The call to prayer rings out over Masaka and I awake in the pitch black, wondering why there's a man loudly chanting in my room* at this early hour. I should be used to it by now, given that it happens every morning. This is followed shortly after by a chorus of cockerels and rain peppering the tin roof.
* Clarification: The man is not in my room. His chanting is coming from a (very) loud speaker from a nearby mosque.
All of that is my call to rise and shine. I act quickly before my inner pig-dog can react to this decision. I throw some kit on and after the necessary bathroom admin, make my way down from the hill I'm staying on, the dirt roads slippy underfoot from the rainfall. I cross the long, wet grass of Liberation Square and meet my old friend Bosco, a talented local marathon runner and training partner from previous stays in Masaka. We set off gently as light arrives and the town starts to stir, making our way through and out of the awakening town and into the surrounding countryside to escape the traffic.
January is supposed to be dry here but it's been raining most days, although just for a couple of hours each morning. We move up into the hills and Bosco pushes the pace, I drag a little behind but stay close enough to keep him in view. He's going a little faster than I would normally on a long run but the frequent hills and slippiness of the terrain help to temper anything too silly. As we pass ten miles and negotiate the slippery mud track back toward town, I see a man on a boda stop and check his mirrors, it's someone I have worked with before and he has stopped to greet me with a huge smile. We shake hands and exchange pleasantries before he continues his journey to work. That happens a lot here, people remember you from even the briefest conversations and always take time to say hello and ask how you are. A bit like London really.
We've found a flat section that stretches for a mile or so and kick up the pace a little. We pass a metalworking yard where the workers shout encouragement at us and a small shop where we receive the obligatory look of utter bemusement as to why there's a mzungu running through their village in the rain at eight o'clock in the morning. Two hours and thirteen miles later, we're back at Liberation Square. A good workout before breakfast, banana pancakes it is.
It's great to be back in Masaka, it's bustling, compact, town centre surrounded by hills in all directions. Beyond the busy bypass road on the town's edge, smaller villages and farmland stretch for miles. In the first few days, I encounter more familiar faces from previous trips as people call out from houses and shops and stop for a chat. It's especially good to see the ice cream vendor who's cart plays Christmas tunes all year round is still in business ("Santa Claus is coming to town" anyone?). I'll tell you what, if Santa Claus is coming to town, he's going to be horribly overdressed and awfully hot. And good luck getting the red dirt out of the white trim on your suit pal. That's there for life.
Sunrise runs. The views are worth the climbs...
As I move into weeks three and four of my Boston training plan, I'm still concentrating on slow increases in volume whilst working on strength & conditioning twice a week. I don't start on any higher intensity sessions until week five, when my body will be better equipped to cope with the additional stress.
Due to the hilly landscape, it can be difficult to find anywhere flat enough to work on quicker sessions. There are limited pavements to separate people from traffic (actually, they are building one but it currently has several 'surprise' six feet drops into drains) and the few tarmacked roads will be busy with errant vehicles and not particularly safe for running. I know of a sports field/cow paddock which, although not completely flat, will allow one to run in circles without fear of being dumped into a ditch by a motorcycle. It also has the benefit of sitting on a cliff edge which, after a climb to warm up, makes for some spectacular views and sunrises. My tempo runs take place on this field, the evenings bringing large groups of keen footballers playing extremely competitive games whilst a strange mzungu runs endless laps around the edges, hurdling the occasional cow pat.
A group of children sit on a bench in the shade and as I pass them on each lap, they shout out a different English word before bursting into laughter which keeps me entertained. Three young girls who live in the house next door to my mine excitedly join me at the start of each run as I plod the half mile uphill to the field and are there waiting for me at the end of the session to run down together again. One of the girls, who can't be older than five, manages to keep pace on the descent with extraordinary tenacity and may well be Uganda's next world champ (one of many, if someone decides to take grass roots sport seriously here).
Getting destroyed on hills by a fourteen year old
Unlike many other places I've visited. I'm rarely running solo here. People are meeting me at home to ask when I'm next running, where, and if they can join. A few years back, a group of youngsters from one of the villages used to suddenly appear mid training run and ask if they could tag along. Now they're in their teens, they search me out in the morning and ask 'when are we running?', before setting the pace for miles, schooling me on the hills. I'm not sure if it's them getting faster, stronger and more confident or my descent into a plodder. Either way, it's pretty cool to watch.
Equipment-wise, my gear has started to show the strain of the last year or so. My faithful Garmin 920 watch strap has snapped and is temporarily held together with some glue and tape from the local watchmaker. My heart rate monitor stopped working a long time ago and sits sadly on a shelf. My budget doesn't stretch to purchasing new wearables so if it can't be fixed by duct tape or glue, it's off to the gadget graveyard.
Outside of training, I'm organising sports classes at Creative Canvas Uganda (CCU), a community project in Ndegeya that provides additional education outside of government schooling that would not form part of the school curriculum. This gives youngsters from ages 4-14 the opportunity to experience art, sport, music, small scale farming, cooking, drama, sex education, computer literacy and healthy living to name a few. I'm also putting on some running technique coaching sessions at the Masaka Runners Club (new 'Running With...' post coming on that soon) and hosting some evening group fitness sessions in the guesthouse garden. I've managed to get plenty of people moving these last few weeks!
On the nutrition side, my diet mostly consists of rice, beans/cowpeas and Rolex - an omelette wrapped in chapatti with tomato, red onion & cabbage and avocado (if you're lucky).
Children take part in a highly competitive game of 'Capture the Cone' during one of the sport sessions at CCU
In the absence of parkrun in East Africa, I arrange a 5km run at 7am on a Saturday to mark the beginning of our 'virtual training run' series for this year's Uganda Marathon. A group of keen (and not so keen) runners warm up along the side of the brand new, so very nearly finished tarmac road that stretches from the bypass into town. The new solar-powered street lamps providing a strip of light in the darkness before it's light enough to move beyond the lamps and we run a hilly (surprise) 5km as a group.
As we gather for a post-run stretch & chat, something creeps into our eyeline that appears to be quite the storm. With a rough calculation that the world was about to end in less than a minute, we make a group decision to panic and scatter in all directions. As a strong wind kicks up and a shower begins, a nearby cow that had been quietly minding it's own business is seriously spooked by the screaming humans running toward it and charges. We scream like babies, rapidly change direction into the undergrowth and I proceed to fall down a three foot hole, shouting at my companions to leave me and save themselves. I manage to lift myself out of this situation and sprint for home as the spiralling wind kicks up dust into our eyes, leaving us sprinting blindly up a hill, zig-zagging madly as the rain plasters the dust to our skin. We finally find shelter and I glimpse my face in the mirror. I resemble some sort of red statue homage to an old mzungu runner who once plodded around the villages in very short shorts.
As Boston Marathon takes place on 'Patriot's Day' Monday, during this training block I'm using Monday as my long run day rather than the normal Sunday. This means unusually for marathon training, Sunday is a day for rest, recovery and a long stretching session. I take my trusty travel yoga mat/towel to the garden and locate a patch of grass shaded from the oppressive heat by a tree. I select some calming tunes and stick on the earphones to cover the thumping bass that rings out across the town until the early hours each weekend. A comprehensive session of stretching and contemplation begins.
Two minutes later, an animal empties itself onto my face from the tree above and I have to go and find some water.
"The views are worth the climb" II
On this particular Sunday, the music just didn't stop. Apparently there was an A list Ugandan pop star launching their new album at a nearby hotel. In the absence of any noise regulations, they decided to launch it using a sound system fit for the main stage at Glastonbury until some ridiculous hour in the morning. From what I could make out, each album track was exactly the same and very possibly a Ugandan version of 'It Wasn't Me' by Shaggy. Not the best recipe for sleep.
Consequently, once the music had finally died at some ungodly hour of the morning, I fell into a deep sleep, missing the only suitable window of the day for a long run (7-10am). After waking in quite the grump, I'm not even going to consider running for two hours in 26°C , and decide to move it to Tuesday instead. The following morning, feeling a lot more rested and in a much better mood, I run miles deep into the villages and high onto one of the ridges, rewarded with spectacular views and one of those life-affirming moments that trail running can reward you with.
Next week is a drop week, looking forward to that (and maybe a lie-in - midweek album launches allowing).
Weeks until Boston Marathon: 10
Avg Distance / Week: 31.9 mi
Avg Time / Week: 4hrs 34mins
Avg Runs / Week: 4