaka
Nvubu clan and friends from HURIDEM after a hot morning's effort on the Food Farm build at Masaka Recycling Initiative
Members of Nvubu clan worked with HURIDEM to produce educational signs for a school in Nyendo
As race day drew ever closer, the last training runs were completed. A final Promo/flyer run around town to drum up some last minute interest and then an optional 6km run up the hill to Ndegeya and ‘Kids Run Wild’, a hilltop sports and activity day for local children. After spending two hours entertaining the kids, the runners then start their wind down for race day with a visit to a nearby lake for swimming, chilling and a fish & chip supper. This moment is when things really start to ramp up for the members of the team who are responsible for delivering the race element. It's time to make a final decision on the route, knowing what we know about the construction work. We decide we need to make several adjustments to the course to avoid the work and then take the chief of transport police on a tour to pinpoint areas where we will need road closures and police support. With the vital support and persuasion skills of the mayor, we managed to reach agreement with the chief engineer of the road construction to build an alternative entrance into the town square which would serve as our new start/finish. This is promised for the following day. The rest of the afternoon is spent building a minute by minute plan for the day and ensuring that every team member has a clear list of responsibilities.
This group decided to get a taste of one of the marathon's many climbs on the final training run
So on the Friday, as the runners are enjoying a free day - with time set aside for optional project visits, nature walks, souvenir shopping or a lazy day by the hotel pool, the race team are in build mode. One team spends the day moving around the course checking that it’s safe, signed and completing the water/medic station drops. The other team are responsible for building the race village on the town square and liaising with our sponsors who are all super keen to gain the premium spots on the square. We breathe a huge sigh of relief as the group of workers from the road construction also show up as promised to build the new entrance. All of these efforts continue into the night so as the runners are receiving their pasta dinner and race/medical briefing by the poolside and heading off for an early night, most of us are still at it. We have a vehicle out marking the course and I'm balanced precariously on the roof of a Land Cruiser with a couple of others, in darkness. A missing envelope of black balloons was discovered late in the day and now we're frantically adding balloons to the Ugandan Flag themed start/finish structure. Oh, and the ever-patient Saidi is still sat in the pitch-darkness, perched on 200 cases of water, waiting for the long overdue delivery of the medical tent and generator. As the night draws further on, the majority of the team gathers by the deserted hotel poolside, filthy and utterly exhausted. Roles, responsibilities, timings and the communication plan for the morning are briefed one final time and the team disbands for a few hours rest.
Once the missing balloons were discovered, it was all hands to the pump*
* there was no pump
Saturday. Race day! The team are up at 3.45am and after chapatti & coffee, we're stumbling through the darkness, down toward the race village. Head torches are on and the finishing touches are being added - including the erection of the medical tent which arrived late at night. Whilst this is going on, our marshalls begin to arrive. This is always a stressful part of the day as they arrive in dribs and drabs and we frantically try to fill vehicles and get them out on course in time for the 7am start. As the sun rises, the international runners wander down from the hotel and Athlete's Village and mingle with the hundreds of local runners who are arriving. There is a noticeable buzz around the race village as the nerves and excitement build. Thankfully, the weather is favourable, plenty of cloud cover and not too warm. Whilst the Masaka Runners Club host a group warm-up from the stage, we on the race team are facing a rather large challenge...
The traffic police have not shown up as agreed. It's only ten minutes from the scheduled half and full marathon start. As we frantically try to make contact with the police chief and get messaging to the stage to keep the runners informed, it's a stressful half an hour until the chief shows up in his running kit and gets things moving quickly. Half an hour later, we have police and marshalls in place at the key junctions on the course. At 7.20am, we're off without incident, the first sigh of relief of the day can be let out.
P.S. I think we can all agree that the black balloons really add something.
Mercifully, the weather stays friendly this year and aside from thirty minutes of blistering sunshine around two hours in, we have cloud cover to take the edge off the heat. The medics are also kept quiet aside from a few twists, sprains and fatigue, which, considering the difficulty of the course, the uneven terrain and the fact it's on the equator is excellent news for us as a team - we just want everyone to make it round in good health and have a day they will never forget. On the elite side, the pleasant conditions make for some serious course record-breaking. New fastest times were set by both men & ladies over 21K and 42K.
After the fast runners and 10K race had finished, we had a few issues to manage out on the course. Some of our directional signs had gone missing (people keep them as souvenirs) as well as marshalls deserting their posts and wandering off into the surrounding villages which resulted in a few of our runners going off piste. The race directors were on the phone, moving team members around the course like chess pieces to ensure that we had eyes on all of our runners, knew where they were on course and that they were able to safely make their way through the junctions. I was personally managing the mysterious disappearance of a police officer and six marshalls and had commandeered the help of friends and local children to ensure safe passage for the runners past a roundabout.
Over the course of seven hours, all four races (including our first ever disability race) and participants had made their way down the finishing funnel in various states of emotion to a warm welcome until we were down to our last runner - Bob. With eight hours showing on the clock, Bob headed down the final few hundred metres, accompanied by a cheer squad of local children and UGM team members, finishing to a heroes welcome from his fellow runners in a time of 8 hours 8 minutes and 7 seconds. A moment I'm sure he'll never forget.
Once the runners were safely back showering, sleeping or relaxing in the Glade, we begin dismantling the race village - this activity includes the annual 'kids maniacally stamping on balloons' event. Actually, I should say 'most' of the runners as some kindly stayed behind to help us - another indication to me that this race is very different to most. As a team, we make it back to our rooms shortly before the closing ceremony and just have a few moments to shower and change into clean clothes. Everyone involved in the event then gathers together to say thank you, celebrate the achievements of the week and present all those who took part with their medals. This is then followed by a barbecue, a few celebratory drinks and several people getting slightly carried away on the dance floor*.
* some minor dancing injuries were sustained by more than one UGM team member
The marathon closing party - medals, smiles and drinks
And just like that, after a whirlwind week, it’s time to say farewell to all our brilliant 2018 runners as they head back home or onward to explore more of our great adopted country. The Athlete’s Village and Glade is returned to it’s former state and as a team we return to whence we came. After a few weeks apart to 'decompress', we begin to work on making the 2019 experience even better.
Thank you to all the runners and supporters who contributed to make an incredible 2018 event. Also to the great big, magnificent (and slightly dysfunctional) Marathon family in Uganda and the UK whose year-round passion for Uganda, the community of Masaka, the week-long adventure and the work of the foundation make UGM so much fun to work on.