Running the Rift Valley Marathon, Uganda.
Running a marathon had always been an ambition of mine. But as with a lot of people, I sometimes doubted I would ever get around to it, or felt I wasn’t up to it – or worse: that I might fail. So, when I was offered the chance to run not only a marathon, but a marathon at altitude, in the heat, over very hilly terrain near the Equator in Uganda… I knew I had to commit to it.  

The ‘extreme’ part of the trail marathon appealed to my interest in unusual journeys, and as someone who has to keep fit for work, it offered something new to train for. As icing on the top, proceeds from the marathon were to go the Kyaninga Child Development Centre, a Ugandan charity which does stellar work supporting local children with special needs.

So, deposit down, flights booked: the race was on.

This would be my first marathon, and likewise this was the Rift Marathon’s inaugural year. It hadn’t happened before; no entrants had run the route before. Most hadn’t even been to Uganda before. That’s not to say the whole thing wasn’t flawlessly executed, because it was – the race organisers Ellie and Paul had been involved in the Ugandan National Marathon the year before and are experienced event organisers. But being part of the first run was special. For example, my bib number was 5; so low because only about 30 non-Ugandans or ex-pats living in Uganda actually ran the marathon as an ‘international’. I had heard about it from a friend, also running, who in turn heard about it on the grapevine. This smaller feel to the race really helped, as people bonded and had the time to get to know one another. The other point is that the whole thing was completely catered for. Less your own flights, you are guided through accommodation options, transport is all pre-booked (allowing for ‘Ugandan time’, of course), and most meals too. Optional extras included a chimpanzee safari, and there was still time to wander Fort Portal and soak it all up 

The Running the Rift mission statement was clear:

“We challenge adventure seekers to discover an untouched Africa and run the race of a lifetime. We have partnered with local businesses to bring five days of real Africa with the safety and support of experienced event organisers. Sharing our excitement for this undiscovered country and the utter joy of running in East Africa while supporting and raising funds for an incredible charity is our vision.”

This ambition was undoubtedly realised, and then some. The run itself was absolutely spectacular. There is no other way of saying it. Up before dawn, you are off at 7am to avoid the hottest part of the day (if you can). I ran through fields, around cows, alongside children (all supportive and smiles – echoing the eternal ‘how are you’ whenever they saw you), up steep inclines, packed villages, and through lush valleys. The route, set in the countryside around Fort Portal, is very close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Rwenzori mountain range (the “mountains of the moon”) which separates the DRC from Uganda.  I was surprised at all the ‘green’ – Uganda is so lush – and the rich red of the soil which is turned with every tread of your trainer. It definitely felt like an adventure too. The whole place is rugged, breath-taking, but at the same time accessible.  

I had best talk about running ‘proper’. I am someone who lacks technique. No modesty; I am an average runner at best. I start, I run at about 80% capacity, until I am too tired to continue. I am terrible at pacing my steps or my breathing, and so I knew the overall distance was going to be a factor. Stamina is not something I lack, but I make up for it with a limited top speed! My training had seen me complete 18 mile runs in a half-decent time, but nothing can prepare you for the heat and the inclines you encounter – it felt more like what I imagine an ultra marathon would feel like.  

I ran the half marathon in not much more than 2:15, which given the heat and hills I felt was acceptable. However, the second half got a lot less easy to manage, fatigue set in, and my time really slowed down. I only had gels (rather than fruit for example) to eat on the way round, which also negatively affected my pace. The locals keep you going – they are fascinated and confused in equal measure at the sight of you – as does the prospect of what scenery awaits you around the next bend. I ambled in at a rather average 5hrs 29mins, which given that the pros felt the course and heat added at least an hour to a ‘normal’ road marathon time, I felt I could live with. For your sense of perspective, the winner (a local Ugandan) came in with a 2:50 time whilst the fastest international time was 3:55.  

When I started the marathon I knew two things: I would finish a marathon; and the sun would set in the evening. Luckily those two things happened in that order. The local beers and deliciousrolex‘ (literally, ‘rolled eggs’ with vegetables rolled up in a chapati) post-race are well deserved and every single participant had a smile on their face. To top the event off, the entrants then received a hand-crafted race medal care of a local artisan. I wholeheartedly hope the marathon continues into future years – truly an epic experience!  

Running the Rift Valley marathon is a 4-day long experience

I ran the 42km distance in the international category. 10km and 21km distance entries also available. 

For more information on the Rift Valley experience and how to enter next year, visit http://www.runningtheriftmarathon.com 

More information on the Kyaninga Child Development Centre can be found at www.kyaningacdc.org