It is 6pm and the sun has already set on Sugar Loaf Mountain where I have come on board a cable car. The warm air is still. The restaurants are glitzy. Couples are kissing. I am nursing my camera and mobile phone. The city of Rio de Janeiro, with its contours of bays, tall skyscrapers, countless yachts and a million lights, is below me. Planes are taking off and landing at the airport. The harbour lights bathe the sea. Urca beach, next to the military facility known as Escola de Guerra Naval where I have regular swims, looks small from here.
Only Christ the Redeemer, stretching His brilliantly lit arms atop distant Corcovado Mountain, stands above me. My Brazilian friends are happy as if there is no care in the world. We are having drinks. I am going through the motions of jokes and laughter but my mind is distracted. WhatsApp and email messages from home are buzzing my phone with ever increasing rapidity.
My mind is on the following day, Sunday August 21, 2016. It is the day of the men’s Olympic marathon.
The marathon is the race that seized my imagination when I first heard its story as a little boy in primary school. It is the greatest race on earth and right now, despite the exuberant company of my Brazilian friends, I am thinking about Eliud Kipchoge, Stanley Biwott and our national team captain, Wesley Korir. They will be running the marathon for us.
Oh! The marathon! Marathon is a town in Greece located 42 kilometres to the north east of Athens, the capital. It is here that in 490 BC, the epic Battle of Marathon took place. A Greek army defeated invading Persians and saved Greece from subjugation. When all was quiet, the victorious Athenian general, Militiades, dispatched one of his soldiers, a runner named Pheidippides, to Athens to announce news of the victory.
Pheidippides raced that distance at top speed and arrived in Athens with only sufficient breath to proclaim: “We won!” He then collapsed and died from exhaustion. For more than 2,500 years, the triumph and tragedy of Pheidippides has captured the imagination of all humankind and today, marathon races dot the athletics calendar of many cities around the world every year.
The men’s marathon race retraces the same distance covered by that ancient Greek runner. It is the signature event of the Olympic Games and traditionally closes the games of every Olympiad as it will here on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.
Evidently, the allure of the marathon lies in its evocation of human endurance, the call to making a supreme effort and the faith in triumph over all adversity.
The marathon is best expressed in the Japanese term gaman, which means "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity"
The marathon is Kenya’s race. Samuel Wanjiru, our tragic hero and probably the best runner of the distance ever, did it for us in 2008. It is the marathon that I am thinking about, not the Olympic Games closing ceremonies. I just love the marathon. I am awed by it. Bearing the seemingly unbearable - how inspiring. I will wake up early to cheer Kipchoge, Biwott and Korir. “We won!” Exclaimed Pheidippides more than 2,500 years ago.
“We shall win!” I say, because we are the greatest in the greatest race ever run by humankind.