I remember the last week of June, as I packed up the last odds and ends of my life in Southern California to journey to this unknown, intriguing land of Africa, I briefly perused a Runner’s World magazine before throwing it out. I thumbed through the “Races and Places” section detailing marathons and half marathons available throughout the calendar year. I looked in the “Africa” region, and saw a Kilimanjaro Marathon and Half Marathon offered in February. I mused on that for about five minutes, then shrugged it off as a pipe dream. That is, until I met Erin and Lauren in August. Much to my surprise, they wanted to run the Kili Half too.
I ended up deciding to run mostly because I thought it would help me cope with hot season, little knowing that training through hot season was going to be one of the hardest things I’d ever done. It took a kind of willpower I didn’t know I had just to lace up my shoes several times a week when I was sleeping very little and chronically hot and tired, battling daily power outages, heat rashes, and everything in between. Little did I know I was building the sort of inner stuff I would need most for this race.
We had a blast driving 9 hours in cramped quarters to Moshi, the adorable, clean town nestled at the base of the famed Mount Kilimanjaro. This town is still hot during the day, but doesn’t have the sweltering humidity of Dar, and the evenings are blessedly cool and void of most mosquitoes. We soaked it in while we had the chance. The day before the race, we drove the course that followed a charming country road, past coffee plantations and trees. I noted that the first two hills would be a difficult start to the race. As we continued, I realized with growing alarm that the course was almost a constant incline, and that we would be running a fairly intense uphill grade for the first six miles of the race. Gulp. I had trained for distance, not incline. I also had altitude to contend with. Double gulp. I realized that this might be the first race that I’d ever run that I really and truly might not finish. Needless to say, I tossed and turned all night.
The day of the race dawned and I chugged my coffee, forced down two power bars, and stretched reluctant muscles. We walked the kilometer’s distance from our hostel to the race start and watched as the Kenyan, Tanzanian, and Ethiopian world class marathoners sprinted past us at full speed. Then I started to get excited. It struck me that I was in AFRICA, and I was going to do the one thing that I loved most in the world. I realized it didn’t matter how I did, really, it just mattered that I was doing it all.
As the half marathon began and the crowd started to pulsate forward, I started moving forward to the beat of “Waving Flag,” and felt wildly free and happy. And I ran. Up…up….uphill…..higher…higher….harder…harder…….more…more….. The morning was clear and crisp like the fall in Santa Clarita. Kilimanjaro stood as a beacon above the racing route, cheering us on and beckoning us forward as we ran directly toward its snowcapped peaks. I was once again overwhelmed by the goodness of God in giving me a day of health, friends to run with, and the ability to run with joy. How kind of Him to give good gifts like this that are only for enjoyment, challenge, and well-being.
African families lined the roads, some staring in perplexity, some chanting and clapping. This was all I needed to climb the formidable hills: inspiration. And I kept climbing…higher…steeper……harder….pushing to reach that halfway point so I could turn around.
As I neared the halfway point I saw Tesfaye, the one HOPAC student to train and run for this race (his first), and an Ethiopian to boot. He looked fantastic and happy as he ran effortlessly past me back down the hill. We pounded fists and I cheered as heartily as I could muster in my breathless state. I was inspired. I saw Ben, our natural runner of the group who hadn’t even trained but was making a strong showing in spite of it. He wore his bright green and yellow Oregon duck shoes and a 70’s style headband. We grinned and high-fived. As I turned around and headed back down, I crossed paths with Lauren and Erin and we cheered each other on as we ran. Those girls inspire me so much. Running in community is the best. I let the downhill grade work for me the rest of the way and enjoyed every moment of it, choosing to ignore the fact that I would pay dearly tomorrow for letting my body pound down this pavement in such a way.
As I ran the final half kilometer into the stadium toward the finish line, I felt fantastic. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. The song I’d been listening to on repeat for that past two hours (the only and most obvious power song for a race like this) articulated my heart……. “waka waka (shine, shine)…this time for Africa….”