Uganda Marathon 2019: a race like no other

A good friend of mine texted me in early autumn, last year. Sobriety had bid me farewell several hours earlier and a feeling of happy invincibility had taken its place.

The text read: “Do you want to run a marathon with me in Uganda May/June next year?”

Now, I don’t like long-distance running. At all. I also suffer badly when exercising in the heat, knew nothing about Uganda or, for that matter, what I would be doing in May/June of the following year.

But these were considerations for a sober John. And he wasn’t around right then.

“Sounds good.” Was my immediate reply. “I’m in!”

The same friend (we’ll call him Ben, in the main because that’s his name) texted a few days later – days I might have used to research my decision had I remembered taking it.

“I’ve paid your deposit – you can’t back out now. Oh, and you owe me money!”

So that was it – I was going to a hot place I knew nothing about to do a thing I disliked intensely.

The months passed with occasional bursts of visa admin and post-marathon holiday planning. Vaccinations happened, anti-malarial drugs were procured and painful hours were spent on the paths of Richmond Park, getting fit.

Having persuaded an Argentinean friend, Mauro, to come along for the ride (motivated, he later told me, by the same beer-induced brain bypass as me), the day of departure crept ever closer until, one evening, the three of us found ourselves en route to Heathrow.

We flew on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa to Entebbe, a small city on the northern banks of Lake Victoria, a short but hectic distance from the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

We were greeted by the marathon staff who would be, at various times during the following week, our guides, translators, teachers, cheerleaders and, ultimately, friends. A minibus ride later – which included an “insta” friendly comfort break between hemispheres – and we had arrived in Masaka, the town in and around which the marathon was to be run.

Two steps and half a world apart

Google can provide you with many facts about Masaka but, as we drove to our hotel, there was one fact and one fact alone on which I was fixated: Masaka is hilly. Really hilly!

A room with a view. At the top of a hill.

The rest of the day consisted of shaking hands, learning names, forgetting names, admitting that names had been forgotten, learning basic words in Luganda (the main language of the kingdom of Buganda in which Masaka lies), mistaking “water” for “fecal matter” through mis-pronunciation, (easier to do than you might think) and taking much-needed showers.

In the evening we were treated to a demonstration of traditional drumming and dance but, so engrossed was I in the spectacle, I left my phone in my pocket and have no pictorial evidence. Thank you @jasonrustage for providing the clip below.

I have realised, as I write, that this blog is likely to exceed the usual length through which casual readers are happy to skim. Well, I might write a useful summary post at some stage but, for those of you interested in a story beyond pithy lists and commercial links, find a comfy seat, make yourself a hot drink and indulge me.

What is the Uganda Marathon?

Yes, it’s a marathon in Uganda; well done clever clogs! But what does it do? how does it help? The above link will explain far better than I, but I thought it important to mention here what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t seek to run projects on behalf of the local community, nor does it seek to advise on how to do things better – no white saviour complex accusations here – it simply identifies projects that need funding and, through international entry fees and competitor fundraising, provides it. So when we went to visit certain projects during the week leading up to the marathon, there was no illusion that our amateur digging skills or hopeless (and often downright dangerous) DIY attempts were anything more than a way of getting to see and understand the projects that we were financially supporting a little better.

“What are those projects of which you speak?”, I hear you ask. Well, I shall now enlighten you.

In the build up to the marathon itself, we visited both new projects (ones selected for funding for the first time) and legacy projects (those that had already benefited from previous Uganda Marathon funding). My first visit was to Ddembe Home which, in conjunction with Smile, nurtured and supported street kids, orphans and children living with HIV/AIDS, ranging from as young as 18-months to adulthood. It was clear how much had been achieved, but also how much more could be possible with access to greater funds.

Happy – one of the Smile wards when she showed up to run the 10km race at the end of the week.

In applying for the marathon, we had been asked to select projects for which to fundraise from a list of those that had been chosen. I had chosen Kakunyu School, an institution supported by the Kakunyu Parents’ Association (henceforth KPA, because I’m lazy). This was a school initially set up for the education of disabled children and those with special educational needs. It was on the journey there that I first took a moment to appreciate Uganda: not the people this time, but the place.

The marathon is organised to coincide with the end of the rainy season, aiming to capitalise on some residual coolness before the heat of the dry season takes hold. As a result, the surrounding landscape was awash with luscious vegetation in every imaginable shade of green, from the dark, waxy richness of palm fronds to the lighter shades of ferns and grasses.

Sounds pretty, but perhaps a bit monotonous? Not so! In stark contrast to this ocean of green was the deep red of the Ugandan soil, the dirt roads cutting ragged lines across hillsides and snaking like dull lava through the valleys. This was no polite, British earth, to be brushed away after some weeding in the vegetable garden, this powerful, vivid ochre felt like the life-blood of the country welling up below ones feet.*

Termite hill or mini volcano?

*Having allowed myself you wax lyrical, I should also mention that at least half of the country’s soil has come home with me, engrained in shorts, trousers, socks, shirts and t-shirts but, unlike the dreaded ketchup or biro splodge, they are stains of which I’m fondly nostalgic.

Anyway, back to the story, friends. On arrival at Kakunyu School, we were greeted by the head teacher, David, who then introduced us to Mary, the founder and director of the school.

Mary was a force of nature.

She told the story of the events that led to her founding the school – a tale so full of hardship, trials and tribulations that it made it look like Job got it easy (check your bibles, folks. That’s actually quite funny.) She had surmounted every obstacle, overcome every hurdle and now, having started out with four, as many as 122 children had access to education and care as a result of her determination. Kudos, Mary, you’re amazing!

Mary with runner, Lisa, and group leader, Cissy

Some of the funding had been allocated to the development of a sustainable food forest – a susbsistence plot to make the school less reliant on outside supplies. To try to make ourselves useful and to earn our lunch, we set to work under the instructions of the agriculture teacher, to dig and plant some vegetable patches. What we lacked in competence, we made up for in effort….I think.

A row of runner beings

When blisters were forming and backs beginning to ache, a welcome distraction was provided by the childrens’ discovery of the selfie:

After a couple of hours of inept tool-swinging, we had built quite a healthy appetite and were happy when lunch was announced and we were invited into one of the nearby buildings.

What met us was a veritable feast. Delicious flavours, delightful textures – the kind of culinary excellence confirmed often by total silence as people eat. My compliments to the chefs!

The afternoon was spent happily with the school’s pupils, trying our hands at arts and crafts before heading to the playground for hoopla, football, catch and general silliness. As the day drew to a close, we bid farewell to Mary and her staff and waved goodbye to the kids. We left with tired limbs but hearts full.

The game of “hurl tennis balls at Ben” proved popular!

As you may be nearing the end of your mug of cocoa or cup of tea, I shall speed through the two days immediately prior to the race. They included an afternoon of ball games and village fete-style entertainment with the kids from our various projects and some other local schools, a pasta and pool party the day before to get the carbs on board and a lesson in traditional dance (at which I was an abject failure).

With hindsight, the day before the day before the longest run of my life might not have been the time to test my tolerance of “Nile Export”, reaching bed at 2.30am after a spirited rendition of Nessun Dorma (the English translation – None shall sleep – being quite appropriate). But hindsight is only afforded to those who have already made their decisions. Their Nile-full, hangover-inducing decisions.

The day of the race finally dawned. To avoid the heat, those racing full and half marathons were to set off at 7am, those taking the 10km option at 8am. An excited buzz started to fill the corridors of our hotel as bottles were filled, shoes laced, ankles stretched. This gentle excitement was soon to reach fever pitch for, on heading down to the start area, a few hundred metres away, we were greeted by a large stage and the strains of “Hotel California” vibrating on the air around us. Game on!

What ensued was the most energizing warm-up routine of all time, with our dynamic stretches coordinated to music by a host of runners on stage.

And then the moment arrived:

Hooter, first steps, onward rush of the crowd, trainers on tarmac, then on dusty red earth. Find-a-rhythm, find-a-rhythm, don’t-go-to-hard. The race had begun.

No marathons are easy and, with hills named “The Beast” and “Heartbreaker”, this was no exception but, as we ran, hordes of beaming children rushed to greet us, cheering us on, making those hills a little bit easier, turning grimaces into smiles.

Seeing me on my own and struggling, these legends ran with me (in sandals) for almost three miles, encouraging me the whole way.

The course was tough, and my legs were heavy, but the support and encouragement were so amazing, so touching, that when I crossed the finish line I felt ready to do it all again!

Well….. Maybe not immediately……

After a medal ceremony and some well-earned celebratory drinks, the following day we parted company – some to head home, others to go on further adventures. It’s hard to know exactly what others thought or felt, but I like to think all of us left with more friends, more perspective and the heart-warming knowledge that the funds raised by the marathon had helped and would continue to help some truly wonderful people to help themselves and their communities a little better.

I will remember the experience for many years to come and, if the effusive WhatsApp and Facebook babblings of my new-found friends are anything to go by, I’m not the only one.

So, thanks forreading and, if any of this has struck a chord with you, don’t think yourself out of it – act now! Sign up! Go! I guarantee you won’t regret it!

But do watch out for the Nile Export….

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