It was our 6th consecutive day of running and we had passed the 200k milestone on top of a ridge a couple hours ago. We had been on the trail for close to 9 hours and stopped to take out our head torches before sunset. I turned to the runner next to me asking how he was doing – “No food, no water, no idea how long to next camp…but I’m ok!”
The first mosque went off at around 5AM with morning prayer echoing around the small town of Moshi. Roosters had already been up for a good while waking me up every now and then. Half an hour later, the first car drove by playing rap music with bass so loud the windows were shaking in my 2nd floor room. After my 2AM flight, 1,5h drive from the airport, and a thorough check for bedbugs before hitting the sack, I eventually didn´t get much sleep on my first night in Africa.
I had arrived to Tanzania with a plan that made me shudder if I let myself think too far ahead. The upcoming weeks included 8 days of running around Mt. Kilimanjaro making a 260k loop with more than 10 000m of elevation gain along the way. After the run, I had squeezed in full two days of recovery before heading up for a 8 day climb to the Kilimanjaro´s highest summit, Uhuru Peak, at 5895m.
Sitting at the hotel breakfast table in my sleep deprived state of mind, I was seriously questioning if my body would be up to the task at hand.
Kilimanjaro Stage Run is an annual ultrarunning event organized and led by Simon Mtuy, the current record holder of fastest unassisted ascend and descent of Kilimanjaro (9:21:47). The ten international runners signed up for the fun started showing up at Simon´s Mbahe farm on Kilimanjaro slopes a couple nights before the scheduled start.
During the last 10 minute hike up to farm from the closest road, we were greeted by a bunch of happy locals enjoying their banana beer at sunset – we decided to skip the beer and just take our share of the sunset as the “warm up run” was scheduled to 7AM the next morning.
First morning on the farm I woke up shortly after 6AM to a cold and misty sunrise. After getting out of my warmest down sleeping bag and putting on my warmest set of polartec underwewewar and a down jacket, I stepped outside to enjoy a cup of hot coffee alone in silence waiting for the sun to come up. The African nights at 2000m up the mountain appeared way colder than I had expected.
Our “easy warm up run” at 7AM gave us the first taste of what was to be expected during the next eight days. Finishing a 8k loop with 400m of elevation took us well over an hour and it was all on “reasonably easy village trails”. My heart rate was far from moderate on the climbs that our guide Manase seemed to scale with an effortless jog. We kept our game faces on and chattered along the way trying not to look too exhausted.
Last night before taking off was a mixture of shuffling with gear, getting to know each other, and anxiously waiting to finally get running.
Most interesting part of the pre-run day was getting to know the fellow runners. The three women and seven men included professionals importing the smallest of fruits to Finland (us finns apparently like our fruits small, go figure!), schoolteacher planning to name a future dog Bangi (probably not appropriate in Swahili-speaking parts of the world), frenchmen who don´t like bananas but apparently do eat frog legs and escargot (snails) regularly, and an adventure sports specialist heading off to Ladakh (Northern India) for another ultra a week after finishing the trip in Kilimanjaro.
They all looked a lot like runners to me.
The logistics of the whole thing still keep amazing me. Our support crew included a “camp team” taking care of our tents, luggage, and most importantly food, and a “guide team” leading us through the route.
After each day on the trail we eventually arrived to a ready-made tented camp with all the services a tired runner could imagine. Our luggage was waiting for us inside each tent, and hot water was being prepared for washing our dusty feet. Mess tent was already stocked with hot drinks and popcorn, and delicious aromas of dinner being prepared were floating from the kitchen tent.
Our journey started from Marangu gate, the starting place for summit climbers using the Marangu route. After finally understanding the fact that we weren´t heading up the mountain in our skimpy running gear, a local guy by the gate proposed to meet me in this very same spot after eight days to get my used running shoes. Eventually, he did actually show up, but the topic of running shoes never came up in our brief discussion. Considering the state (and smell) of my gear at the time, I wasn´t really surprised.
Day 1 started with easy running led by one of the local guides, Manase, who had all four previous editions of Kilimanjaro Stage Run under his belt. During the first hours he had real challenges holding us down behind him. After all the waiting, tapering and rest we all were more than ready to finally get running our “own natural pace” and his way of holding us back felt frustrating.
But having done Kilimanjaro Stage Run four times before, Manase knew better – there was a long journey ahead of us, and once we hit the first valleys his pace started to feel quite comfortable to all of us.
Getting through the first day took us close to 9 hours involving a number of steep valleys, crossing rivers, and accumulating 2000m of elevation along the way. When crossing the last valley before arriving to camp I wasn´t sure whether it was more difficult going up or down as all my leg muscles were totally tired out. The idea of seven more days like this was too distant to comprehend so I focused my thoughts on getting to my tent for the next night.
As we eventually arrived to our first campsite we were greeted by dozens of curious children who were happy to find a mzungu (white people) camp pitched up on their schoolyard. The happiness of reaching the camp combined to the reactions of the children when the runners started arriving momentarily erased the complete exhaustion I had been experiencing a moment earlier and I found myself actually running around the camp with a camera trying to get contact with the children around us.
When darkness fell at around 7PM we retreated to mess tent for much awaited dinner and the children started reluctantly heading towards their homes. Less than an hour later I was back in my tent and fell asleep pretty much immediately listening to the sound of rain drumming on my canvas roof.
The rainy night was followed by a beautiful sunny morning and to my delight my tent had been leaking on the opposite side from where I was sleeping so my gear had stayed somewhat dry through the night. The children were back at their mzungu viewing positions by 6:30 – guess white men don´t camp here that often.
While we were enjoying our breakfast in the sunrise the teachers started the morning routines of their regular school day. Children were lined up outside the classrooms and the national anthem was sung loudly while the naughty ones facing the wall received some proper whacks on their butts from the teacher with an impressive stick for the job. It was already getting warm so we expected a hot day ahead of us.
Day 2 became known as the day of “no valleys“.
“No valley” is a thing that pretty much looks like valley to a less experienced eye. It typically has a very steep downhill, a river at the bottom, and an equally steep uphill on the other side. The only thing differentiating it from a valley is the fact that it´s not recognized as one by the guide crew based on the assumption that Simon would be able to run through it without slowing down to hike at any given time.
Eventually, the numerous “non valleys” in the beginning were covered and we entered farmlands. It was a welcome change to the jungle and rainforests we had been scrambling through on the previous day. We started passing farmers carrying huge loads of stuff on their heads and kids playing in the fields.
It was refreshing to be able to run properly on the somewhat even ground and easier trail. However, it soon turned out there was also a downside to it, namely dust.
The soil on the fields is very dry and running caused a constant cloud of very fine dust surrounding us and getting to every place one can imagine (yup, there too). When we finally arrived to camp 2 we were all covered in black and ready to use the one working shower available at the climbing hut. Getting clean was probably more uncomfortable than the whole 5h run as warm water was available only for the lucky 1st ones.
Starting day 3 we got the daily routing pretty much set up:
- Wake up at 6AM, pack up the camping gear and sort out hydration bag with energy and other stuff we´d need during the day
- Coffee at 6:30AM, try to get the “deposit” (=toilet) sorted out
- Breakfast at 7AM, pack lunch (as much of bread, honey, peanut butter, bananas, etc. as possible)
- Get three different estimates from Simon, Joseph and Manase for the time/kilometers to our 1st fueling stop. Fuel up the hydration pack with enough water for exceeding any estimate by 50%
- Start running at 8ish, meet up with our “most wanted man” Joseph (with car and water) 2-3 times through the day, and arrive at the camp anywhere between 2PM (still warm enough for washing and ample time for recovery) and 6:30PM (already dark and cold, quick dinner and bed).
- Dinner at 7ish, reflect on the highlights of the day and go through the plan (distance, elevation gain, fueling stops) for the next day
- Be back in our tents by 8PM trying to catch sleep and figure out which tent the snoring is coming from (never quite pinned it out but I have my doubts)
Day 3 followed the Kenyan border. It was another hot and sunny day and we still got to enjoy the pleasures of dust.
It was a day of fast running. The elevation gain for the day was less than 1k for the first time on the whole trip and we were mostly running on easy trails and dirt roads.
The most interesting part of the day was passing through a number of Maasai settlements built on the “no man´s land” between Tanzania and Kenya.
The locals seemed to be equally curious of our group of runners as we were in getting a glimpse on their daily lives. Each village crossing consisted of a number of happy shouts of jambo!, curious kids, animals, and in some cases resulted in a dog following us for the next couple of miles.
At times, we needed to stop for a short break due to African wildlife blocking the trail. Luckily, the brave locals were happy to assist in clearing the way and these encounters rarely caused any casualties.
We also witnessed the first signs of big game (giraffe poop) when passing through a short stretch of savannah and learned from Simon that drinking and savannah running don´t mix due to the stingy bushes around.
When approaching camp 3 we noticed two French runners slowly pulling ahead and soon they vanished from our sight. Morally, this was devastating until our resourceful guide Manase tipped us on a shortcut.
Once the French were safely out of sight, we sneaked towards the shortcut and saw our next camp across a field ahead of us. Our plan seemed to work perfectly until we came out in the open and the French spotted us from the other side of the field. That´s when the sprinting begun.
Sprinting pretty much all out after 3 days (with 17 hours) of running wasn´t actually part of my plan – especially as I knew there was still 5 more days and 160k to go – but that´s exactly what happened.
Us and the French approached the camp from two different sides speeding up as fast as we could with our tired feet. Finally, we reached the spot where the trails crossed, pretty much at the same time (Simon beating us others by seconds) and leaned on our legs trying to catch some breath.
Don´t know about the others, but I paid for this short sprint on day 4, as for me it was the most difficult day of the whole run.
Camp 3 tents were pitched right outside a school of 500 children and when we arrived the classes were still on. Teachers were having a hard time keeping the children in control when we walked by the windows full of smiling faces waving at us.
When the schoolday eventually ended, we got a curious audience watching us wash up and get ready for dinner.
Of all the eight days of running, I remember day 4 being the most difficult for me. The sprint finish on day 3 totally messed up my legs and running was difficult (and painful) through the day. Knowing the following day 5 would be our longest one didn´t really help in building my confidence.
Through day 4 I was seriously doubting if I could finish the run. Then we arrived to Simba farm which saved my life!
To sum it up – a proper warm shower, good big dinner, bottle of Kilimanjaro beer and the first night in proper bed for days – come day 5 and my legs had magically recovered!
In all honesty, my legs didn´t really feel fresh at the start of day 5, but they didn´t feel worse than they did the previous morning either.
My newfound confidence on recovery turned out to be short lived. When arriving to the next camp 7,5h later my legs were looking worse than ever. Knees were seriously swollen and it was difficult to get back up after sitting down. But I had been able to run through the day and with only 3 days to go I was starting to smell the finish line.
On day 6 I found the state of my legs pretty much stabilized – through the day they didn´t feel any worse than they did in the morning so I figured the remaining days might actually be doable! Sleeping did require a significant dose of Ibuprofen though.
Regardless of what it said on the brochure, day 6 turned out to be the longest one. We spent close to 9,5h on the trail and ended up finishing at the dusk in the light of our head torches. We missed at least one fueling stop and most of us had been running on empty for hours when we finally reached the camp.
Surprisingly enough, I started gaining strength on day 7. Legs were still sore and swollen, but once I started running the going felt relatively good and effortless.
We were getting close to the finish. Therefore, when the idea of a “small race to the next camp” was brought up, I wasn´t completely against it, even though the memories of my struggles on day 4 were still fresh.
After a bit of faster running, a group of 3 pulled away on an uphill and I realized I didn´t have the legs to keep up with them. We eased the pace up a bit with a fellow runner with similar thoughts, and eventually, even stopped for a chat with a villager curious to hear what we were up to.
When we finally arrived to the camp, we were surprised to see there were no other runners around. It appeared, the 1st group had managed to miss the last crossroads leading to the camp, and were now being chased by our guide sprinting downhill after them. They arrived to the camp half an hour later having run all the way down the valley before realizing they were lost and climbing back up to the camp.
On our last morning Kilimanjaro offered some of its best and while were having breakfast with clear views to the peak. It was hard to imagine we were about to get back to Marangu gate where we started the run eight days ago and then – suddenly no more running!
It was a short day with only a bit more than 20k to cover (with a couple of proper valleys to cross though) and we took our time to soak in the morning before heading on the trail.
During the first half we split to a couple of groups, but for the last part we decided to gather up for finishing together. All went as planned until two runners missed a turn again and the guides shoot off to different directions on a lookout. Half an hour later, the missing runners were found taking selfies with kids at a local school, and our running resumed.
“What if something goes wrong now” crossed through my mind a couple of times during the last 10k. Having run the whole 260k trail all the way here (we got 10k extra with no cost added) seemed like a monstrous effort and being this close to finish line made me carefully watch my step for avoiding any possible injuries.
Suddenly, the trail started feeling familiar – “I´ve passed through here before“. I spotted the Mbahe farm somewhere on the right – the gate was getting really close!
A couple more turns and I saw the familiar wooden houses surrounding the gate – this is it!
People started cheering and my mind was filled with a mix of emotions. Someone was broadcasting live to Facebook – I can´t start crying now!
It took me a good while to pull myself together. All the doubts and worries I had along the way had proved wrong and I was finally done with it! It took me days to process what had actually happened.
Tanzania trail running is not what you think – it´s better! Says so on the T-Shirt!