Rarely in my life have I enjoyed running. A tubby child and then a sickly teen, I spent games lessons hiding behind a piano with a book. Odd then, that this week I completed (half of) one of the toughest marathons in the world. Stranger still, I enjoyed it. The Lewa Marathon is a unique event, a challenge I was romantic and bloody-minded enough not to turn down. It snakes through the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in north-east Kenya, presenting a testing combination of dry heat, steep inclines and shingle descents. To top it off, Lewa is at 6,000 ft above sea level. But I couldn’t resist the idea of running through the African savannah, with spotter planes circling to keep rhino and cheetah at bay.
Before the race Bruce Tulloh, the race director, is kind enough to take me on some training runs. It’s not every day you chase a 72-year-old former international athlete to a water hole, under a streaked pink African dawn. We pause to watch a giraffe drink, and I quiz him about what I need to carry on the day. Some teams have come equipped with elaborate supplies of dextrose, pedometers etc. Tulloh is phlegmatic. ‘Some people take a high-tech approach, but it’s really a question of lifting one foot, and putting it down in front of the other,’ he smiles. It is, perhaps, an unsurprising answer from a record-breaking runner who, in 1962, ran from Los Angeles to New York in 65 days — an average of 48 miles a day — keeping his energy up with straw- berry jam sandwiches.
We gather at the start at six, shivering in the cold morning. I can’t face the queue at the long-drop loos, so take my chances with the wildlife and pee in the bush. I’m reminded of the briefing Maasai runners receive before the London Marathon: ‘Urinating in public is not acceptable… The British may look miserable since they work in offices and have jobs they don’t enjoy…’ There is a 15-minute delay while the rangers verify all game has been cleared off the track. Then in a rush the gun goes, and 750 runners in branded Lycra, nylon tracksuits and frilly running skirts dash over the line. The course begins on a straight stretch, and we spread out in an ant-like column, multicoloured against the blond savannah grass. The early stages flash past. With views to Mount Kenya sweeping down to the right, and the changing terrain around us, there are plenty of distractions. By the halfway mark, however, I find it hard to breathe. My muscles burn. Spectators line the course, shouting encouragement and handing out cartons of Lucozade. Everyone eggs each other on. But the biggest spur is the knowledge that by running through this wilderness, we are helping to preserve it. I crash over the finish, a sweaty mixture of glee and exhaustion.
So far the marathon has raised $1.3 million, mostly for the conservation charity Tusk. Following the post-election crisis earlier this year, which left hundreds dead, some proceeds will go to the Red Cross. Tusk distributes the rest to education, health, wildlife and community projects. I visited one beneficiary, Sobuiga Primary School. Tusk donations have enabled them to build classrooms and give the children two meals each day. Since the feeding programme was introduced, the number of pupils has trebled. A 12-year-old named Miriam told me she gets up at 4 a.m. to walk the 15 km to school, to do two hours of homework before lessons start. The headmaster encourages the pupils to ask me questions: ‘By whom was your country colonised?’ ‘When did you gain independence?’ ‘How many people are there in your government, and how long is the electoral term?’
Tusk also supports the Lewa Conservancy. After the marathon I share a Tusker beer with Lewa’s founder Ian Craig. He tells me how he stumbled upon a troop of Somali poachers killing a herd of wild elephant with AK-47s, and adds: ‘I realised then that conservation can only work with the support of the community.’ Craig therefore came up with the idea of an eco-lodge, to be owned and run by the community. Money from tourism would make the people less dependent on income from cattle. The lodges would fund security guards to protect game from poaching, as well as to prevent overgrazing and inter-tribal warfare over pasture. ‘Communities who have been in conflict for generations are beginning to stop fighting,’ he continues. ‘It is so much more than saving animals: it is about a country coming together for a better future.’ There are now 15 such schemes, protecting 1.6 million acres.
There were many Tusker beers that night. I wore out my leg muscles dancing with the Maasai round the bonfire as much as I did in the marathon. Not the best preparation for next day’s drive to another conservation area. After two hours bouncing along a river bed, I’m deposited at Tassia, a tiny eco-lodge set up on a granite promontory. Restored by slow lengths in the pool — it is hotter and drier here than at Lewa — I go to the bar for a sun- downer. One of the managers, Martin, points out a mound which is catching the evening light. It is called Blood Hill after the many warriors who, until recently, died there in disputes over livestock. As we talk, a fellow guest runs into the bar. He had stepped into one of the splendid outdoor showers, and come face to face with an eight-foot spitting cobra. Martin is delighted. ‘You saw that?’ he exclaims. ‘Oh good. Perhaps the rains will come.’
Original article published in The Spectator, in July, 2008