Five years ago, fun running was little heard of and running was mainly dominated by professionals competing for glory.
That narrative is slowly changing as Kenyans begin to embrace running to keep fit, achieve personal health goals, or to simply strike a race off their bucket list.
Desmond Robins Mulama — simply known as Dez Robins among recreational runners — has been running for fun since 2015. Dez, an engineer, is a lover of the outdoors and his adventurous spirit birthed what is today known as the Medal Hunters Club, a sports and recreation club of runners driven by the motivation of winning medals.
It all began three years ago when Dez and four of his friends went on a road trip to Tanzania for the 2015 Kilimanjaro Marathon.
"We were awarded medals after the run, which we posted on our social media pages. This elicited unusual interest as all our friends wanted to join us on our next run," said Dez, who has so far bagged 23 medals from different races.
The interest shown by his friends on social media culminated in a series of runs and a swelling number of runners.
"Today Medal Hunters has about 250 members and we have an annual calendar of running activities, including trail runs and marathons and are not limited to Kenya," he said. They form a global community of recreational runners from Kenya, the US, the UK, South Africa and Uganda, who travel to take part in different running events. In October, for instance, some of the members took part in the Chicago Marathon. In Kenya, their calendar covers the Menengai Forest Trail Tour scheduled for February, the Havoc Trail Run in August and the Legibra Trail Run in October.
"Since we are medal hunters, our motivation is the 'Cool finisher's medal' that we get at the end of the race," said Dez. "The medal relieves you of the pain and exhaustion of running. It's an honour of achievement."
According to him, most of the club's members have no problem paying for the races where entry fees can range from Sh1,000 to Sh5,000, depending on location, sponsors and runner perks. All they want to know is that the event is for a good cause and there is a medal to take home at the end of the gruelling race.
Today, Desmond also runs another company, Team Jasho, which organises recreational runs that incorporate travel and adventure.
"Most of the members usually plan their holidays around a run so that they can also chase the medals while holidaying," he said.
To crown the year, he has scheduled an Achiever's Gala Dinner to be held on December 8 and which will double as an award ceremony to celebrate recreational runners. The first ever of its kind, the highlight of the gala will be the awarding of the individual who has bagged the highest number of medals this year. Of course, there will be other categories of winners.
Ms Sian Saitonik, a marketer, is a serious contender for the awards. She has been running since 2016 but started medal hunting last year.
"I have hunted 22 medals since," said Ms Saitonik. She has also reaped the benefits of running. When she started, she did it for health reasons. At the time, she tipped the scales at 89 kg but now weighs 59 kg.
"What motivates me is the drive to challenge my body every day and the fact that my body is capable of doing more. I started with 10km, then graduated to 21km. Right now, I can comfortably do a full marathon. I have done two full StanChart marathons," she said.
For now, chasing medals is the real deal.
"Oh the joy! We look for races all over the world with medals," she said. "I only do two races with no medals per year, which is Mwea Classic and farewell runs."
Since she embarked on the adventure, she has hunted medals in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. The quest has taken her to Kilimanjaro, Mt Meru and Tanga city, where she finished at position six. She has run in two races in Uganda and one in Rwanda.
"My best was 'RAK Dubai', when I did my personal best of 1 hour 51 minutes in the half-marathon."
Her drive now is to set a new personal best on both the 21km and 42km in two or three international races, "which also means dope medals," she said.
And with some of her friends joining the hunt for medals, Ms Saitonik doubts that her newfound passion will be ending any time soon.
"We already have a line-up of marathons we want to attend next year," she said.
However, she warns would-be enthusiasts about the need to plan financially.
"Last year, I was worn out both financially and physically. So this year, I decided to be strategic about my runs. I did an excel with strictly the ones I wanted to attend, budgeted for it, including my flights and accommodation, and followed it through. I avoid repeating runs so as not to miss on the ones I have never been to," she said.
Mr Munyaka Njiru, also a medal hunter, might not be a contender for the top medal hunters award but the experienced hiker has his own reasons for embracing running.
"It is now almost eight years of serious climbing," said Mr Njiru, who has conquered Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya and a few other mountain peaks. "I have always wanted to be a multi athlete and I'm fascinated by ultra-runners and sky runners," said the actuarial scientist.
Among his heroes is Kilian Jornet, who holds the world record for the fastest climb to Mt Everest — 26 hours. This is a feat that takes the average hiker a few weeks to accomplish.
"I realised that all mountains have been climbed and personally there is very little challenge that remains for me in East Africa and the only way to push the limit is to try and crush the times," he said.
"Running is among the cheapest recreational activities available. You just need a good pair of trainers and you are good to go," he said. The ambitious hiker trained for the StanChart Marathon in a month and competed in the half marathon.
"I have already bagged two medals in two months and the craving to start chasing medals is already consuming me," he confessed.
Ms Eve Mwenda has been running since 2015. Ms Mwenda, who is in procurement and operations management, said running for her was a lifestyle.
"Chasing medals is just the icing on the cake ... or the run I should say," she told the Saturday Nation. "We run to keep fit and if I can get a medal as evidence of my achievement ... why not? Also, the medals are great to look at".
From her adventures, she has come to the conclusion that women have become more health conscious.
"Running is a total body workout," she said. "You wouldn't believe how my face looked about four or five years ago. Today my face is clear of acne, thanks to a change in diet and upping my running and exercise game."
Eve also said that in general, women care about their looks a little more than men. "We want to look good even in our 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. And women who work out and run are confident in their skin," she said.
Mr Dedan Miricho, an ICT professional, has been running for the last five years but started taking the activity more seriously three years ago.
“I’m motivated by the hunger to do better and to keep on improving. Last year, I ran my first full marathon and I finished in 3 hours, 58 minutes. This year I ran my second full marathon and finished in 3 hours, 34 minutes, beating my record by 24 minutes. My ultimate goal is to one day do a sub-3-hour full marathon,” he said.
“Running keeps me sane. When I’m tired and stressed, running is therapeutic,” said Mr Miricho, who has also collected eight medals this year.
“The medal is a product of my accomplishment and a souvenir, too. No matter how tough a race is you will have something to show at the end of it,” he said.