Running The Kampala Marathon

To anyone who is used to races in Europe or America, running yesterday's Kampala Marathon was full of additional challenges and strange surprises. My first impression was arriving at 6:25AM (the race didn't start until 7) and seeing hundreds of Ugandan runners doing squats, jumping jacks, and generally the most excited I had ever seen before a race. And then the race began.

Kampala has endless hills. Training here leaves you to expect that the race would be an endless cycle of up and down. Fortunately, for those who did the 10K race, but unfortunately for us marathon runners, the first half of the race was fairly even, with the last half a series of unending, merciless hills. Of course, the potholes, dust and exhaust caused endless annoyance, especially towards the end of the race when your legs deeply feel each change in the road and your lungs register that instead of breathing in oxygen then are taking on sulfur.

However, there were plenty of ways to take out my aggression, as the organizers lost control of road traffic when I was 8K into the race. This resulted in dozens of boda boda's (small motorcycles, usually equipped with lawn mower strength engines) whizzing by close enough to touch me, and matatus (public taxi mini buses) pulling over right in front of me to pick up passengers, then leaving me to breath their dense black smoke. It feels especially good to yell at a boda driver to move or to wind speedily through reams of traffic, leaving the trapped drivers in their traffic jams.

One tends to learn alot about a town by running its marathon. For example, I learned that Sundays are meat delivery days in many of Kampala's neighborhoods. I learned this at around kilometer 20, when I was coasting down a hill and a small pick up truck packed to the brim with raw meat carcases suddenly pulled in front of me from out of nowhere and stopped, causing me to run into the back of it at considerable speed. Luckily I wasn't hurt, but I came within a few inches of a skinned cow leg sticking up in the air from the back of the truck.

Twice during the race I was reminded how quickly Ugandans disregard personal achievement in favor of communal well-being. The first was at kilometer 23, when I passed a British friend of mine who was a competitive runner, but happened to be struggling to get up a hill. I passed him with some words of encouragement to keep up the struggle. A few feet later a boda driver called out to me from the side, "You must go back and help your friend!" European and American racers know that this simply isn't possible. For a competitive race, a marathon is an intensely personal thing. Unless a racer is in serious trouble, he would much rather be left to plough through the difficulties on his own and survive a stronger man. However, its nice to be reminded that you are in a place where people set aside personal ambition for the sake of others.

A few kilometers later, on another beastly hill, I passed a similarly struggling Ugandan runner. I spoke comparable words of encouragement to him, and in reaction he grabbed my hand. I didn't know what to do at first, but I soon recognized that he intended for us to run together in solidarity for the next 10 kilometers. This of course, was impossible from an American marathoner point of view, but I held on for a few moments out of admiration for his intent, before letting go with a murmur about it being very hot.

Despite the challenges, I was reminded that runners, wherever you go, are the friendliest of people. This has been true since high school, through college (I repped my Terp Runners jersey in Kampala) and up to yesterday's race. My friend Queeny, the don of Kampala running (see below), hosted a pre-race pasta dinner. I met several wonderful locals and ex-pats who had turned out for this crazy adventure. Since he had run the marathon before and could testify to the mismanagement of handing out water (which didn't turn out half as bad), we recruited some brave friends to be strategically placed around the course to hand out water and bananas.

How did I perform in the race? Well, I can only say that I highly suggest training for marathons (the longest I ran in the months leading up to the race was 10K). Since this was my fourth marathon, I figured muscle memory would kick in and I would do just fine. I finished, and my muscles remembered the previous marathons, but by kilometer 30 they also remembered that I had not even approached that distance in the previous months. My time was 4:03, a full 53 minutes slower than by personal record set at the Paris Marathon in 2004.

Well, there is always the Arusha (Tanzania) Marathon in March and the Kigali (Rwanda) Marathon in May. Or maybe one is enough this year.

Click here for more pictures.

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  • I am not sure if you meant this to be a humorous post, but I found it hilarious. Especially the way you humbly mention you had only run a 10k before the marathon!!! Way to go - I used to run 1/2 marathons but I'm a long way from that right now. Your post gave me a little inspiration and motivation. Thank you.

    By Blogger Jessica Brogan, at 9:18 AM  

  • I am most definitely not a marathon woman (but will happily hand out the water and bananas!) - well done for finishing, and a very funny blog post.

    By Blogger equiano, at 9:15 AM  

  • way to go Joshua!!!havent yet participated in a marathon myself but i plan to do so for next year's London Marathon or do one of the ones in Hyde park.

    By Blogger Saadiq, at 12:41 PM  

  • It's Race of Hope Time on Mt. Cameroon, and I'm going to give it a try. I haven't done much more training than you, and my muscles are more forgetful... let's see how it goes.

    My eyes are peeled for the meat trucks!

    By Blogger Royster, at 12:19 PM  

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