It was finally time! After thirteen weeks of training, fundraising and blogging, the 18th May had arrived. With my running shoes packed, it was time for this newbie runner to venture to Africa for the first time.

With the prospect of taking on only my second ever marathon and it being on the equator (eeekkk!!!), as well as the opportunity to explore a new country and culture, and the jam-packed week the UGM team had lined up…It promised to be ‘a week like no other’….

And it didn’t fail to deliver. In fact…the week surpassed all expectations.

Day 1: Tuesday 19th May – Arriving in Masaka, Uganda

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, I was suddenly awakened by a thump as the plane touched down. After a fifteen-hour journey from Gatwick Airport, I stepped off the plane. I was finally here. I’d arrived in Uganda!

Shortly after I checked through customs and reclaiming my baggage, I was greeted at arrivals warmly by Nick (one of the organisers). He was posted at Entebbe Airport waiting for the international runners to arrive. As I joined a crowd of people, there was an instant buzz of excitement and chatting. Everyone introduced themselves and discussed what event they were doing: the marathon, half marathon or 10K.

Once everyone had arrived, we left the airport and boarded a matutu (think Uganda minibus!), which would be taking us from Entebbe to Masaka. The three-hour drive was the perfect opportunity to get to know our fellow runners better as we discussed how we’d got involve with the Uganda Marathon. It quickly began apparent there were runners involved of all different abilities, from seasoned runners to beginners (which was really reassuring being a ‘newbie’ runner myself!).

Runners had take on the marathon for all sorts of reasons too: to take on a great challenge, to experience life in Africa, to fundraise and make a difference, or to simply break the 9-5 routine and do something completely different with new experiences. Many were involved for a combination of all these reasons.

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The international runners outside Entebbe Airport. Everyone got on straight away- you could tell you were going to make life long friends on this adventure!

A few hours later, after some chatting and sleeping, we arrived in Masaka Town. Specifically the Athletes Village, a beautiful camp at a site uphill overlooking Masaka, where we were greeted by Lizzie (UGM General Manager). At 6am I was relieved to have arrived and get to my tent for a few hours sleep, but not before see my first African sunrise, which was a stunning site.

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Shortly after our arrival, I was treated to my first African sunrise at camp!

Later in the day we were given our welcome talk and briefing by Henry (the other Race Director) who briefed us on the schedule of race week. We then went into Masaka Town to explore and had dinner in the evening. As more international runners arrived throughout the day, it was an exhilarating experience to be in a new place and meet so many new people whilst settling into where would be home for the week.

Day 2: Wednesday 20th May – My First Run in Uganda, Project MRVC & Lake Nabugabo

The second morning in Uganda started in an energetic style. Lead by Ellie (the UGM Race Manager) and Paul, we went on 

our first training run in Masaka. Setting a nice and steady pace to help us get used to the conditions, Paul lead the group whilst Ellie remained at the back to make sure everyone stayed together.

Up and down hills, along dusty orange roads, across rural paths, we ran about six miles altogether which included some interval laps mid run, and short breaks. Uganda children waved at us shouting as we passed them amazed at the big crowd of internationals running. Some children even joined us for a bit…and set quite a pace of their own!

Running in Uganda for the first time was certainly a fun experience, made even better by the local community getting involved. Unsurprisingly it was a pretty sweaty experience too, hard work and a little tough on the lungs (from the altitude I think). But it was made enjoyable by the UGM team who catered for all running abilities and were very welcoming.

It was also a great bonus to get some Uganda miles under my belt, especially after being nervous about not knowing what to expect with regards to the heat, humidity and hills, prior to flying out and training in the UK.

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An early morning training run around Masaka

After a shower back at camp and a Ugandan style breakfast, we headed to one of the projects being supported by the Uganda Marathon’s fundraising: Masaka’s Rehabilitation Vocational Centre (MRVC).

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Breakfast at Camp

MRVC is an amazing projects which works with Ugandan children and young people who have physical and mental disabilities. It teaches them vocational skills so they can earn a good living and ensure they are accepted into society as people who can work and contribute to the community.

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MRVC’s Logo

I was especially lucky as the first project we were visiting, happened to be the Uganda project I’d chosen to fundraise for. I was excited at the prospect of meeting the people I was running the marathon for!

On arrival we were greeted by the MRVC staff and given an introduction to the project by Boaz (the project leader), who thanked us for coming to Uganda to support the Masaka community and talk about the project’s history. We were then given a choice of what class we would like to go into, where we would work with Uganda young people: woodwork, leatherwork or textiles. I decided to go with leatherwork.

We were given a choice of which class we'd like to participate in: (from left to right) woodwork, leatherwork or textiles

We were given a choice of which class we’d like to participate in: (from left to right) woodwork, leatherwork or textiles

The leatherwork class was also run by Boas too (pictured in the centre above) who introduced the class and showed us some of the work the students had done- I was amazed at the talent and quality of the items. leather wallets, purses, flip-flops and key rings, just to name a few. They were amazingly crafted, as good as any item you’d pay for back in a shop in the UK.

Afterwards, we worked in the class alongside the Ugandans to make our very own key rings. It was such a fun session, getting to work alongside them and get to know them. No matter their disability, it didn’t matter – MRVC had helped them to develop amazing practical skills which were so impressive: their attention to detail, speed and creativity. They were often a step ahead of me making the keyring, from cutting the leather shape, to stitching, to dying the material, to imprinting text, but they were always happy to help me out, which made the experience even more fun.

In Leatherwork, I worked with the Ugandan young people who helped me every step of the way, but I still couldn't help getting the letter wonky! It now sits proudly with my keys everyday! :)

In Leatherwork, I worked with the Ugandan young people who helped me every step of the way, but I still couldn’t help getting the letter wonky! It now sits proudly with my keys everyday! 🙂

Afterwards were treated to MRVC’s hospitality as the provided us a traditional Ugandan dish for lunch. We then played football with the students, which made their day!

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The international runners and UGM team outside MRVC

In the evening we visited Lake Nabugabo, where we treated to Uganda style fish ‘n’ chips for dinner. It was a beautiful site where we could go for a swim and then get to know our fellow runners as we ate afterwards. I remember being a little nervous at first with so many people I still didn’t know, but this turned out to be such a great evening as I got to know more people (plus the food tasted AMAZING!!).

On return to camp there was entertainment and opportunity to dance the night away!

Day 3: Thursday 21st May – ‘Make a Difference Day’

It’s hard to pick a favourite day from marathon week, but ‘Make a Difference Day’ was high up there. It was a really unique day where we got to choose out of eight projects, which we’d like to visit for the day, and whilst we were there, we’d volunteer at the project to make a real difference to Uganda’s lives there and help the project’s development.

This presented a great opportunity for the international runners to visit the project they were fundraising for and meet the people they were helping. However having visited MRVC yesterday, I’d already visited the project I was running the Uganda Marathon for.

So I chose one based on my background and interests, Youth with a Vision (YWAV). This project works with disadvantaged Ugandan youths in educating them and supporting them to achieve productive and sustainable livelihoods. The UGM had teamed up with them to set up a business start-up scheme for 18-20 years old. Our role was to help them develop their business plans. This was right up my street, having a background in business and passion for working with young people to develop themselves.

Youth with A Vision's Logo & Mission

Youth with A Vision’s Logo & Mission

Lead by Sophie on the UGM team, we headed to YWAV via matatu where we got to review the student’s plans on route. I was impressed by the wide variety of plans: from farming to printing companies, to bakeries and website design companies.

When we arrived, we met John, the project leader, who gave us tea and introduced the project. We sat in the class as the students presented their ideas one by one, and we gave feedback as group (there was a team of five of us altogether- think Dragon Den’s style, only nicer!).

After lunch we worked with the students on a one-to-one basis, which was a great chance to get to know the students as well as support the development of their business plans. It was such a rewarding experience to work with them, developing ideas to increase the chances of their businesses succeeding and therefore creating a sustainable livelihood for themselves. I’d even learnt a lot myself, from the Ugandan students and fellow volunteers!

The International Runners Ian & Johnny work with a Uganda student to develop a business plan

The International Runners Ian & Johnny work with a Uganda student to develop a business plan

There was a buzz in camp as we returned- everyone had had a fantastic day, whether teaching, doing building work or helping children paint, amongst other activities, to help make a difference at the projects.

After a few hours of chatting about our day and relaxing, we went to Masaka Town for dinner at Plot 99. It’s beautiful restaurant/cafe up the hill from the main street, overlooking Masaka. The great vibe of the day continued into the evening with laughter, stories of the day and continuing to get to know each other.

Sophie (from UGM team), the international runners, John and some YWAV's students pose for a photo, after a productive and successful day

Sophie (from UGM team), the international runners, John and some YWAV’s students pose for a photo, after a productive and successful day

Image-11So that was the first half of marathon week. It had been an eye-opening experience in so many ways – meeting Ugandans, experiencing the culture and getting to work with them at the projects, which gives you a massive appreciation for how lucky we are back home.  It had also been a brilliant opportunity to meet new people and make new friends amongst the runners, and presented a chance to travel to Africa for the first time!

And of course, it gave me my first taste of running out in Uganda, which was a reassuring experience, with the race now only two days away…

Up next: A Week Like No Other: Race Week Part 2

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