By Staff Writer: Jess Meniere
We landed midday in Eldoret, Kenya and were quickly greeted by its thick humid sticky hug. The sky was a translucent blue, framed by low-hanging clouds and outlined by a Bluegum horizon. Tao and I (camera bags and luggage in tow) were hurtled off in a taxi along a very straight tarmac road for Kapsabet. After 40km of dodging motorcycles, tuk-tuks, trucks and no regard for speed limits or road signs, we thankfully arrived at our destination – welcomed by the song of weaver birds, the hum of Gospel singers and the rumble of omnipresent spring showers.
We unpacked and rinsed off the tiredness of travel before our first meeting with Lydia Simiyu and her coach, Chris Tenai. The introduction was short, easy and as sweet as the overly sweetened Kenyan chai-tea we sipped on – we discussed the week’s schedule, trying to outline when, where and how we would go about documenting Lydia’s story.
There was a palpable atmosphere of excitement and apprehension that could be felt, and after many posed photographs and handshakes, I was offered to join elite-athlete Lydia Simiyu and her teammates on their training runs, and without hesitation, I accepted.
The grey afternoon soon traded in its colours for nightfall and left Tao and I, hungry and ready to feast on a medley of beans, maize, coleslaw and chapati in the hotel dining room. After a long day and an early-morning start awaiting us, we headed off to bed early, falling asleep quickly full of dreams for the week to come.
My alarm went off at 5 am, and as it rang, I thought to myself that I had been somewhat hasty in accepting the invitation to train with these elite athletes. A splash of cold water shook me out of my reverie and onto the pitch-black road, where only the odd streetlamp and headlight from passing cars cast its glow onto the muddy paths. Arriving just in time for the 6 am start, we joined the brightly coloured lycra-clad 30 + runners. My high ponytail, fair skin, and comparatively thick calves were a glaring contrast to the huddled group in their long tights and sweat jackets, waiting to be briefed on their morning’s training session.
Chris translated what he had shared with his athletes, “Saturdays are easy-run days,” which include “long-distance training at a steady pace;” a sense of relief settled in, as, while an avid runner my pace remains averagely slow. Following this short briefing, the silence of morning and the sounds of a still sleeping village returned; leaving the metronome of shuffling feet on tar and my heavy breath to echo against the stillness of dawn.
The 15km loop started with a gentle warm-up, but as the sun began its ascent, the Nandi-Highlands Athlete Club (NHAC), picked up their pace. As if chasing the morning light, the group ran faster and faster; and while I tried to push my legs harder and further, I quickly fell behind at kilometre seven. I watched the silhouettes of the group disappear into the distance, meeting the sun as it reached the skyline. While the higher altitude was hard, I distracted myself with the surrounding scenes of Kapsabet, revealing more of itself as daylight grew. Continuing to push my heavy-feeling legs, burning from the build-up of lactic acid; I watched the morning fog sink into the foothills and tall grass. I watched as the streets filled with people and cars, as the queues outside the only-petrol station snaked around the roads we had just run. I watched as farmers began their morning rituals of tea-leaf-picking, lugging overflowing bags to and from farmlands to the delivery vans. The scenes carried me, despite my breathlessness back to the start line, where I rejoined the group for their cool-down stretches.
My slower place meant that I only part took in the last few minutes of the group’s stretching, but despite not being able to keep up with the NHAC’s Saturday ‘slow run’, the team still congratulated me with fist-bumps and a “see you later for training.” Sweat drenched and out of breath; I logged into activity on my Garmin watch, to my surprise, I’d just achieved a “new record, personal best 10km;” and logging the run to my Strava, I captured the caption “there’s merit to playing catch-up with elite runners.”
After a quick shower and wardrobe change, I tucked into a breakfast of tangy pineapple, creamy-ripened bananas, almost-fluorescent orange mangos, a selection of deep-fried pastries, bread and more chapati. Ironically sipping on my morning sachet of Nestlé coffee in the land of the world’s best coffee beans.
At 10 am it was time for the second training session of the day, in a communal field – shared by a local football team, other club runners and a herd of grazing cattle. These sessions included a variety of intense cardio drills and strength work; with an added element of technical work, and a game of dodge the domestic animal and their land-mind patties. Breaking a sweat under the mid-morning sun, the hour-workout concluded with more fist-bumps and handshakes, as I watched all the athletes part-ways, in different directions and schedules – some back home to cook meals for their families, others off to work shifts, and a few setting-out to clock extra kilometres.
Tao and I made our way back slowly, through the roads flooded with people, celebrating the county’s electoral provincial win. Dancing, drumming and singing us along our way back to the hotel, where we dined on a lunch of more gither (maize and beans) with chapatti, slaw salad and ginger-powdered tea.
After working late into the afternoon on the production schedule and capturing Lydia’s voice-recording, Tao and I escaped into the maize of the village centre. As we weaved through the small corridors, street stalls and in-between market tables, eyes followed us and voices cried out “mzungu,” (Swahili for “white person,”). Kids ran up to us, joining in our meandering; some, reaching out to touch Tao, brushing their hands through his arm and leg hair. We brought avocados, bananas and fried cashews, and as we snacked, we commented on the slow pace of life in Kapsabet, the lack of urgency in people’s walk and the loose constraint of time that we were starting to familiarise ourselves with.
Sundays are “optional rest days.” Chris explained that all his athletes train Monday to Saturday, running an average of 25-30 km a day, which involves a club run in the morning and an independent training session in the afternoon. All Chris’ athletes warm up by running from home to the club’s meeting point outside the tech store, then they train together and complete their cool-down runs en route home. Most runners train on Sunday before church, and then again afterwards; despite Sunday being their voluntary rest day, Chris says both himself and his athletes lace up to clock kilometres and chase time on their stopwatches.
So in NHAC style, I woke up to my 5-am alarm and joined NHAC athlete Louise for her 6 am training run. Regardless of the language barrier, we shared a dialogue in the shuffle of our shoes against the tarmac and gravel road. Looping Kapsabet in the morning darkness, with the full moon still high in the sky, a silence and beauty hung between Louise and me, circling back to Kapasbet, we met other runners, cow milkers, women peeling unripe small bananas, as well as fruit and vegetable vendors. Louise and I ran at a consistent pace, both dressed in our long pants and jackets; and despite the morning’s humidity, Louise fussed and shook her head at my attempts to remove or roll up my sleeves. Looping 15km back to the hotel, Louise waved goodbye and continued running, leaving me hot, sticky and tired.
After a shower and two sachets of Nestlé Cafe coffee, Tao and I headed to Lydia’s house, stopping en route to buy coconut biscuits and sweets for her son and neighbourhood children. We arrived with the midday storm and were warmly welcomed in, while the hail beat at the tin roof and angrily rattled the windows. We left our shoes at the door next to her shower and walked through a laced curtain into the living room. Three couches and one bed boarded the room and framed the centre coffee table. Seven bodies filled the small room, sipping on, and dunking biscuits, into sugared-chai tea. Lydia’s tidy house was decorated with number and alphabet sheets for her son, her race numbers, lace cloth and tinsel filled empty spaces. Hanging from the window frame was Lydia’s 2021 Cape Town Marathon medal, and as my eyes rested on this victory token, Lydia shyly, blushing, turned away.
Tao filmed Lydia, following her with his camera through the neighbourhood, followed by flocks of excited children, who squealed and duck when our gazes collided. Moms braided hair and untangled knots, as daughters held their baby siblings on their hips. By 5 pm Tao had finished, and although the storm had passed, the smell of rain clung to us, the sweetened tea lingered on our lips, and the warmth of a soft gentle f gathering left us humbled.
Monday 6 am – same starting spot, same group, different route and different training. Chris said “Mondays are for strides and slopes;” and while I was familiar with the concept of strides, I gave Chris a puzzling look at his mention of “slopes.” Without any time to quiz him, the warm-up had begun, a 20-minute steady-run to the base of what proved to be the “slope,” we would train on. This slope was far from the gradual incline I had envisioned, but rather, a heart raising uphill; straight and steep. We ran up and down this “slope,” for 40-consecutive-minutes, no stopping, no walking, only pushing harder and harder…
As Chris and his elite athletes lifted their legs higher and higher, climbing uphill with more force and speed, I fell far behind. The men’s and women’s groups, which had been separated for training up this “slope,” both moved up and down faster than I could, looping me as they climbed the ‘slope’ again and again and again. Moving almost uniformly, in procession, the sound of marching legs and heaving breath gave way to an orchestrated chant through the Bluegum trees and echoed between the rolling hills of Nandhi county.
I dug deep as I dragged my legs to the summit of this “slope,” and slowly lugged them back down to the base – intentionally hoping that I could waste time on the descent and skip a few extra climbs. I lost track of how many hill repetitions I had completed after 27 – and instead of counting the number of ups and downs, distracted myself with the smell of the forest, damp from the morning’s dew. My mind wandered as my eyes scanned the trees, reading the remnants of electoral posters which faded and peeled and then fell to the tea fields, dark and rich in colour.
After running the same hill over and over, up and down, and up and down, this session ended with a steady and strong 1km run to a straight section of the road, where the entire club completed 200m of sprinted strides at full-speed, eight-times. Coach Chris ran the entire session with us, shouting “legs-up,” and “run faster;” while I tried to keep up with them as they flew back and forth, effortlessly gliding across the gravelled road. Doubled over and dripping in sweat, it was finally time to complete the cool-down run back to where we had started. Despite the slower pace, stitches sewed themselves across my torso, between my ribs and across the lower sides of my abdomen; but with each attempt to walk or stop to catch my breath, the entire group sang, “no walking, no stopping,” just “keep pushing.”
Falling back into rhythm with the group, we moved to a metronomic “thump-thump,” until Chris interruptedly said, “you have the potential to be a professional runner – you have the style, fitness and dedication, but the bum and legs must go” Laughing at his remark, others quickly translated what Chris had said to those who could not understand, and chorus of laughter followed us to the finish line.
Tuesday track. Again, a 6 am group start, but this time, at a different location. My alarm went off earlier, as I pulled my shoes on and joined Lydia on her commute, we moved quietly across the wet ground. The sun slowly spilt itself across the dark landscape. We used this commute as the warm-up run, winding through Bluegum-framed roads until we joined the other athletes from the group on the side of the main tarmac road. Chris had driven his car here, and as he pulled over to the side of the road, athletes piled in – throwing changing bags into the back and swapping their sweat jackets and long pants for shorts and t-shirts for this tempo session. Behind the car, Chirs set up a cautionary “broken vehicle sign,” which filled in as a “caution, athletes training,” sign.
A brief warm-up, with several stretches and cardio drills, prepared us for the intensive intervals which followed suit. Racing against overtaking cars, cow-herders, other running groups and morning commuters; the club ran for 1km hard, with a brief 20-second rest between each session, twelve times. We ran 2km along this dead-straight tarmac road, before turning around to run another 2km back to where we started. This is how Nandi Highlands Athletic Club train on days when their track field is not open or fully occupied. A makeshift track session alongside the bustle of Kapsabet’s busy main road, up and down, again and again.
With each loop of this tarmac “track,” the gap between myself and the group widened. As they moved faster, my legs became heavier, my breath harder and my body more tired. A little perspective, as my watch beeped 1km, these elites had clocked 1.5-2kms. I watched these athletes gracefully swing their arms and glide across the road, I could no longer chase them so I made myself comfortable on a dry patch of grass, and continued to marvel as they picked up the pace and pushed harder and harder.
The session ended as athletes zipped up their sweaty bodies in jackets and pulled on their long pants, before running off in various directions. Nine very sweaty bodies piled into Chris’s car and beetled down a pot-holed and bumpy road back to our hotel for breakfast and a much-needed shower.
Leaving Tao to continue with editing, I joined Abigail, one of Chris’s athletes, and her family for lunch. She invited me into her complex, a plot of land framed by a perimeter of homes, with a central piece of grass where laundry lines were strung up, across and between houses.
Aromas of fried bread spilt from the neighbourhood homes, accompanied by scenes of mothers cooking rice and kneading dough to make chapatis. Abigail ushered me into her home and seated me on a plastic chair, insisting that I stay put as she peeled and chopped bananas and fried onions and tomatoes in vegetable fat. Her husband, an athlete himself, and their son joined us as we chatted in broken English about Abigail’s victories, injuries and dreams for future races – all while she turned the rice and added the bananas to the heated pan. Abigail severed me, Chris, her husband, and her son first, and before sitting down to eat her lunch (a plate substantially smaller than everyone else) on the bed, she proceeded to clean her cooking area. House proud, the single room served as the kitchen, living room and bedroom. Abigail said that after her training in the morning and afternoon, she spends most of her time cleaning, cooking and looking after her son.
After finishing the meal and thanking Abigail for lunch, she laced up and set off for her second run for the day. Chris lead me to other athletes’ houses in the complex, who all offered full plates of rice, chapati and sugary chai teas as they welcomed us in. Politely declining, they traded stories of their careers, goals and lives as athletes instead, and kept Chris and I well entertained into the early hours of nightfall.
En route back to the hotel, we collected Ruth (Chris’ wife, an athlete herself), Cornelius (his close friend and assistant) and a handful of others, who all piled into the front, back and trunk of the car. When arriving at the hotel, the group made their way to the bar, where we rejoined Tao, to watch the Boston Marathon live. Drinking boxed red wine and snacking on fried cashews, everyone sat, jaws-clenched, hands clasped and on the edge of their seats, watching without saying a word… Only when Peres Jepchirchir crossed the finish line, did everyone cheer, clap, and dance, ordering more boxed red wine to celebrate their fellow club and neighbour’s victory.
I met the NHAC group for their usual 6-am start, ready for the steady long-distance morning training run. We set off in the dark, following the feet in front of us, while watching for hand signals that forwarned of “bumps” and uneven patches in the ground. I managed the warm-up pace, keeping up with the group for the first 6km, but then quickly fell behind. As I watched the group disappearing into the dark morning fog, a few runners in the group stayed behind to run at my pace, encouraging me as I ran, joking about my “mzungu,” pace. We continued on, pushing up the pace while they pulled me (physically) up the climbs. Quizzing some of the athletes on why they run, they shared that the sport is a means “to education,” for them, “to build a home,” and “better their quality of life.” This sport was, for most, a stepping stone and a means of hope; a thought that carried me back to our starting spot. While this 20km loop had been a struggle for me, still trying to acclimatise to the altitude and the accelerated running pace, I was left with a sense of admiration – this wasn’t just a hobby or sport to showcase medals, this was a means to an end.
In celebration of our last night, Chris invited Tao and I into his home for dinner. We were greeted by many now-familiar faces – a room packed with my new-found team of runners were seated on couches, sofas’ arms, and plastic chairs, some on the floor, while others stood standing. As we stepped inside, space was made for Tao and I to sit, and slices of white bread and cups of creamy teas were passed around. Although we were initially unable to grasp the flowing conversations in Swahili, it transpired that what Tao and I had become privy to was a club meeting on how best to help contribute to one of their club members’ upcoming wedding. A notebook was passed around with names and donated amounts. After tallying up the total amount, and confirming that a wedding would indeed be happening; everyone raised their tea cups in celebration.
Plates of stewed vegetables and chicken were passed around – the concept of vegan was still a struggle to explain, so I picked around the soft meat – and a huge bowl of warm, soft chapatis circled the room to accompany the meal. We ate with our hands, tearing at the brown flatbread and using it to mop up the saucy remains on our plates. For dessert, more box wine was served, stories were shared and plenty of photographs were taken. Everyone laughed and pulled both Tao and I in for “just one more photograph and selfie;” a performance which went on late into the night.
On the last day, I found myself awake before my alarm, ready and running to the usual spot to make the 6am start. Today’s session took place on the only track in the Kapsabet area, bustling and busy and filled with athletes from surrounding clubs. We set off for an intensive, interval training session – after a quick starting sprint, I immediately fell behind. I proved to be a better spectator and a less of a hindrance from the sidelines, as I watched the dizzy pace of these sprinters.
The session finished with an impromptu yoga session – which Chris had insisted on upon hearing about my yoga teaching, as he shared that most of his exercises were found from “consulting Google.” Each forward fold, downward dog, lunge, warrior and pyramid pose was met with moans and puzzled looks. The session ended with group pictures, handshakes and traded bracelets as I watched, for the last time, as the runners set off for their cool-down pace homeward bound.
I boarded my flight, having clocked a little over 70 kilometres during our week’s stay. While this mileage felt huge to me, in retrospect, it was equivalent to 2-days of running for Chris and his club athletes. As the plane took off, the sound of Kapsabet, the thud of running, the song of weaverbirds, Chris’s voice and locals calling “mzungu,” raced through my mind.