One of the most well-known Kenyan training sessions is the infamous “Kenyan Hills”. This is where you find a hill and run up and down it at a constant pace for an allotted amount of time. I’ve done this session before in Kenya and I can tell you it’s no party.
Yesterday we did a 30 minute “pole pole” (slowly in Swahili) warm up jog, ending at a long hill in the middle of the forest; another beautiful setting for training. Coach Bruce told us we were to do the hills for one hour and off we went. Once up and down took near enough two minutes so around 30 hills at 1700m altitude were ahead of me, not a nice thought. Due to the lower altitude here in Embu I’m much more competitive than in Iten and was up running with the leading group. There were a few local houses nearby and I guess the word was out that a mzungu (white man) was running with the Kenyans. It seemed every time we came back down the hill another child had arrived to watch us run up and down this hill; at one point I think I counted 20!
After about 20 reps I was starting to struggle, but so it seemed were the Kenyans, and myself and a guy called Boniface were pulling away from the others. On the 30th rep, thinking it was the last one, I really dug deep to pull away from Boniface and get to the top of the hill 5 metres clear. Unfortunately Bruce told us we had one more rep but again I managed to find something and be first to the top of the hill. A great session but totally exhausting, I pretty much collapsed on my bed once we had finished the jog back home. A nice easy 40 minute jog in the afternoon helped my legs but I still woke up the next day feeling like someone had taken a baseball bat to my glutes!
On my last full day in this region I was due to do a long run. The other athletes were doing a tempo run and we traveled down into Embu to what I presumed would be a flatter route so they could do their training at a good pace. After arriving in Embu town centre we jogged for around 5km through a forest where we arrived at a school. There were lots of other athletes already there and I asked Bruce if they were part of his group to which he replied “no, they are here for the race”. Slightly puzzled I then found out that Bruce uses this local race for the tempo run. I was going to run two laps of the 10km course but somehow ended up entering myself in the race and a few minutes later was on the start line, the lone mzungu amongst around 50 Kenyans.
The race started and, in true Kenyan fashion, everyone shot off at a ridiculous speed. Still being tired from the hill session a few days earlier and slightly concerned by the altitude, I started off at a much more conservative pace, placing in maybe 40th position after the first 500m (which had been slightly downhill). We then hit the first hill; some of the athletes were already slowing and I moved my way through the field. After around 2km I was up to 10th position just behind a group of four runners. For some reason they all seemed to struggle up the hills and by 5km I was on my own. I was told this was a road race but I have done cross country races with more road in them! We wound through the forest, up and down steep hills and over some crooked old bridges, all the time getting strange looks from any locals I passed. I ended up pacing the race well finishing in a respectable 31.40 and 5th position! I never thought in a million years I would finish 5th in a race on Kenyan soil at altitude, so was rather chuffed with myself. I then found out that there was prize money on offer but it only was for the top 4, I missed the money by 1 position!
The other athletes couldn’t believe I finished so highly and I was told about a hundred times how strong I was! Being in a good mood I treated our group and a few others to breakfast and tea. (Before you think I’m generous, the bill for about 8 people came to around £1 but it’s the thought that counts!)
I really enjoyed the race and it was a great experience. The following day I did my last run in Embu, a 90 minute steady run through the forest with Coach Bruce and Run-Fast athlete Polline.
I absolutely loved Embu and am sad to leave. Coach Bruce has been a perfect host, inviting me to his house for dinner most evenings. Hopefully I will get the chance to return in the future.
Next stop: Iten…