CFWshops, or the Sustainable Healthcare Foundation as it is known locally, co-sponsored a 10k race in Nairobi to mark World Malaria Day on April 24, 2010. The worldwide theme was “Count Malaria Out” and the Global Fund had pledged to donate 200,000 bednets to people in Kenya and elsewhere.
I arrived at Nyayo stadium (Nairobi) early Saturday morning. About 100 Kenyans were already there decked out in race jerseys and white sneakers. Everyone looked much younger. Since the staff had run out of T-shirts, a girl gave me two bike reflectors and safety pins instead.
“Pin this on,” she said.
“You think cars can’t see me?”
But before I could figure out what the deal was, I heard the howl of an airhorn and dashed off to the start line, where racers were already huddled.
I should have known something was amiss. I looked over the shoulder of the person on my right. He was poised to start his race watch. Same for the guy on my left. A few in front were down in a three-point stance.
“You guys in a hurry?” I asked.
One looked me over and smirked. “Don’t try to keep up with us. If you try, you won’t finish.”
“Nonsense. I run a 10k every week.”
A few others looked back at me and said nothing. I wondered what they were thinking.
What I was thinking at that moment was how cool it would be to win a race in Kenya as the sole white guy against 100 Kenyans. An image for the next Dos Equis commercial popped in my head. I imagined the Dos Equis mystery man running in slow motion with the voice over, “I once beat the Kenyans when I raced… In Kenya!”
The gun fired and everyone jumped into action. 100 Kenyan boys and girls sprinted away from the start line and ten seconds later, I found myself all alone in the back even though I was running at full speed – full muzungo speed! One minute later, backs of most heads grew smaller and disappeared in the distance, except for two or three stragglers. I hadn’t even made it out of the stadium and I was out of breath.
The haiku I’d posted a day earlier for Facebook’s “Haiku Friday” came to mind: “Running a 10K, will altitude do me in, or Nairobi smog?”
Neither. The competition did, it turned out.
Still within sight of the stadium, the last girl I had any chance of catching sped ahead and was just a tiny blip on the horizon.
At 5 minutes into the race, even the back-of-the-pack ambulance gave up on me and drove ahead. I was totally alone. I wanted to laugh, but I was too out of breath.
I decided any attempt to keep up was absurd and tried to set my pace at my usual 8:45 minute miles. I’m an average runner in the US, but this is Kenya. My estimate was that the next slowest runner – an undersized 16 year old girl – was probably doing 7:00 minute miles.
Climbing the first hill, construction workers egged me on. “Stay strong!” was a common mantra, although there were a few jibes of “Come man, start running!” here and there.
By the fifteenth minute things actually got worse. People started lapping me as if I was standing still and the race staff who were pointing out the way for me just shook their heads. “Poor guy,” they were probably thinking.
At the finish line I managed to finish with a respectable time of 52 minutes, but I was still dead last. Everyone else finished in under 40 minutes! This marked a first for me – being dead last. It was a fun, humiliating experience I will always cherish.
Afterwards, I realized that the involvement of two former olympic gold medalists (Tom Ngugi and Charles Asati Mumesu) as organizers probably had a little to do with why all the runners were so fast. Both run training clubs for future olympic runners and sent their lads and lasses to the race. Charles introduced himself to me after and we chatted a bit. He was quite interested in getting his training facility listed on GlobalGiving and planned to talk to Spencer Ochieng (CFWshops director) about it. I got him to sign my race bib and write his phone number so we can stay in touch. That’s one bib I’ll save!