Sunday 24th May 2015 had arrived!
It felt like a long time ago since I’d struggled to run 3K on a cold February day, around my hometown in Hampshire. Since then, over the course of three months, I’d muddled my way through 14 weeks of marathon training, trying everything from running in layers to gradually upping the distances I was covering.
And now on the sixth day of my Ugandan adventure, after experiencing the culture, meeting new people and seeing the projects we were helping to support, it was race day.
It was time to run 26.2 miles on the equator in Masaka, in Uganda’s First Ever International Marathon!
The Start Line
With a mixture of excitement and nerves that morning, I woke up at 4am unable to sleep. I was excited the big day had finally arrived, after months of training, build up and fundraising, but at the same time it was a nerve racking prospect not knowing what it would be like to run over 20 miles in Africa!
Luckily the company of the other international runners at breakfast helped steady the nerves. Then with a 7am race start time (to help avoid the Ugandan heat as much as possible) we boarded our matatu which took us to Liberation square at 6am.
When we arrived, the square was a buzz of activity with music, warm ups, runners attaching their numbers and photos being taken.
Thirty minutes later an announcement was made asking all half marathon and marathon runners to head to the start line. International runners from every continent headed towards the line, as well as local ugandan runners and internationals who lived in Masaka.
I managed to get towards the front of the crowd and with my foot just behind the start line, I remember thinking how lucky I was to be involved in an event which had raised so much money for good causes. And being the first one of its kind in Uganda- that was something really special.
I wished good luck to the runners around me…the nerves then faded and the adrenaline kicked in…
The race gun fired and the Uganda Marathon 2015 began.
The First Quarter of the Race- the first 10K
Waves of runners crossed the start line, both Ugandan and international runners alike, with the internationals running for Masaka projects and various charities.
I definitely took off too quickly in all the excitement as I turned out of Liberation Square and moved down the concrete road, navigating a round-a-bout, then proceeding down the long street to the village of Ssazza. Realising what I’d done after glancing at my phone app, I recalled my pre-race plan of pacing myself at 5-6 minutes per kilometre (which was slower than what I’d run in the UK) and slowed my speed down appropriately.
After running through Ssazza, the concrete road turned to an off-road trail. Then a kilometre later, the first steep hill appeared. I recalled how one of the more experienced runners in the week had mentioned how walking up hills to conserve energy, is actual quicker overall as your fresher once your at the top. I decided to take his advice onboard as I was relatively new to long distance running, and hoped this tactic would help see me through. So at this hill and major ones which followed, I ‘power walked’ up them and started running again at the summit, which seemed to work really well!
After a few sharp inclines and declines, we approached Bugabira school which involved ones of the steepest declines of the course. Underestimating how steep it was, I stumbled and skidded as I moved down the hill and through the school. but this brought cheers and laughter from the children which put a smile on my face, whilst I carefully watched my footwork!
It was flat (ish) from there with relatively small hills, so I just kept on going. By now the runners had found their pace in the race, and I was running in a group of 4 or 5 runners. It was nice to experience the route, see the views and embrace the ugandan supporting crowds with my fellow runners, as we made our way around the course.
Trying my best to stay disciplined with pacing, whilst using every water station along the way, and walking up the really steep hills, I looked at my app once again and I’d reached the 10K point in just under an hour which I was thrilled with. And perhaps more importantly, at the first quarter of the race, I felt like I had plenty of energy to get me the rest of the way!
Reaching the Halfway Point
In the second half of the 21K course we reached Pine Ridge, which whilst uphill, presented some of the most amazing views I saw in Uganda. In a contrast to the start of the course in town, it now felt like I was running in ‘rural uganda’ with greenery as far as I could see. The 10K route joined us here, and the course was filled with even more runners.
After clearing Pine Ridge and a succession of steep hills, I was relieved to reach a long decline that leads into Masaka Town (and no more hills!!). With a downhill route and flat beyond that, I picked up the pace, eager to chalk off a lap of the course. As I moved towards town, Henry on the UGM team, cheered me on from one of the cars travelling the course, to check on the well-being of the runners, which gave me added motivation. Then after making a sharp turn, I moved onto the high street, where the cheers of the crowd provided even more motivation.
I then found myself on the home straight, after clearing the main street. As I made my way down the long stretch, there was an air of excitement as the half marathon runners around me were approaching their finish. The crowds cheering grew louder and louder as runners turned into Liberation Square and crossed the finish line.
I held my course and moved into the second lap of the 21K course to complete the full marathon. Whilst feeling somewhat tired at this point, overall I was feeling good. 21K to go.
And I was on for a great time as things stood- currently at 1 hour 55 minutes. Before the race I’d hope it if I could hold a steady pace throughout, completing each quarter of the race in roughly an hour, I could finish the race in around 4 hours, as I wanted to put 100% effort in for the people who had sponsored me, and possibly grab a PB after training hard leading up to the race (I’d only run one marathon before in the UK, where my time was 04:07).
However there was still a long way to go, and the heat, hills, and altitude would be even more testing on the second lap.
Hitting the Wall- the Third Quarter of the Race
Lap two of the race started well and at a good pace. However as I made my way down the concrete road towards Ssazza, I was definitely starting to feel more tired. I found myself running on my own at this point too, as a number of runners around me had finished at the half marathon point, with the group of runners in front too far ahead to catch. So for this portion of the race I found myself on my own which was a testing experience in itself.
Luckily as I moved through Ssazza for the second time, I had the Ugandan crowds cheering me on, which helped spur me on through the second lap. ‘RUUUNNN’ the crowd would shout and kids would join in leading a few meters in front, telling me to run faster, especially at the hills where I would slow down. It made it really fun (even though I was tired), and added an extra aspect to running the event.
Before reaching Bugibera school the water station’s marshals gave me some water and a banana, which I was grateful for- I needed all the energy I could get! Then at the school, as I made the steep descent a second time, the children cheered and chanted ‘Bambi, Bambi, Bambi…’. This made me smile as I realised they must have remember me from the first lap, as the runner who stumbled clumsily down the hill!
At 27K as I approached Pine Ridge, my legs and body were increasingly starting to hurt, and I felt like I had no energy left- I had hit the dreaded wall! Sweating a lot at this point, even on the flat ground I had to slow to a walking pace.
A little frustrated, but trying to remain calm, I walked a short distance to the next water station where I took a minute or so to drink a bottle of water and compose myself.
From there I managed to run again for a while, but by 30K it turned into patches of walk, run, walk, run. It was getting increasingly tough to move forward.
Time-wise things were still going well, as by the time I reached the 32K point (with 10K to go) I was at 2:54. But with it becoming increasingly hard to run, reluctantly I had to change my priority from finishing at around 4 hours to ensuring I just crossed the finish line. I now had the ‘the wall’ to content with, as well as the terrain, heat and hills.
The Hardest 10K I’ve Ever Run…
It now turned into a real physical and psychological battle. Not wanting to let down all the people back home who had sponsored and supported me, as well as the charities I was running, I continued to push on. Every step forward became difficult, and spells of running a few kilometres were split by a jogging/walking pace. Even the smallest incline was now unwelcome as I just tried to slog through the rest of the course.
At around 36K I reached a water station. The medics and marshals were really supportive, telling me I was doing really well, and just needed to keep going a few more kilometres. They even told me I was in the top ten which astounded me, and this gave me renewed motivation to push on after a brief break, topping up the water levels (and salt levels), and also try again for my approximate 4 hour target.
All seemed to be going well again as I slowly ran the next 3K, but then at 39K, with only 3K to go, my body gave out and it felt like I’d hit the wall all over again. In spite of the good time I was still on (somehow) at 3:47 and position, I honestly felt like I couldn’t go on any more.
But then I heard a voice from behind me saying, ‘C’mon Andy, let’s finish this’. Nikki (who went on to be the fastest female in the marathon) had caught me up and was urging me to keep running.
It had been a while since I’d seen another runner, so this was welcomed motivation and I continued to run once again.
Unfortunately once I started running again a sharp pain shot up my leg (possibly cramp), so I was forced to walk again, telling Nikki to go on. Was this it- would I have to hobble to the end!? Luckily though, after a minute or so later, the pain seemed to fade….and a mixture of thoughts filled my head such as ‘It’s now or never’ and ‘I’ve run 40K, but I can’t run two more!?’.
From there I just decided to power through regardless, and somehow I covered my quickest kilometre in the race! It was difficult to keep moving my legs forward, and it seemed like the meters weren’t increasing on my app, and the home straight was never ending, but eventually I made it to Liberation Square, turned in, and crossed the finish line.
I did it – after weeks of training- I completed the Uganda Marathon in 7th position at 4:01:30, and even grabbed a PB!!! I was ecstatic!
The Finish Line, Medal Ceremony and the end of ‘A Week Like No Other’…
One by one each of the runners crossed the finish line and every international runner who started the 10K, 21K or 42K finished it, with a grandstand finish of the other runners and crowd.
Later that day all the runners had some well earner relaxation time at the Hotel. In the evening, we had the medal ceremony and party at the Athletes’ Village. Everyone received a medal at the presentation, and we celebrated the day (and week) into the early hours of the next morning.
The race was certainly the hardest race I’d ever done and the course was truly testing, especially in the second lap as I felt like I was pushed every step of the way. But it was a fun and unique experience, and the combination of the ugandan crowds, more experienced runners helping/supporting (shout out to Paul, Ian, Hannah and Nikki by the way-thank you!!) and support back home got me through- even with only one long distance race under my belt prior to signing up!
Combined with a week that allowed me to visit Africa for the first time, experience the culture, make new friends, fundraise for a good cause, volunteer in Ugandan projects, train, blog and overall gain new experiences, do something different and recognise new opportunities, it truly was…
…’a week like no other’. Thanks for reading 🙂Let's get social! Stay up to date with amazing news and photos from Uganda, plus race tips and more: