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An African marathon adventure part one

I will tell a story about another marathon I once ran.

The three Oven Door runners, Bill Hearne, Craig Litt and myself planned on a climbing adventure of epic proportions. The goal was to book a trip to Africa, hire a guide service, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,340') and run the Kilimanjaro marathon while we were on foreign soil. We did our homework, planning and training like we would as if we were to run any marathon but this was going to take a different, more intensive process.

I wrote about the entire climb, safari, and marathon in my memoir Brooks Running, published earlier this year.

I will use excerpts from the book to describe this last part of our trip (our marathon). The reason I'm using tis blog stuff is that I always wanted to include the many pictures into my writing. I'll see how this goes and may climb the climb this way. We three took hundreds of pictures.

So here we go: The Kilimanjaro Marathon, Feb. 26, 1984

Book chapter 22 "Killing it" Kilimanjaro Marathon, It begins, like each one of the book and begins, with one of my dad's poems. I modified it a bit. (2021 version)

Vintage Day

Like wisps of light smoke from a smoldering fire,

The sun's beams rise up for the day,

They're drifting now off of the deep brown african soil,

And smudging the soft fragrant ground'

The whispering breeze in the fluttering leaves

Will soon sweep the runners along.

People come out for the pleasant clear view,

As runners will join in the song,

The sun shows you all a most special warm hue,

An image of beauty and grace.

A nice vintage day that's reluctant to stay,

Is one that you'll never replace.

That poem of my dad’s represents perfect felicity to me, the warmth of a memory of a happy time that can’t really be duplicated or recaptured. It’s the peace that comes from experiencing anything beautiful, pure, and comforting, something that makes all right with the world.

I had run a lot of races, and as I explained before, they were always done by me in a mode of inner competitiveness. But for this race, my first and last African race and my first anywhere minus a competitive mindset, I made it my goal just to enjoy the day. I had no desire to play the hero and win some big award. I had won enough races. After all I’d done on the mountain, the athletic training of a lifetime, and all the many race experiences I had in my quiver, this was going to be purely for pleasure. Now I’d be more or less along for the “ride.” I wanted to make it a “vintage day,” one with few distractions, because I wanted to implant it firmly in my memory for years and years to come. Because—right—as the poem goes, I knew I’d never be able to replace it with something else.

So here we were in the very early morning hours of marathon day, Sunday, February twenty-sixth. Whatever else would happen today in the village around the base of Kili, the normal vagaries of life and Murphy’s Law events included, I knew I’d be “killin’ it” at Kili! Meaning I would own this experience on special spiritual terms. I had no qualms, no anxieties, no bad portents; I was well rested from sleeping deeply the night before. I knew I was on the right track with God. Come to find out, some of our party of three were a wee bit nervous, but how many times had I been down this “road” before? This would be a light adventure (did I just say “light”?!), not a true race. I would bask in a swath of good feelings. It would be the dandy final event of my African journey, the cherry on top.

Besides, you and I both know that if I had tried to really run, like I used to, I probably would have had a heart attack and died… I wanted to go home alive to tell of my wonderful experiences in Africa.

The shuttle to the venue was on “Africa time” (meaning thirty minutes late—relaxed). As we assembled in the starting area, we tried to estimate the number of runners. We were thinking maybe one hundred to a hundred and fifty. Quite small by our norms. It was still dark, but the sky was starting to lighten up when the sun greeted us from Mt. Kilimanjaro. As our surroundings became more visible, we began to get a better picture of the start/finish area. We met other runners from all over the world.

The gun, or whatever it was that made that loud sound, went off, and we were officially in competition with these elite athletes. Under the banner on a dirt track heading out of the stadium, the mass of runners turned onto a paved yet uneven, irregular street going up a gentle hill. I had my nifty Garmin GPS on my wrist so I could get time/distance/elevation of the entire race.

It was warm. It felt humid. I noticed that even at a slow ten-minute pace, I was struggling and out of breath. Was it the elevation? Had it been premature to think this would be a cinch? Had I not truly learned my lesson about limitations?

It was getting light enough now to see the neighborhoods we ran through. The canopy of trees over us was very brilliant, with reds and purples in the morning sunrise. I have no idea what these trees were, but they were eye-catching. The neighborhood we were traveling through then seemed to be wealthy. We ran to a roundabout. You know, come to think of it, I hadn’t seen a single traffic light our entire trip.

The course took us through the downtown area of Moshi and out of town on a fairly substantial highway going east, on towards Dar Es Salaam, downhill. At the roadsides were cheering people who were there waiting for a bus to go who knows where, also kids and parents who were waiting for the race to finish so they could get to church (remember this was a Sunday). There were several really good cheering sections; most of all, Kilimanjaro itself in the background seemed to be cheering us on.

The turnaround back to Moshi was about eight miles. As we approached within a mile or two of the turn, here came the leaders running in the opposite direction as us. This was an astonishing mental picture—seeing tall and short runners, people with various skin tones, all the sizes and colors of humanity flowing together. They were up on their toes, flying back towards Moshi, all the different competition numbers on paper bibs waving on their chests. It was a sight to behold for sure, especially watching them float by with not a word among them. Soundless because this is a very staid race, as it involves millions of shillings. There were some of the best Kenyan and Tanzanian marathoners there, hands down. And for once I wasn’t in the leading pack with them.

These women got in the way of my view of Kili. Really?? Hard to believe just days before it was zero and we were on the summit.

Next post: Marathon part 2 and my new fiend and Dr M.

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