After a brief stop in the UK for a welcome Christmas reunion with friends and family, it was time to escape the dipping temperatures and dark afternoons that signal the arrival of winter. I'd left it fairly late to book a flight and the best price I could find was with Egypt Air, who appeared to possess the oldest fleet in existence. I joined my fellow passengers in pedalling furiously to get the plane off the ground before feasting on a 'salad' consisting of giant lumps of cucumber sitting on a bed of tinned sweetcorn. A previous occupant had kindly pinned assorted pieces of used chewing gum on the seat in front of me so I had to be careful where to position my knees to avoid being stuck in my seat for all eternity. The in-flight magazine was also stuck together with gum so I spent an hour staring at the cover. After a brief change in Cairo, we landed smoothly at Entebbe Airport without drama. When informing my pilot friend in Entebbe who I had flown with, he voiced his surprise at my incident-free journey.
A few years ago, a visit to border control in Entebbe would have meant an exceedingly long wait but in recent times it's quickened remarkably. I flashed my yellow fever paperwork, sorted out a three month visa and was in the baggage claim area within ten minutes. Half an hour later, the carousel ground to a halt and my bag hadn't joined me. I waited in line dejectedly with five or six other tired faces from the flight to file a claim with the baggage handlers before waiting for a car. I finally crawled into a welcoming bed at 4.30am.
Arriving back in Uganda from the winter always feels like a virtual hug. Awaking to sunshine and birdsong, pleasantly warm mornings and fresh local fruit and coffee. Oh, and slightly smelly clothes of course. I completed my standard 'day one' errands. I would normally get out for a twenty minute acclimatisation run but my kit was apparently somewhere between Cairo and Addis Ababa at this point. Once I had purchased some essentials and airtime for my phone, I spent New Years Eve afternoon beside Lake Victoria with decent company and a few bottles of my favourite Ugandan beer.
We stepped foot into 2019 and one of the big hotels had wisely spent their entire annual budget on a spectacular firework extravaganza. The pièce de résistance of this appeared to be some sort of atomic bomb, which the sizeable local dog population weren't particularly enamoured with.
After three days wait, my stuff finally arrived in Entebbe intact and I was able to get out for my first run in a while. I'd got slightly over excited at parkrun briefly being back in my life over the festive period and had gone a bit wild in some old shoes with the responsiveness of a pair of sandals. This had resulted in a spot of achilles tendonitis and meant a week or so of no running and a tentative return to marathon training a few weeks later than planned.
Entebbe is at 3,870 ft (1,180 m) and with a daily average temperature of 28°C in January, it's best to train early in the morning as soon as it's light or in the last hour before it gets dark. It's not advisable to run during the night due to the limited street lighting and the fact that the road surfaces are something of a lottery. It takes a little while to acclimatise to the heat and if you're coming from sea level, the slight rise in elevation makes breathing a touch harder to begin with (see fig. below showing available aerobic power vs elevation above sea level in feet).
1. Bassett, D.R. Jr., C.R. Kyle, L. Passfield, J.P. Broker, and E.R. Burke. Comparing cycling world hour records, 1967-1996: modeling with empirical data. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 31:1665-76, 1999.
2. Peronnet, F., G. Thibault, and D.L. Cousineau. A theoretical analysis of the effect of altitude on running performance. Journal of Applied Physiology 70(1): 399-404, 1991.
There are other unique traits of running in Africa that you forget about after a few months away. The look of surprise/amazement on the face of the locals when they see a white face running through their village for instance. Some will greet you with a polite 'good morning' (or just laugh at you) whilst the kids will shout, sing various mzungu related songs, dance or occasionally just stare at you in silent awe - guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. Also, there isn't an awful lot of respect on the roads for pedestrians, let alone runners. You have to be wary of traffic passing closely at speed, especially if you're running along the side of busier roads.
"If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito"
- Dalai Lama/African Proverb (depending on who you believe)
The ability to get out for these runs at first light is often dictated by the quality of one's sleep during the night. This can depend on how lively the dogs or mosquitoes are. For my first 'proper' run I had to drag myself out of bed after a mosquito interrupted night. One seemed to have eluded the defences of the mosquito net (or cleverly hid in wait) and spent the entire night at an 'all you can eat' buffet on my forearms. I set off sleepily before having to initiate an unplanned speed interval to escape the attentions of a dog that had taken exception to me being on it's territory. This surprise was more than enough to wake me from my half slumber.
After thirty minutes of running a trail snaking through a village on the edge of town, I returned to the guesthouse, scrubbed off the thick layer of red dirt clinging to my legs and smiled as I watched the familiar redness to the water draining away. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast amongst a lush green garden, surrounded by mango and jackfruit trees and contemplated my 'to do' list. A perfect way to start the day.
An early morning run with a view on the northern edge of Entebbe (dog out of shot)
I began to settle into as much of a routine as possible given that I would be bouncing around rooms for a couple of weeks whilst I worked out where to base myself. When it came to executing more structured/purposeful sessions, I had to be inventive in trying to locate routes with open space and safety where you can open up a bit without fear of being run off the road by a speeding motorcyclist checking his WhatsApp. There's nothing in Entebbe that even resembles a running track so after consulting the Strava heatmap for anything oval-shaped that may suffice, it transpired that the local cricket field boundary also doubles as a training venue for runners. I make my way down there in the early evening, hugging the edge as local footballers train in the outfield, careful to avoid the fenced off cricket square.
Longer runs encounter the the same planning challenges. I head out early on a Saturday morning to see if I can take advantage of the open space on the large golf course but find lots of snappily dressed Ugandans out at 7am, ready for an early round. I panic and divert through a dirt track that runs through the centre of the golf course to see if I can exit on the other side. As I make my way into a clearing beyond the complex, I pass a couple of local chaps and get that familiar quizzical look that suggests I'm headed somewhere I probably shouldn't be. I eventually arrive at the gates of something official looking and beat a hasty retreat back the way I came. On this occasion, it may be better to dice with the golf balls and traffic.
So winter training was fully underway. Regarding diet, I normally move to a (largely) meat free diet when I'm in Uganda. Getting protein from eggs, fish, nuts, seeds and beans as well as taking advantage of the plentiful fresh fruit and vegetables on offer. As any visitor to Uganda will tell you, this includes enormous, locally grown avocados for the price of a 2nd class stamp*.
* I've no idea why I wrote that. I can't remember the last time I bought a stamp. For all I know, a stamp costs £2 now. If you have any suggestions for something that costs around 20p (or 25 of your United States cents) to illustrate this point, please send on a postcard**.
** You will need a stamp for this.
Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes.
Typical breakfast: oats, fruit & yoghurt with coffee
Post-run snack: roasted nuts & seeds and chocolate milk
Lunch: salad (if available) or chapatti wrap with egg/tuna
Dinner: fish or chicken (if available) and pulses/vegetables with rice & avocado
Finally, on the community coaching side, I struggled to make much headway in the first couple of weeks. Whilst enquiring about running groups in the area, I was informed several times that Entebbe was not a place people exercised, rather somewhere people came from Kampala to party at the weekend. I know this isn't entirely true, as I had witnessed a few locals running in the evenings but I understood the gist of the argument. A mail to the Uganda Athletic Federation has yet to garner a response so when an opportunity arose to move on to Masaka, a place where I already had plenty of contacts, I jumped in the car for the three hour journey. Next update to come from there!
Weeks until Boston Marathon: 13
Avg Distance / Week: 17.9 mi
Avg Time / Week: 2hrs 33mins
Avg Runs / Week: 4
P.S. If you ever find yourself in Entebbe (perhaps waiting for someone to locate your bags), I can heartily recommend a stay at the Guinea Fowl guesthouse. A home from home with lovely people, handcrafted decor and one of the nicest gardens you're likely to find this side of the equator.