“Camel soup. You need to eat camel soup.” It’s a big shout but the runner offering this unique spoonful of nutritional wisdom has a big story to back it up.
Local Lewa boy Mzee Warui has just completed his thirteenth Safaricom Lewa Half Marathon – one of the hottest, hilliest and highest half marathons anywhere in the world in just 1:45.
This wouldn’t be all that surprising except for one important fact – Mzee is 84 years old. And he’s still dancing.
I, on the other hand, am not. Swaying maybe, dancing not a chance. I have my hands on my knees, head bowed to the dusty earth, as I try to stop my lungs bursting out of my mouth. I’m a mess. Camel soup is the last thing I need.
I wanted to get in touch with running at its basic level. What I found was a marathon with the power to make an 84-year-old man feel like he’s 18.
Unlike Mzee, whose victory shuffle marks his thirteenth race victory in his age category, I’ve just run the full marathon forty minutes slower than my fastest time for the 26.2.
For three hours and thirty seven minutes I’ve toiled on the cocoa-powder trail of the Lewa Wilderness wildlife conserve with temperatures hitting 35 degrees, climbing nearly 7,000 feet of ascent, all at 5,500 foot altitude.
It’s brutal running. Half or full marathon, this isn’t for the faint hearted.
As 1,400 runners – a mix of superfast locals and fund-raising tourists – cross the finish line, men and women a third of Mzee’s age are being scooped up and swept to the medical tent.
Some of them look like they’ve run into one of the many endangered Black Rhino which normally call this unique marathon course home. Most of them probably wish they had. It’d hurt less.
But the pain is worth it. Lewa is a special race. There are very few feelings quite as uplifting as padding through untouched African wilderness in the spiritual home of long distance running.
At times you find yourself completely alone, making your way between the Masai-manned water stops. It’s all quite primal until the occasional helicopter breaks the silence, circling overhead to make sure Africa’s big five aren’t getting too close to the course.
Sweaty humans aren’t really on the lunch menu for lions and cheetahs, you’re more likely to come a cropper under the hooves of an angry buffalo. Either way, after 22 miles, there’s little left in the trail-weary legs to resist with. This is pleasure-pain running. Beauty and a beasting.
It’s why the sight of a jiving older runner stands out.
After five minutes sucking in the thin air my vital organs decide they’ll stay inside my body for a little while longer and I draw enough breath to approach the swaying red, black and green bandana smile that is Mzee.
While his pre-race fuelling strategy sounds anything but appetising, I’m hungry to discover gives a more than twice my age the power to jig when my body is in a lactic spasm.
What is it about the Lewa Marathon that can inspire such remarkable achievements? How heck is an octogenarian clocking a 1:45 half marathon in these conditions? In any conditions.
“Many people say it’s my God-given talent. But I say it’s because I love running, it is my hobby. It has helped me stay fit, and age gracefully.” Mzee tells me with glee.
“Many old men of my age are idle. They don’t exercise, they drink and smoke and look beyond their years.”
Raw talent is one thing but Mzee isn’t leaving anything to God. Five months before the race he starts double running as religiously as any top Kenyan athlete.
“You have to train.” He warns me. “You can’t wake up today and say you are practising for a marathon tomorrow. You will die. If you want to run the marathon, practice makes perfect.”
For Mzee that means 10 kilometres every day, four days a week with five kilometres in the morning and five in the evening.
“I’ll run my first run at 5.45 a.m. when there is enough light to see my path. Then I set out at 5 p.m. for the evening run. Afterwards I shower, eat supper and go to bed early so as to have enough rest and wake up early for the next day’s runs.”
From a man who first started running in 1948, it’s inspiring stuff. It’s precisely for this that I chose to ignore government warnings, dismiss scaremongering about Somali pirates and Al Shababi bombings, and travel to Kenya to be a part of this race.
I wanted to get in touch with running at its basic level. I came hoping to meet people for whom running meant something more than a personal challenge at your Saturday Park Run. What I found was a marathon with the power to make an 84-year-old man feel like he’s 18.
Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?
(This article first appeared in issue four of Like the Wind magazine)