Somewhere past Jinja and the source of the Nile, beyond the bustling towns of Iganga and Mbale and as you begin the climb onto Mount Elgon, something changes. You move into a region where running is very much a way of life, an opportunity, a badge of honour. The area of East Africa known as the ‘Land of Champions’.
We pass this border (it’s imaginary, there’s not a checkpoint where a guard verifies that you’re packing a Garmin and have an acceptable VO2 max) and begin the climb upward, passing through the small settlements that cling to the edge of the only tarmac road on the mountain. We reach the end of the tourist trail at Sipi, home of the waterfall. From hereon in, it’s pretty much only runners, hikers and mountain bikers that venture further as we continue the half an hour or so to Kapchorwa town, sitting at just under 2000m altitude. Kapchorwa is a small town who’s centre is congregated on the same tarmac road before a series of smaller villages on the outskirts become miles of farmland and tiny rural communities. In this ordinary farming town, live extraordinary athletes, including London 2012 Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich and World/Commonwealth champion and multiple world record holder, Joshua Cheptegei.
You can now see the endless miles of plains far below, seemingly stretching forever. The oppressive heat disappears , the air becomes cooler and the landscape greener. The grass is scorched and it looks like this current dry season has been a long one. Then, out of the corner of your eye, bright colours come into view that are distinctly out of place amongst the ploughed fields and plantation. A cluster of luminous yellows, pinks and oranges moving toward you. It's the runners, out in groups and making their way along the roadside, on their second run of the day, the easy afternoon run.
Finally, after a lengthy journey, we pull through a gate onto the green lawns at ‘Home of Friends’ guesthouse. It's a friendly, quiet retreat perfectly placed on the outskirts of town, sitting just below the complex of hills that stretch further upward. I’m warmly greeted by Daan & Eliza who I know well from my last visit here. I settle into my home for the next two and a half weeks.
'Home of Friends' guesthouse, Kapchorwa
As I acclimatise to the altitude and the refreshing simplicity of life up here, I bump into friends from my last visit. I arrange to do a coaching session with my old buddy Fred at a new youth athletics club he’s just started. I also spend some time learning from Addy Ruiter, the head coach at the NN Running Team elite athlete programme in Kapchorwa and coach to Joshua Cheptegei (I covered that here if you missed it).
I drop into my old favourite lunch haunt, ‘Travellers’, an underground locals restaurant that serves gargantuan plates of rice & matoke with potatoes, beans and cow peas. My ongoing project to launch a compilation of Ugandan ice cream vendor songs is furthered when a fellow cycles through town and the high pitch chimes ringing from his cart are unmistakably ‘My Heart will go on’ by Celine Dion.
I start off the training with a couple of short, easier runs so my lungs can get used to the height and my legs to the terrain which is all dirt and hills. We're moving into March and rainy season is starting. This means there are some immense storms during the evenings that feed the parched grassland, turn the red dirt trails into a deep rusty brown and wipe out the power for hours on end. On my first couple of runs beyond the town, I am reminded that seeing a mzungu here is still quite the novelty. Being a running mzungu results in being stared (and occasionally screamed) at as though a unicorn in a rainbow mankini had just galloped along the road - not ideal for someone who doesn't like being the centre of attention.
There are many benefits to running here. As previously mentioned, it's more accepted and respected than elsewhere in the country, there is very little traffic aside from the normal psycho bodas so its far safer than dicing with the crazy driving in the cities (as well as the pollution). You still get the standard trash burning here but that's all over the continent, that's going to take some time to work through! The landscape and views are ridiculously beautiful and the nights and mornings are far cooler, with temperatures dropping to 12-15°C. This also means it's easier to sleep. Oh, and there are less mosquitoes - what’s not too like about that?
On the flip side, the terrain is relentlessly hilly so managing easier, lower intensity runs and tempo efforts is difficult. The local runners tend to stick to their own groups so there isn't an awful amount of company, the power supply is somewhat unreliable (especially during & after a storm), mobile communication can be patchy and if you're not a fan of rice & pulses then you're going to go hungry pretty quickly.
These grounds are the only 'flat' (it's not flat) surface in Kapchorwa. A narrow, single lane 400 metre track has been hacked by hand around a patch of dirt, grass and rock that sits on a cliff edge at 1950m altitude. 100 metre intervals are marked with rocks and lines of sprayed white paint. This humble scrap of land has been the training venue for Olympic and World champions. If this isn't proof that you don't need all the extra bells & whistles to achieve incredible things then I don't know what is. Sorry running marketeers, I'm calling bullshit.
I would wander down to use the 'track' after the locals had finished or on a morning they weren't training to avoid my embarrassment. During my sessions here, bodas would speed across like stunt riders, a couple of driving lessons took place and someone brought a cow out to graze on the track. One morning I timed my arrival completely wrong and my session coincided with the thirty minutes before school started. I had to spend my session racing various school children who took turns to test themselves against the mzungu whilst their friends cheered them on. Running in Uganda is never boring.
In order to locate flatter terrain for speed sessions, some runners take a fifty minute journey down to the plateau and find friendlier trails there. We had been tipped off about a 5.5km trail near an outlying village that ran between a long stretch of farmland. Due to it's remote nature, it was hardly ever used by vehicles so was in a decent state of repair. We hired a couple of bodas, travelled down early in the morning and found a long, straight track surrounded by amazing scenery. My legs were overjoyed not to be climbing or descending for once and we had an enjoyable blow out. The temperatures on the down were significantly warmer and I'd been told the local runners would visit a river nearby for a post-run natural ice bath. Unfortunately for two red sweaty mzungus, we didn't know where to find it. The steep climb back up on the boda was a little slow going and uncomfortable after a hard workout and we were ravenous by the time we made it home for breakfast.
The Long Runs
For my long runs I would slowly climb up into the hills. One morning, a runner creeps up alongside and asks to join me. I'm happy for some company for a change so accept. After a few seconds of pleasantries he asks: "do you have something for me?". I briefly wonder whether this is some sort of spy exchange before it transpires that he wants me to give him my clothes. After explaining that by giving him my clothes, I won't have any myself, he loses interest in the run and turns back.
I would regularly be overtaken by locals on my runs, and not just those out training. On one memorable occasion, I was struggling on one of the steeper hills up at around 2200m and heard the unmistakable (and awful) sound of Sean Paul coming from behind me. Upon inspection, I was being chased down by a man on his way to work. His name was Fred. Fred ran past me wearing slacks and flip flops and whilst carrying his radio and a bag of tools. Demoralising. To add injury to insult, I then managed to inhale a bee on the descent which meant I spent the next two days looking like I'd had a botched lip enhancement procedure. An excellent confidence boosting run all round.
The highlight of this visit was a 20.5 mile epic, deep into the countryside, past children on their way to school who would run alongside me until they were out of breath, stopping at a waterhole to refuel whilst watching villagers fill up jerry cans with water and wash their bodas. Passing through farmland where singing farmers urge their cattle forward as they pull the plough ahead of the rains.
Top 5 things shouted at me during my runs:
5- "MZUNGU! YOU ARE COMPETING WITH KIPROTICH!"
4- "WHERE ARE YOU GOING MZUNGU?"
3- "MZUNGU! WHAT IS YOUR DESTINATION?"
2- "MZUNGU! YOU ARE GLIDING!"
1- "MZUNGU! ARE YOU LOST?"
A busy morning session at the Boma Grounds
Running the flat track between farmland down on the plains (photo credit: Daan Oxener)
National High Altitude Training Center
Some eleven kilometres from Kapchorwa town, a huge and potentially game-changing project is afoot. As you climb the increasingly steep terrain, gaining 100 metres for every mile, past 8200ft/2500m altitude, just as the settlements reduce in size and you wonder what could possibly be up this high, the construction site for the Kiprotich National High Altitude Training Center (catchy, right?) appears before you. Right at the top of this section of the mountain, where the temperature is considerably cooler and you're buffeted by big gusts, is arguably the most important sports development in the country.
The build of this high altitude training venue to rival any in the region has been ongoing since 2017 and beset by constant delays. The first phase is due to deliver a tartan running track, an infield, a 3km training track that snakes through the complex and hostel accommodation for athletes. I'm kindly given a guided tour by the super-friendly foreman and he explains that they are aiming for completion in early 2020. I'm not sure how achievable that date is, there's an awful lot of work to get through and with rainy season coming, transporting materials to that height on steep dirt roads will be increasingly difficult. However, looking down at the site from the hostel, it will certainly be an impressive sight once it's completed.
The ongoing construction at the NHATC, Teryet. The running oval is to the right of this picture, with the undulating 3km training track running around the outskirts of the complex.
The Last Run
I know as I set off at 6.30 on a Monday morning that my legs are just about cooked from the work over the previous two weeks. I'm looking forward to having an easier time in 'the down' but have one last long effort to finish. The plan for my final run up here is to try and get another 20 miler in but with 6 miles of descent first before working my way back up. That way, I hopefully avoid a couple of hours of climbing and then hanging on for dear life with tired legs on steep descents. The first part is easy enough, I make my way down for half an hour or so, taking it super easy so as not to beat up my legs too much. I then complete an out and back on a flatter section away from the spiralling main road downward. I pass the entrance of a secondary school where I'm pretty sure they've never seen a mzungu running before, a group of boys stand and stare open mouthed before they are shepherded into school by a laughing teacher. I find a brief stretch of flat and open up a bit. To my great surprise, a woman who must be in her sixties, wearing a floral dress appears out of a house nearby and starts to run beside me, shouting something in the local language, before putting on the afterburners and disappearing into a path ahead through some trees. I have absolutely no idea what that was about.
I start making my way upward, back past the Boma Grounds where I am cheerfully encouraged by the athletes leaving their session, their running spikes tied around their necks. I climb 1000ft in the next 10km, starting to struggle a little as I pass through one of the small plots of houses I know is near the top and chuckle as a child runs away screaming at the sight of me to her laughing mother. I start to get the wobbles, and stop for something to eat and drink. Minutes later, by the time I make it to 12 miles and 6800ft, I realise I've nothing left in the tank. By this point, I'm in a remote area and the chances of catching a boda for a lift back are small so I begin to run slowly back the way I came. As I trudge dejectedly for a mile, then two and three without seeing a vehicle heading back toward town I know my luck is out. By the time a bike finally passes and asks if I need a lift, I'm only a mile from home so decide just to push on for the last few minutes. I make it back and lean on the front gate exhausted. I only managed 16.5 miles but considering the amount of climbing, it can't be far off the equivalent of 20+ on friendlier terrain.
And with that, my time in Kapchorwa and Uganda was up. Probably a good thing as my body had nothing left to give. All that was left was the long car journey back down to Entebbe.
In other news, due to the widespread availability and minimal cost. I am now 70% avocado.
Weeks until Boston Marathon: 4
Avg Distance / Week: 54.4 mi
Avg Time / Week: 7hrs 30mins
Avg Runs / Week: 8
Setting out for a long run after a heavy storm. The red dirt now a deep rusty brown.
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