If the Kilimanjaro Marathon does not feature in your top 10 races to run before you die, you might consider bringing it up a place or two on the list. Aside from the impressive setting below the snow covered peaks of the world’s largest free-standing mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s also a fantastic place to meet like-minded people and make new friends.
Tanzania, with her friendly people and contrasting landscapes, is the perfect host for this marathon – now in its 14th year. There is a choice of a 5km fun run, a 21km half marathon, or the ultimate 42km marathon, but many runners opt for the 21km followed by a Kilimanjaro climb and safari to the Serengeti.
This is a run with many stories, and Robert Wells from Australia has one particular story worth sharing. Robert literally left his imprint on Africa – he tackled the 42km marathon before summiting Kilimanjaro, and visiting a small local school called Amani that serves to keep homeless children off the streets of Moshi, where he donated 22 pairs of shoes to encourage running in their youth programme. And he did all of this at the age of 69!
Here’s his impressive story:
“The reasons that attract distance runners to the Kilimanjaro Marathon are many, but the mighty mountain must be the biggest drawcard – Kili is an enigma. ‘Karibu Kilimanjaro’ (Welcome to Kilimanjaro) is the poetic Swahili greeting pasted all over the town. Welcome is truly how I felt all the time. Combining the 42km run and 63km climb created the perfect pair for me to sign up with Wild Frontiers. I have followed a varied and rewarding running path so far including the Comrades, marathons in Paris, Athens, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney and numerous trail ultras. The medal chest mass exceeds a house brick and the early race singlets are a treasured quilt.
Distance runners build personal parameters about pace, elevation change, time intervals and of course distance when comparing training and events. Applying the same logic to trekking is fatally flawed. Target speeds of 10km/h on flat roads and 6-8km/h on hilly or steep sections are achievable by most ‘weekend warriors’. On the Kilimanjaro Machame Route the ‘speed’ steadily decreased from day one (2.2km/h), to day three(1.8km/h), to 0.9km/h on summit day, then increased to 4.6km/h on the trail descent to the exit gate at Mweka.
These stats seem ridiculous until the combined effects of terrain, wind, rain, sleet, altitude and accumulating fatigue are factored in.
And so to race day. The early half marathoners cheer us out of the stadium and up to the open road. The next time that I see the lead bunch of 15 Kenyans, they have already turned and have swallowed up 13km while I have barely chewed up eight. Being 69 years old consoles me. As the kilometres roll by I distract myself by greeting the amused and supportive clusters with a Swahili ‘jambo’ (hello) and receiving a ‘mambo’ (hello/how are you) or ‘poa’ (fine) in reply. The Australian flag I especially stitched to my singlet arouses curiosity and I occasionally stop to share Swahili greetings and high fives with smiling children, giving them a flag from my zip-up gel pocket.
The turnaround is the sole effective roadblock on the busy Arusha to Dar es Salam road. It is flanked by a surprisingly dense crowd of delayed transport drivers, officials and locals. The streams of bouda-boudas (motorbike taxis) widen as we return to Moshi and briefly join the faster half marathoners as they are funnelled back into the stadium. We, however, swing uphill towards the majestic Kilimanjaro and grind our way past farms with coffee, bananas, mangos, and various vegetables. The village artisans make elegant timber and steel beds, tables, chairs, and awesome coffins, which are all prominently and proudly on display leaning against the roadside trees. The unrelenting climb forces regular walking breaks allowing me time to gaze at Kili full face.
At 34km, now on a boulder and eroded soil road, we turn to follow a different route back. All thoughts now focus on the finish with the shady roadside paramount. A younger occasional runner passes me and the water stops are keenly anticipated. The homeward bound crowds create annoying congestion in the final kilometre, but an assertive ‘jambo!’ clears a path through. More greetings to the crowded grand stand and their amused cheering helps me to me finish proudly in under 4 hours and 30 minutes.
A medal, t-shirt and promotional gear are collected in a sponsor’s bag. We then swagger back through the field of finishers in front of the stage and I find the Wild Frontiers hospitality tent for shade, refreshments and an exceptionally effective leg massage.
Here I meet 11 of our 13 strong climbing group for the Machame Route up Kilimanjaro the next day. The reasons why they are climbing Kili is that they heard about Kilimanjaro in the Toto song, ‘Africa’, and like me they were intrigued that there could be glaciers and snow within 60km of the equator.
Keys hotel provided gracious assistance in the transition from the run to the climbing legs of this quasi-duathlon. Weary calves and tight quads were given scant regard as we hobble to the trekking bus for the one-hour ride to Machame Gate.
Over five days our trail passes through high Macaranga forest to 3,000m (Machame Camp), heather to 3,400m (Shira Camp), moorland to 4,000m (Baranco Camp), alpine desert to 4,600m and above (Barafu Camp). At midnight we set off with headlamps, and all runners in the group overcame the 35-50km/h winds, -10ºC and rapidly depleting oxygen to reach Uhuru Point by 9am.
After five days of constrained trekking I could now run again. The deep dust and slopes were skiable in boots, spewing up tails of dust in the strong winds to highlight my descent progress. An hour of anxious adrenalin pumped exhilaration and I am just above Barafu again, albeit covered in Kili powder.
We camped at Millenium (4,000m) and on the final day my last running opportunity came when three young porters, each carrying 20kg loads and their own packs, let me join them in the 8km (1,500m descent) in one hour and 30 minutes. My right calf and left quad protested and warned of consequences, but it was a fitting finale to this demanding ‘duathalon’.”
Put these on your bucket list now. Diarise 26 February 2017 for the next Kilimanjaro Marathon, followed by a Kili climb if you are brave enough for the double challenge.