Hundreds of runners will pour into the streets of Nairobi today, not for the violent confrontations that have marked recent weeks, but for the annual ritual that is the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon.
Of these, a handful will be professional marathon runners, chasing the million-shilling top prize offered by the event’s sponsors, Standard Chartered Bank, who are celebrating the 15th anniversary of Kenya’s biggest mass race.
But the majority will be fun runners, some eager to complete the tough 42-kilometre distance to crown months of intensive training and religious dietary programmes.
Unfortunately, Mr James Waliaula, one such fun runner, will miss out of today’s race as over 60 runners from his Urban Swaras running club gleefully pound the city’s streets that are currently receiving a facelift following the entry of a new administration and the presidential inauguration on Tuesday.
Mr Waliaula is out of town, engaged in his other life working for a charity organisation in Juba where he has had to adjust his training programme because of the curfew in the South Sudan capital.
He now covers three kilometres of swimming five times a week to keep his fitness levels high.
The Urban Swaras Club is a group with a passion for running with its members traversing the globe, tackling big city marathons and other mass running events.
The club was formed in 2006 but formally registered in 2010, with its members sharing their running experiences through blogs on the club’s website.
Mr Waliaula may not be one of the world-beating big names, but he is no ordinary runner. He went down in history in 2015 as the first Kenyan runner to complete all the six races in the World Marathon Majors Series in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York — an achievement that none of Kenya’s elite runners has managed.
After completing the six iconic races, Waliaula raised the bar and embarked on ultra-marathons (covering 50 kilometres and beyond) — running in the famous Two Oceans Ultra Marathon (56 kilometres) and Comrades Ultra Marathon (89 kilometres), both in South Africa, last year.
His next goal? To compete in the “Iron Man” challenge next year in South Africa, a gruelling competition covering 3.86 kilometres of swimming, 180.25 kilometres of cycling and a marathon (42.2 kilometre-run), all to be attempted inside a 17-hour window!
STARTED RUNNING TO KEEP FIT
Mr Waliaula’s foray into running and fitness makes for interesting reading. Weighing 115 kilogrammes, his main aim of venturing into running was to cut down his weight, which he did, reducing to 76 after just six weeks of “modest running” in 2013.
But little did he know that the running bug would take him to capital cities globally.
A regional logistics co-ordinator at Nairobi-based French humanitarian aid concern, Solidarites International, he now boasts a personal best time of 2:48:09 (two hours, 48 minutes and 9 seconds) in the marathon, which he clocked at the 2015 Tokyo Marathon.
This is, by all standards, an impressive time for a non-professional runner that would go down as a national record in Liberia, Monaco, Netherlands Antilles and Tonga, for example!
His current target is to run the marathon in under two hours and 45 minutes.
“I have always loved sports since I was a child and I love being outdoors,” Mr Waliaula who is married and has an eight-year-old daughter, Kerissa, tells Lifestyle.
“Though I had never participated in athletics in my school life, I played basketball until university and swam regularly. After university, it became difficult to find time to play, especially in team sports, and running offered an easy alternative to keep fit,” he says.
Like father, Mr Waliaula’s daughter is an avid sportsperson, an energetic pupil at Makini School where she is an active member of the Makini Sports Academy.
“Kerissa is an athlete in her own right and a competitive swimmer,” he says.
Mr Waliaula’s running hobby has also seen him visit at least 12 countries, competing in races in Djibouti, Tanzania, Dubai, Uganda, Somalia, South Sudan, South Africa, Paris, USA, Germany, United Kingdom and Japan.
“It’s difficult to make a choice,” he says, asked which city has been the most challenging to run in. “But I would say Cape Town in South Africa.”
The 39-year-old Waliaula considers himself a “sports tourist,” planning his vacations around running events.
“I must admit it can be costly, but the trick is to plan way ahead and start making savings in good time,” he advises. “The trips are always worth every penny!”
He is torn between Paul Tergat and Eliud Kipchoge as his all-time favourite professional marathon runner.
“It’s difficult to chose between Tergat and Kipchoge, but I would go for Kipchoge because of his consistency and humble demeanour,” he says.
Among the women, Mary Keitany takes the crown.
“She is so consistent and fierce on the road and the most likely person to attack the world record,” he says, referring to Kenya’s fastest woman marathon runner who boasts a personal best time of 2:17:01 clocked in winning this year’s London Marathon in April. Ms Keitany’s time is a world-record for a women’s only race.
In the 2015 Tokyo Marathon — where Ethiopia’s Endeshaw Negesse and Birhane Dibaba clinched the men’s and women’s elite titles — Mr Waliaula clocked a time of 2:49.28 as he completed his fifth of six World Marathon Majors races.
“My target was 2:59 and running about eight minutes faster was a huge surprise to me, especially with the difficult weather conditions,” says Mr Waliaula, whose previous personal best was 2:56.43 posted in Berlin in 2014.
“The marathon course itself is quite unique with the route taking the form of a squiggly plus sign when viewed from an aerial perspective,” he wrote on his running blog on the experience in Tokyo.
“It involves two 180-degree-turns where if you are running a sub three-hour marathon pace, you are bound to meet the elite runners coming from the opposite direction twice. I got a jab of adrenaline from shouting Dickson Chumba’s name as the leading pack of elites breezed by me twice during the race. Up close, the pace of elite runners is simply electrifying and a sight to watch!” wrote Waliaula.
Among the highlights of his trip was staying in the same hotel with the elite runners, a stone’s throw away from the marathon start point.
“With almost no African runners but for the elites, I got VIP treatment my whole stay in Tokyo for simply identifying with the champions from East Africa. It was a real treat hanging out with the Kenyan and Ethiopian rivals, who stayed together the entire trip until we parted ways in Dubai on the return flight,” he wrote.
His advice to fun runners in today’s Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon: “Go out and have fun! This is a rare chance for everyday amateur athlete to take the field with the best in the sport. It only happens in marathons.”
For the upcoming runners, he advises, marathon running is not an event but a journey.
“You have to put in those hours on your feet before the big day. Learn to enjoy the training part,” says Mr Waliaula.
Great advice from a man who has made tremendous transformation from a regular jogger to become the first Kenyan to run in all six World Marathon Majors races, and achievement that would make even Olympic champion Kipchoge green with envy.
“Unfortunately I will miss today’s Nairobi Marathon as I am still in Juba. But my Urban Swaras club will be well represented by at least 60 runners!” he said.
According to their website, the Urban Swaras organise weekly Saturday runs, mostly in and around Nairobi, as well as out of town runs at scenic locations all over Kenya.
“Our goal is to promote recreational running in Kenya, and provide a home for runners of all calibre looking for good running company and a variety of interesting running trails,” the website says.
The club also offers support, including providing fruits and drinks, to members competing in local races besides serving as “pacemakers” for willing competitors.
The Swaras end the year by organising social events “to crown successful running seasons.”
Nairobi’s disappearing potholes offer an impeccable proposition that the 60-plus members of and other runners will gladly take in today’s race.
Mr Waliaula’s story offers motivation to the thousands of fun runners who will tackle today’s Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon to look beyond the 5km, 10km, 21km or 42 kilometres into the possibilities running can afford—including travelling to the world’s most famous capitals for running tours!
Running tips from a world athletics icon
The marathon can be unforgiving, and tackling the iconic 42-kilometre distance needs maturity, patience and self-discipline, says Paul Tergat.
Now, coming from a former world marathon record holder, this is a piece of advice that the thousands of runners tackling today’s Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon need to take seriously.
“Of course by now you must have trained quite a bit for the marathon. But what a runner must know is that the full marathon is not like running a 10-kilometre race,” Mr Tergat says adding “It can be unforgiving, and so you should not go out there with the mindset that ‘I have to win’ but, rather, with the focus that ‘I have to finish’.”
This, he says, was his mantra as a world-beating elite athlete. “When the going got tough, I never thought of dropping out. I always said I’d rather finish than drop out.”
Mr Tergat, 48, now the President of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya, brought a lot of excitement into global marathon running, becoming the first man to run the distance in under two hours and five minutes when he broke the world record in 2003, winning the Berlin Marathon in 2:04:55 and breaking the previous record of 2:05:38 set by Morocco-born American Khalid Khannouchi at the 2002 London Marathon.
Mr Tergat’s time was then eclipsed in 2007 by Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie who ran 2:04:26, also in Berlin, with Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto dipping under 2:03 by lowering the record to the current mark of 2:02:57, again at the Berlin Marathon, on September 28, 2014.
“Remember, there will be another marathon next year and so it’s important to give your best while running at your own pace, and then next year you can target on improving on the time you will clock in this year’s race. I wish to see everyone finishing the marathon today and getting a medal. Even if you finish in five hours, or six hours, that’s OK, especially because Kenya is known as a running nation, and despite the political challenges that we currently face, we need to show the world that we are united through sports in today’s marathon.”
Nutrition plays a huge role in preparing for the marathon, and Mr Tergat’s advise for marathon runners is that they must take in lots of carbohydrates before the race and fluids during the marathon.
“You see, carbohydrates, and pasta especially, are very good because they are slow in releasing energy which you will need for the marathon,” he says. “That’s why the night before major marathons we have pasta parties.”
It is also extremely important to hydrate well during such a long race he says: “You most never miss fluids intake, especially at the mandatory water stations after every five kilometres. If you fail to take water during the race, you will pay dearly.”
For most of the fun runners, muscle aches are common after the race.
“It is important in the recovery period after the race to stay active. Walk a lot up and down because this reduces the stress on the muscles,” Mr Tergat tips. “Go for massage and don’t just go down and rest in bed because this will be counter-productive. And remember to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water.”
The former Olympic 10,000 metres silver medallist and five times world cross country champion’s parting shot is that running against the clock is an important motivation to fun runners.
“Target your own time, and then you can go back, relax and in your next marathon figure out on how to improve on your personal best time. That’s the best way to motivate yourself in marathon running, rather than thinking about winning the race,” Mr Tergat, an officer with the Kenya Air Force, concludes.