It is 5:30 in the morning when we pull in to the main gate of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. At first, it seems like there is no one awake except for the bright full moon that lights up the trees and a sleepy KWS guard. However, as we start driving through the park, I see groups among groups of people walking in the shadows of the moonlight. I have never seen anything like this. Children are running, teenagers are rolling by in their slow pace, even mamas are walking with sleeping babies on their backs. This is my welcome to the Lewa marathon.
When the sun peeked its rays in the sky, a herd of little Kenyans ran by: some sneakers, many croc-type shoes, and even more completely barefoot. All proudly wearing their runners shirts. As people start to swarm the start line, I am dealing with my own self-consciousness of my body. In almost two years here, no one has seen my legs above the knee (except for that one unfortunate incident of a wrap-around skirt and wind relationship gone wrong). I am not normally scared to show my legs, but it has been almost TWO years. It feels weird, out of place, wrong at first. When I look around, I realize that everyone is practically dressed for a marathon; all cultural dress codes are forgotten.
The children line up at the start line for their 5K race, as we all wait patiently or impatiently for the helicopters to give the clearance. Sorry mom and dad, I didn't think the helicopters were for the animals, but apparently they were. I guess they are checking for hungry lions. As I wait, I engage in my long-loved pastime of people watching. It hits me that many of the Kenyan runners, some of the best, are dressed simply. Simple shoes, simple clothing, no ipod, no camelback, and no specially formulated gels. The foreigners tended to be the groups carrying all of that gear. It is obvious, but a good reminder, that the equipment does not make the runner. You can look at someone without all of the gadgets and just know that they run; it's in their face and in their body. When I return to the states, I may also return to my camelback, my ipod, and my shot blocks. Even so, I cannot help but think that all of this is unnecessary, that it may take away from the act of running itself.
When the children have set off, leaving a path of dust, it is our turn to line up. There is the usual chatter amongst nervous runners: 'you ready for this?', 'I don't really know why I'm here', 'Did I train enough?', 'where did you put that extra Gu?'. The gun goes off and there is a moments hesitation before we create our own dust trail. There is so much dust that when I swallow I can feel it lining my mouth and my black shorts quickly turn brown. I try to stay off the dirt road, preferring to dodge elephant poop and ankle-twisting rocks instead. It is as I start my first major assent, a few kilometers in, that I spot my first animal life; gazelles. All I can think of is that they are one hell of a form of inspiration. They bound around, either completely oblivious to us, or confused as to why there are a bunch of overly colourful animals on their turf. I meet a few people on the way, some who pace me, and some who I pace. None of them compares to my usual running partner; wish you were running with me and the gazelles too dad! A few hills later I hear something rustle, and a snort of sorts to my right. Not 30 feet away stands a magnificent zebra. I have been right close to them in a car, but it just cannot compare. They are so much bigger in person.
I walked. I am not the fastest gazelle. Normally, I hate the idea of walking during a run. I tell myself that I will not, and then I don't. It is hard to be upset, though, when I have the scenery that I do. I just want to take it all in. Instead of crowds of spectators throughout the race we have helicopters who watch the people and the lions, and pick up a collapsed runner here and there. Towards the end of the race I am lapped by the first marathon runner; a serious Kenyan professional runner (the half marathon is once around a loop in the conservancy, the full is twice, giving some of us a chance to be lapped). It was incredible to see this man run so effortlessly and I couldn't help but be proud that I was very close to the end of my half when he passed me, instead of kilometer 10. I am welcomed by a fairly silent but surprisingly large finish line crowd, with just a few people locating the number pinned to my shirt and shouting 'go 164'. So what if I am not the fastest gazelle? I'm not the slowest either.