An out of practice – and unfit – runner takes on the challenge of a half marathon in Uganda. Here’s what happened next.

I want to share my thoughts – mainly to reassure, but also to add a note of caution to those runners who haven’t begun(!) their training yet. Photos to come once  we can upload them…

Some background: to give you an idea of my mental and physical state before the run.

I landed in Uganda at 3am Saturday morning. Spent the day catching up on sleep and emails, and drank a few beers in the evening with the team. On Sunday, we woke up at 6:30am to go and promote the marathon at the 10k run being held in Kampala to celebrate the King’s birthday – it was hot, dusty and tremendous fun: but that’s a story for another time.

After 3 hours in a car back to Masaka, my total consumption that day consisted of half a pack of peanuts, a coffee and a pint of milk.

Training-wise, I haven’t undertaken a run of more than a mile since last September (and that’s a painful admission to make, given that I am organising a marathon). I’m tipping the scales at 14.5 stone, carrying a bit more weight around my waist than I’d like to admit, and coming off the back of a stag do last weekend that took its toll. My trainers are a lovely pair of Decathlon own brand road shoes – £14.99, thank you very much.

All in all – not the preparation for a 13 mile course you’d find in many training manuals.

I arrived at our house around 3pm, to be greeted by the ever effervescent Ellie: she was just going out on her final run to GPS map the route before handing it over to the local police for road closures. Did I want to come and run it with her? Ha Ha. Not a chance. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’ve caught the sun, I haven’t trained, we’re at altitude, blah blah blah.

But then I thought – we’ve asked a lot of people to step out of their comfort zone for this race. Not just the team, who’ve given up their jobs and upped sticks from London to live in a tiny town in Uganda with no pay, but also the hordes of international runners – many of you running your first ever race, many of you travelling to a developing nation for the very first time. If we can ask you to do all that, then the very least I can do is go for a quick jog.

I hurriedly changed into my running gear.. where are my shorts?! Darn. I think I left them in the UK in my frantic packing: I’ll have to wear some normal khaki shorts – this is hardly ideal. Ellie’s waiting – I give her a heads up that we might not run at the pace she’s become accustomed to.

We jogged together down to Liberation Square, where the race will begin. The Square is situated right in the middle of Masaka, covered in lush grass and usually playing host to any number of informal football games – today was no different.

Here’s as much of a blow by blow account of the course as I can manage to remember through (spoiler alert) some “discomfort” during the latter stages.

Miles 1 – 3: This is lovely! We ran along the flat. Lots of children said hello to us, grown ups greeted us with an amused “Ehhhh”. Ellie frequently runs the course, but in this town which rarely sees tourists, a running Mzungu is still a great novelty.

At around 3.5 miles, we encountered the first of the 5 hills on the course. It was a slog, and I ran it very slowly. It only lasted about a minute, possibly two (I get the feeling that time stretches out), but at the top I had to have a little breather. You do feel a great sense of achievement and satisfaction once you reach the top: as every mountaineer will attest, it looks a lot steeper looking back down it from the top than regarding it from the bottom. This picture I believe sums up my equal admiration and disgust at how Ellie didn’t even break her stride (photo coming.. worth the wait).

We went on for another couple of kilometres (runners prerogative: measure distance done in kilometres, distance left in miles to make it seem like you’re further through than you actually are!) before a water stop. On race day there’ll be 6 water stations around the route – for this informal run, we relied on the local village shops – which are little more than wardrobe sized, usually with a complement of children playing in and around it.

Shortly afterwards, one of my favourite moments from the run. We passed through Bugabira School – one of the 9 projects marathon runners are sponsoring. Not around, or past, but – in Ellie’s excellent madness, through. Running down the steep slope the school haphazardly perches on, like a grazing mountain goat, in between classrooms, through the playground, past the dormitory we funded last year and weaving in and out of children happily “hello mzungu”-ing, laughing and smiling. This is awesome, I was happily thinking, as some giggling children ran after us, happily keeping up with our adult strides.

By mile 6, I was in love with the course, but severely damp from the exertion. I hadn’t done any prep at all – especially none of the anti-chafing kind (I can hear my race cofounder Nick in my head shouting “Vaseline!! Never forget to Vas up!” – sorry buddy, I did not!), and I politely asked Ellie if she wouldn’t swoon and faint if I were to take my top off to prevent bloodied nipples. Being the trooper that she is, I was allowed to continue with my running vest tucked into my shorts, and the palest man that ever did stalk the earth ran on, slowly and torturously through groups of baffled villagers.

At mile 9.5 is the category 5 hill. “Category 5”, despite its fearsome sounding name, is the gentlest variety of hill to run up. This is the hill that has provoked so much fear amongst the runners already signed up. Allow me to reassure you. It is one of the steepest hills I’ve ever “run” up. But I didn’t run it. I walked it. And it took me about 7 minutes. You see – you’re allowed to walk small parts of a marathon. Lots of people do. Especially when it’s very, very steep. I probably lost about 5 minutes of overall time by walking and not running it. And that meant I was fresh for the view at the top. Oh my. That view. I didn’t even bother taking a photo, I knew it wouldn’t do it justice.

Rural Uganda spreads out before you: green, verdant & lush. Huts and houses dotted sparsely peek out from trees for as far as the eye can see. Lake Victoria shimmers in the distance. It’s genuinely beautiful.

We trotted on. 4 miles to go. I was feeling… tired, but excited. And then my body realised what I was doing to it. Running on no food, at altitude, with no training. My left calf suddenly cramped. I let out a yell of pain and started hopping around – as elegant as a new born giraffe – I could actually see the muscle bunching up and twitching under my skin. We took a 5 minute break whilst I gingerly stretched, squealed and behaved in a very unbecoming manner. The leg somewhat settled down, we started to take in the loop that brings us back to Masaka – all flat or gently downhill. 10 minutes later, the other calf goes. It is agony. This time it puts me flat on my arse. I’m genuinely rolling around on the floor moaning. My shorts are soaked through and now picking up a lovely brown layer of mud. That’s the least of my concerns – this whole affair is hugely embarrassing! Ellie is being very patient with me – but I think I can see a grin on her face from out of my tear-covered eyes.

Another 5 minutes of massage, grunting and shame and I’m back on my feet. Now half jogging, half hopping, we run through more villages. I lift my head occasionally and wave at children who start to run with us – have to muster a smile, they are such happy, friendly children!

The sun is setting, and in that wonderfully African fashion that is only heightened by being on the Equator: within 10 minutes of the light starting to dim, it’s pitch black. We’re at mile 11. Sixteen or seventeen minutes left if this was an ordinary run. Doesn’t feel like an ordinary run though! I’m dog-tired. Everything chafes. I’m still topless. It’s pitch black (street lighting?! don’t make me laugh) Ellie is wearing black running shorts ahead of me, so pretty much the only things I can see aside from the superbright headlights (or at least the vehicles that have headlights) of oncoming traffic are the bottom of her legs moving with relentless, metronomic energy. My world narrows down to a small cone of vision ahead of me that includes Ellie’s calves (with apologies to her and partner Paul!) and the tiny glimpses of path I can see in the splash of headlights. Are the pools of pitch black darkness on the road ahead dips, puddles or potholes? I’ve got no idea: just run two paces behind her and hope for the best.

A couple of times in the final hour Ellie asked if I wanted to stop and grab a motorbike home. For me, there wasn’t a chance in hell that I wouldn’t make it round, even if I had to walk/limp the final stretch – and I very much know that’s how every runner is going to feel. The route takes in so much, exposes you to such a different way of life, is so beautiful, really there’s no way you’ll let yourself quit before the end.

Suddenly, lights! Starting as a soft glow, soon resolving into individual shops, the small fires of street vendors, even an bar, showing the Manchester Derby with sounds of cheering washing out into the street. Nearly there. I apologise to Ellie: I just need to stop one last time, grab something with some sugar in. Stretch my not just protesting but increasingly bemused leg muscles. Another three minutes gone. “Just 800 meters more!” Ellie assures me, chirpily. I silently curse her (sorry again!).

We head towards Liberation Square: along dark, dark roads. I can feel the soft dirt and grass underfoot. I’m sure this would be lovely in the day time, but now I’m only putting one foot in front of the next. And then…. suddenly. It’s over. We’ve run a half marathon. We give each other a very sweaty hug and a high five.

Instantly, almost to the very second it’s over, I’m blown away by the magnitude of it. The beautiful course, the incredibly scenery. Just how many children have run out of houses and fields screaming to shout “hello mzungu! goodbye mzungu!” at us on the way past. The wry smiles of the elders as we go past, the happy laughter of the local tradeswomen “Are you mad?!”, they exclaim, before laughing at us and yet with us simultaneously. That was the best run of my life.

So what are the lessons here for anyone taking part – or contemplating it?

It will be harder than your average run, no doubt. It’s warm here, but not stiflingly so during this “cool” season. The hills are steep, but short. You are allowed to walk them! No one will laugh at you, disqualify you from the race or revoke your visa if you don’t dash along every part of the route.

It is possible to complete the 21.2 without any real training or preparation, presuming a base level of fitness – I do occasionally use the gym and at 29, age is on my side. It won’t be pleasant, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it – but if you grit your teeth you will get round in one piece. The full course is a different kettle of fish: I don’t think I could have run any further, but with proper training you will be fine – check out Andy & Paul’s excellent blogs for inspiration and guidance.

If you want to do the half, and are capable of running 10 – 15k on the flat in your home country, then you will be able to complete this course. Maybe not run every inch of it, but you will complete it. (Let’s all remember Jade Goody managed to do 21 mile of the London Marathon with zero preparation : grit will get you far.)

This is a route to experience, not to rush through. Not being an enthusiastic runner, I wasn’t expecting a great finish time, nor was I overly bothered by one. We clocked our actual running time as 2:14, with what we estimated to be 20 – 30 additional minutes of me rolling around on the floor and feeling sorry for myself / rehydrating / stopping and chatting to people on the route.

The 5 minutes we took to admire the incredible view at the top of the brutal hill. The time we spent chatting to people bathing their children outside their shop, or comparing tattoos with a Lil’ Wayne lookalike. The children that ran up to us for hugs, or ran alongside us, happily keeping pace even though barefoot and a quarter our size. Getting to know a community by running with it, through their villages, seeing the every day lives of people so different yet so similar to you play out along the route. This race is about that every bit as much as it is recording a good time – if not more.

It is going to be a race like no other, and I can’t wait to see your massive smiles, tears and euphoric hugs at the finish line on 24th May.

~ Henry

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