Thursday, August 20

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Running

Coming in, I had few dreams of adventure in Kenya. A professor and aunt had suggested I visit Lamu Island, an early Islamic trade port where most all modern technologies are now forbidden. That sounded fun but was the extent of my plans for travel. I had little interest in a safari, the ultimate in cliché tourist activities in Africa beside contracting malaria and being the object of severely marked up prices at the street market. Beside, I had come here to work. Travel would have to come second to my obligations to the Foundation, and in all honesty, simply being in Africa for the first time and within in a foreign culture and new environment would be adventure enough for me.

Well, that and running. Come on, what runner wouldn't feel their pulse quicken by the opportunity to run in Kenya? The nation which has given birth to some of the greatest long-distance runners in the world? The vistas of the Rift Valley? A country whose people actually cared about runners? Kenyan victories at the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin this week have made the front page of The Daily Naiton, Kenya's national newspaper, every day, and its sports pages were dominated by previews and profiles in the weeks leading up to the meet. How many other countries can claim this same respect and passion for professional running? Maybe Jamaica, but Usiah Bolt is a special case. Everyone loves him. For funsies, Kenyan coaches and long-distance runners respect opponents from Ethiopia and Tanzania first and Morocco and Mozambique second. I don't think any other nation can field a team worth being concerned about.

Even with all my hopes and dreams of running here, it was nearly a month before I tied my Mizunas tight for the first time. It took two weeks to find a route that didn't go through the slums or into the heart of the city and another week after that for my work schedule to settle down enough that I had time in the morning to run. The route is really quite nice. It's just outside the city and follows the trails and side roads which run parallel to the Nairobi-Nakuru highway. There are some gradual uphills and downhills, and rolling hills to the sides offer wonderful panoramas. I have no idea how long it is, just that it takes about an hour to complete. After that first outing, the truth of running in Kenya became apparent to me though there were plenty of hints before.

The truth is that the States have a better running culture than Kenya. In a single hour of running on Centennial Trail in Spokane, no matter the time of day, I could see more runners than I have in all my weeks in Kenya. No exaggeration. The runners here may be faster and more focused than the average American, but they are severely outnumbered.

The truth is that running is totally middle class, a privilege of those with money. It's odd to read, I'm sure. When I became aware of it, I thought it was utterly bizarre. How could running possibly be middle class? It's one of the most fundamental actions in the world. The first man ran down his prey, and modern man runs to his appointments. Once a child learns to walk, running isn't far behind. It's fundamental. How could running ever be considered a privilege?

What we neglect to recall, I believe, is the most common reason for running: our health. I fully acknowledge that there are other reasons to run. I, for example, like to think I run for the joy of the movement and release of energy, but shedding a few pounds or toning our legs is always a part of our motivation. Ultimately, most of us run because we enjoy access to more food than we need. Not so much the case for those who don't live a Western middle-class life. There may be no famine in Nakuru, but there is a five-year drought. Food is expensive, and wages aren't particularly high. Running means investing a few hundred more shillings into food every week to maintain a healthy weight, and not everyone can afford it. And, when you don't have the cash to spare, you walk everywhere, and that is more than enough to stave off excess weight for most.

It doesn't mean I'll stop running. That wouldn't change anything. Beside, I like the release of energy. I am, however, a bit more aware of the stares of those I pass and realize that there may be more there than surprise at seeing a really white guy pass in silver shorts and a yellow tank-top when the Kenyan runners prefer full track suits and caps when early morning temperatures are in the low 60's.

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