There are six weeks and five days to go until I toe the line at the Chester Marathon wearing an England vest. I am woefully under-prepared. I haven’t been able to shake off the problem with my bothersome ankle and managed not one single step of running during my 18 day holiday in Tanzania. I need to get my arse in gear.
This long-planned trip was the intended jewel in my summer sabbatical. It didn’t disappoint, I had a great time.
The first part of the trip was a guided trek up the 5895m of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa (and the highest free-standing mountain in the World), followed by a five day safari around several National Parks and conservation areas in Tanzania.
I love the wonderful haphazard craziness of Africa. The people appear infected with joyfulness and have a carefree resourcefulness that (eventually) solves most problems. They aren’t the World’s greatest timekeepers though.
There are several approved trekking routes up Kilimanjaro. Backpackers looking for the cheapest way up face a five day race up the crowded Marangu route. As well as being cheap and quick, this route also isn’t particularly picturesque and has the lowest success rate of about 65% (due to poor acclimatisation).
We chose the longest and slowest route – the Northern circuit, which takes nine days in total including the descent. It is an expensive option, but the main advantage is the high success rate (over 90%) due to plenty of opportunities to acclimatise. The route takes in the quieter more unspoilt slopes on the Kenya-facing ‘back’ of the mountain.
Our party comprised eight trekkers (mainly Australian friends with whom I walked the Inca Trail in Peru in 2012), four guides and about 32 porters. That may sound a plethora of porters, but it’s about the average walker to porter proportion.
The guides and porters were simply wonderful, they pampered and pandered to the softy Western tourists and never once failed to smile, laugh or sing whilst doing it. And they had to lug dozens of 25KG packs up the mountain….
To be honest, the first few days of the walk were fairly easy for me. There is a phrase in Swahili that you hear all the time on the mountain: “Pole, Pole” (pronounced: “Po-lay, Pol-lay”). It means “Slowly, slowly” and it is the absolute key to success on Kilimanjaro.
At first I was surprised just how slowly we were made to walk – to call it funereal would be to exaggerate the pace, it was much slower – something around 1 mile per hour. As we got higher and the air got thinner, we walked even more slowly – on summit night we covered six very steep kilometres in around ten hours.
Our head guide, Davis, had summited over 250 times, so we trusted in his counsel. My breathing and heart rate was comfortable at Pole Pole pace, but as soon as I tried to go even slightly quicker I felt my heart rate shoot up and breathing become laboured.
The ascent of Kilimanjaro is a trek, a walk. It’s a long and arduous walk and the summit night and day is very long and testing, but provided you stay healthy and can cope with the altitude the main requirement for success is patience and determination.
Here are some photos from the first few days of the trek (photo credit Andrew Miley and Mervi Minshull)
We camped at School Hut – at an altitude of 4800m. We dined early – at 5.30pm and rose at 10.30pm for an 11.30pm start for the push for the summit.
It was a stunning place to camp, I have never been to a place that felt more other-Worldly, way above the clouds and many thousands of feet above the vegetation line:
We were blessed with a full moon, which washed the mountain in a pale argentine light. I turned off my head torch for most of the summit climb, I could see perfectly well by moonlight alone.
The moonlight reminded me of my favourite poem – Silver, by Walter de la Mere, which I recited to myself as we slogged up the steep slopes below the summit:
Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.
The most difficult time physically was around 3 – 4 a.m., the body is used to being in a deep slumber at that time of night, not creeping up a freezing mountain in sucking in diluted oxygen. I resorted to listening to some favourite music to keep me going – The Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and Grace by Jeff Buckley.
It was very, very cold – between -10 and -15 degrees C during the night and thankfully Davis had meticulously checked our kit before we set off to ensure we would be warm enough. He made me rent an additional thick fleece jacket and leggings and I was very thankful he did – I was just about warm enough.
At around 6.30 a.m. we stopped to watch the sunrise:
At 7:30 a.m we made the first of the three summits on the crater – Gilman’s point. Two hours later we got to the highest point in Africa – Uhuru Peak:
The summit peak was unusually quiet and we were able to spend around 20 minutes posing for photographs and generally larking about. After having the highest possible pee in Africa, we started a long and exhausting descent down trails of broken stones and talcum powder-like dust. At times it was almost possible to ski down.
After the exhilaration of the summit, the descent was a pain in the backside. We eventually made it to the Millenium camp (3800m) at around 4:30 pm. We had been walking for 17 hours and it had been 23 hours since we had eaten hot food. We were knackered.
Most porters don’t summit and they treated us to an extra special song and dance as we shuffled exhaustedly into the camp. We ate and collpased into a deep slumber in our tents.
I won’t bore you with lots of the details of the safari, I’ll just insert a load of pictures mostly taken by my mate Andrew who is a far more accomplished photograper than me:
I was absolutely transfixed watching two lionesses hunting a hartebeest, though the scene was slightly spoiled by the fact that there were around twenty five jeeps all parked up with occupants gawping and snapping away. The lionesses didn’t seem at all bothered by the vehicles. Quite the opposite, one walked distractedly away from the prey up the track alongside the line of cars. She then quietly turned around and then snuck around the other side of the vehicles. She was using the jeeps as cover – how amazing.
The hartebeest spotted one of the lionesses in the grass just in time and then legged it for all he was worth. Antelopes 1, Lions 0.
We visited a traditional Maasai village in the Serengeti. The chief greeted us warmly in beautiful English and politely requested USD 50 from each car.
He was a magnificent human being – tall, elegant and serene, he reminded me of David Rudisha (who is also Maasai). He wrapped his red shawl around my shoulders and invited me to compete in a Maasai jumping dance (used as part of the courtship to impress the Maasai ladies).
I was impressed enough to buy his shawl off him for USD 35 (he wanted USD 50, and later I saw them for USD 10). He was a pretty savvy businessman.
We learned about the Maasai way of life. They eat only three foodstuffs – blood from live cows, milk and meat. A lack of vegetables and carbohydrate doesn’t appear to do them any harm, Maasai are tall and thin and probably very good runners.
Although I enjoyed my African adventures, after 18 days away, I was happy head to home, well aware that I needed to get running again.
Just four days after landing back in the U.K., I was off again, this time to Iceland for a long weekend primarily to run the Reykjavik half marathon with Valley Strider mates. Liz and I were staying in an Airbnb apartment with Jock, my Comrades mate. Unfortunately his partner Karen couldn’t make it.
Iceland was an absolutely brilliant place, albeit eye-wateringly expensive, especially for a Scot and a Yorkshireman. My meal in a trendy tapas bar in Saturday night was basically posh fish and chips and cost me nearly £50!
Iceland blessed us with perfect running weather for the race on Saturday morning. It was crisp and cool with a massive cloudless azure sky.
At the last moment, I decided to run with Lizzie, for the first few miles at least. I wasn’t sure how fit I was. I was unsure of my ankle, so there seemed little point in smashing myself to finish in around 90 minutes. Liz was hoping to run about 1 hour 40 minutes.
The first part of the course was flat and fast, but at around 10 miles Lizzie was feeling the pace after an aggressive start and told me to bugger off. I felt OK so decided to push the final 5k and test my legs. I lifted my pace to around 6:20 per mile.
I saw Jock a few hundred metres further on. He was having a storming run – well under his 1 hour 40 target pace. I was passing dozens of runners, and I expected to go sweeping past him but he latched onto me and we ran the next mile together in under 6:30.
I decided to pace him in as best I could, it seemed the least I could do after he had shepherded me home safely at Comrades last year when I was a gibbering wreck.
We finished in just outside 1:37, a great time for Jock and testament to four 70 + mile weeks of hard training. He is also running at Chester and I need to get my act together or he will be giving me a beating.
Liz finished just after us in 1:40 and a few seconds and nabbed a top ten age group finish to boot.
After a few days back home, I’m finally focussing on training again. Although my ankle isn’t right, I will just have to ignore it for now and try to train through. If I break down again, then so be it. I have to gamble on four big mileage weeks so that I can line up in something like decent shape and then just try to bury myself on the day.
I’m running the third Even Splits 5K race tonight at the Brownlee cycling track. I’ve run 19:05 and 18:38 in the first two races. I doubt that I’ll go quicker tonight.
Despite my lack of miles, one bit of good news is that my weight has remained quite low – I’m hovering at around 11 stones, which is about my racing weight. My aerobic fitness isn’t too bad, its my legs that are letting me down. Time to get running!
CM- 6 weeks 4 days
10 stone 13.2 lbs
Aerobic efficiency (half marathon 992 beats per mile)