by Jonathan ‘Scooby’ Bohla
It was 98 degrees when the plane touched ground. The sun was shining in full force while I stood in the shade waiting for my friend to purchase a SIM card so we would have a working phone in a foreign country. This was my first time leaving the continent and I made it to Africa to run the Kilimanjaro Half Marathon. Last October, when we returned from the Chicago Marathon, Hudson put on a youtube video of this race and asked if I wanted to go. I said “Definitely, if the price is right” & luckily it was.
Our journey started out with meeting a tribal leader, Alpha, on our 2 mile trip to the packet pickup. With 10,000 runners, there was no expo, only a couple tables where you pick up a shirt and bib number which is quite different from American races. We stayed at a cheap, little hostel in the town of Moshi, Tanzania where we met many international friends. The next morning, around 6am, I went for a 10 mile run while Hudson hiked next to me… We went into the village onto the dirt roads and some kids joined every so often as they were waiting for the school bus.
Then, we went on our first day trip: a 3 hour hike to the Materuni Waterfalls, which we were told, comes from the melting glacier from Mount Kilimanjaro. We brought our new Japanese friend, Yuri on the tour. We saw a chameleon on our hike that someone found. I let it crawl up my arm and around my neck. At the base of the waterfall, we swam in the pool of water, which was super cold but felt great after hiking in 90+degree heat. After this, we hiked to the village on the coffee plantation for a very large lunch and learned all the steps in making the coffee from de-shelling the beans (more than once) to roasting them & grinding them up with songs and dances.
We made more friends later and went to this little bar to watch the sunset which had abandoned train tracks behind it with a clear view of Kilimanjaro. The following day (after my 6 mile run) was our second day trip. It was with Alpha again, and he took us to his sister’s village. We brought our friend Eva, from Germany that we met, since Yuri was running the full marathon the next day. Now, we were in this little van and this was a good 2 hour drive for maybe 40 miles. Once we hit the dirt roads it was the oddest thing. There were no longer any roads, only desert in all directions. We had no idea where we were really going but to his sister’s tribe. We finally arrived and saw little huts all over. Hudson brought his frisbee, so the first few minutes were spent playing frisbee with them and most caught on right away. Everyone was laughing and really enjoying it before we started the tour. We had some tea under a small tree which was some of the only shade in the area. Then we went into one of the huts and were dressed in their clothing and we learned some of the dances. The men and women separated for the dances. If, I had to guess, we did about 10 different dances with them. We each bought a bracelet or some piece of jewelry that they made. Next, we rode to the hot spring for lunch and a swim. This was totally wild. It was a deep cove with a couple ropes tied across for people to stand on. There was a rope swing used to jump in the deep water and trees to climb on as well. I didn’t jump from any high tree branches but got some videos of others doing it. The atmosphere was great too with music, cookouts and a bit of Frisbee tossing.
Next: Kilimanjaro Half Marathon. Yuri, our Japanese friend, came with Hudson and I to the start in a rickshaw. It was about 3 miles away. I was going to do it as a warm up but joined them instead. Good thing because I was soaked in sweat just after I hit a mile and I wasn’t even breaking 9:00/mile pace! It was already in the 80s and full sun. With over 1,000 feet of gain in the first 5 miles, I knew this was no PR course. With 20 minutes to go (half marathon start) & 5 minutes until the full marathon, I went to the starting line to watch the full marathon start. There was a narrow path along the road which sat about 10 feet above & overlooked the start. Perfect for viewing. I went there to do some leg swings and small drills. I kept waiting for the full to start but it never did. Then a line a security guards quickly walked towards the runners lined up and pushed them back holding up a rope. People were almost fighting for the front, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen. With about 5 minutes until my start, I saw they had half marathon bibs on so I ran down the small hill, went about 10 yards back, hopped the fence into other people and squeezed in. I felt like I could barely breath it was so tight in there. I somehow got pushed back several more yards. Then I heard someone blowing a whistle behind me, it was a security guard escorting 3 elites to the start… More pushing and squeezing and they passed right beside me making their way to the front. People were trying to follow and pushed even more.
Finally, the gun fired. People in front of me were walking, lots of them. I bumped so many people that first half mile, people were tripping all over, it was absolute chaos! Nothing like an American race! At least there were aid stations… finally after a mile or so I had room and continued passing people up the hills. They were a mix of dirt and paved roads with lots of uneven ground (mostly on the dirt). It looks like streams passing through carving out sections of dirt road. This was mainly around the half way point as we ran through the banana plantation. It was wild… Large banana trees overhanging the road reminded me of a jungle.
I was the first white guy and people would either cheer me on or say something in Swahili and laugh. Many little kids would see me running and run alongside me for a minute or so. That was really fun. It seemed like I was going down a never ending downhill and I finally got passed by another white guy. I was overheating and decided not to stay with him because I wasn’t feeling good as it was and didn’t want to get sick in a foreign country. I was pouring water on my head at ever aid station I went to. One of them, I grabbed the first cup I saw and poured it and every volunteer just threw water on me – so much for drinking any!
The race finished inside a large stadium with a dirt track. I finally made my way in there and the stands were loaded with people cheering. I crossed that finish line with a time of 1:24:23. Even though it was far from my best, I loved the experience. As I walked through the finish chute, I got my medal and then water. I chugged the water and looked for more. I talked with the other white guy who beat me who lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado. We walked the entire stadium together and did not find water. I walked the first mile or 2 of the course and got a really large bottle of water at the first aid station. Then a 4-5 mile walk back to the hostel.
The next day we flew to Zanzibar and met a couple friends from Belgium who invited us on a day tour the next day. It worked out as our evening flight back was about 6:30 pm (or so) and the driver say we would be back by 3pm. We stopped and rented snorkel gear, rode about 2 hours north and hopped in a little boat. Then we road for about an hour out to an island owned by Bill Gates, which we weren’t allowed to stand on. But we went snorkeling in the Indian Ocean and goodness – it was so gorgeous! Crystal clear waters. The water was about 20 feet deep and you could see every detail on the bottom clear as day. Fish of all colors swam by, a few sting rays, starfish, and eels too. It was just amazing! The perfect way to spend some recovery time. We spent so much time out there, that we ended up getting back after 5pm but somehow made it!
One thing I learned in Africa, they never seen rushed and enjoy each moment. They used the phrase “Hakuna matata” – no worries. We were worried about getting back in time, & they said Hakuna matata. They were right. I have some really good memories from this trip and they were so much better since I shared it with some new friends.