Friday, 9 March 2012

If You Can’t Climb It, Run It – Kilimanjaro Conquered, Kigali Next!

11 Hour Bus Ride - Felt Longer for Some People with Me on the Bus

After months of preparation, and expending all my social capital badgering friends, family and foes for sponsorship money, I conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I didn’t attempt to trek to its snow-capped summit, a journey that that takes about 5-7 days and can result in severe altitude sickness.  I choose to run Kilimanjaro, or Kili as it is commonly referred to here in Tanzania.  I completed my 6th full marathon in 4 hours and 39 minutes and in the process I also raised the incredible sum of US$5,300 for education programmes in Tanzania.  Yes it was a full hour slower than my best marathon time, which I achieved in Reykjavik a few years ago, but I am just glad to have completed the course.  The Kili Marathon is not for the faint hearted.  I thought the crazy, hilly, volcanic, ashy landscape of Montserrat where I lived and ran for 5 years was bad, but this is in a special category of its own.  The second half of the race starts with a seemingly endless uphill climb that goes on forever.  Heartbreak doesn’t even begin to describe what runners experience on that climb.  But before I get into the actual race day, let me start with a recap of the weekend.

Endless Miles of Sisal and Mountains
We started our trip from Dar es Salaam Friday February 24th at around 8 am in what was supposed to be an 8-9 hour bus ride.  About 20 of us, VSO staff and volunteers piled into the bus and set off to Moshi, a major town in the foothills of Kili.  Our first stop was by the police for speeding – I think we were doing about 30 mph in a 25 mph zone.  They had a speed gun and everything, so to get things moving, the driver had to bribe them while we looked curiously at the transaction from the back window of the bus.  They actually saw us looking so they moved the payment of chai money (money for tea as they call it) payment to the back of the police car.  After 5 hours, with me providing much of the amusement for the occupants at the back of the bus, we finally stopped for lunch and an opportunity to drain the lizard.  I took a bit of everything that was on offer at the lunch buffet – a decision that came back to haunt me that night and for the next couple days.The ride resumed through beautiful plains littered with sisal plantations, which looks like a giant pineapple plant and is used for rope making. Incredibly beautiful mountains, reminiscent of Table Mountain in Cape Town, framed the plains.  I got excited every time I saw a herd of animals in the distance, thinking they might be a migrating herd of something exotic like wilder beasts or zebras.  Alas they were only weathered cows that looked as if they had already run a couple marathons earlier that day.

Anything to Break the Monotony of the 11 Hour Bus Ride
You know how West Indians will tell you something is just around the corner when actually it is about 4 hours away or they will tell you they coming to see you in a few minutes and will show up the next day.  Well we have the same kinda thing here in Africa.  Earlier someone had told me it was only 20 more km to the lunch stop it turned out to be 200km.  True to form, when they told it was going to be an 8 hour bus ride – it turned out to be an 11 hour ride to get to Moshi.  By then everyone on the bus had had enough of me chatting incessantly; whining about insufficient pee stops; remarking about how the tourist board should tie some big game animals to trees along the route to entertain us during the long journey; not to mention my eclectic music choices on my Ipad.  One occupant who had given up alcohol for Lent, started back drinking immediately upon disembarking from the bus, remarking to someone, “Jesus Christ would understand, he did not have to spend 11 hours on a bus with Ishwar.” Good times!  If he only knew he spent 11 hours with God on the bus – but more on that later.

View of the Majestic Kilimanjaro from Outside my Room  
On entering Moshi we caught our first glimpse of Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing peak in the world.  We found our way to the beautiful but affordable Honey Badger Lodge, named after one of the most ferocious animals in the world.  Similar to a weasel, lions and other large predators have been known to be killed trying to mess with these creatures.  The Lodge is home to a number of blue-balled vervet monkeys who are quite fresh and randy – one of them was caught peeking at one of the volunteers while she was having a shower – which might explain its testicular coloration. The first thing everyone noticed though was the inviting swimming pool, which we all ended up getting thrown in over the next few days, mainly because of our over-exuberant gregarious VSO country director.  “Do you have a phone or wallet in your pocket?”, followed by a loud splash was the most common sounds on the weekend. We met up with two UK Kenyan-based VSOs, Dan and Eddie and their partners, who I had been communicating with over the past 6 months.  They were also crazy enough to be attempting the marathon.  A group dinner, a few cold kilis and an early night meant we were all fresh and ready for the next day.  

With Some Keynan Runners During Registration Day
On Saturday morning we headed to the town of Moshi to pick up our registration kits.  One of the first things that strikes you about Moshi, especially coming from Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, is how clean the streets are.  They are very strict on tossing garbage and litter, for which you can be fined 50,000 Tanzanian Shillings.  One of our fellow volunteers, who in addition to backsliding on the no-drinking alcohol during Lent, also fell off the wagon with the no-smoking pledge, decided to test the vigilance of the local authorities by tossing a cigarette butt on the street.  He was promptly accosted, and ended up in the police station.  Claiming ignorance of the littering law, he eventually got away without the fine, much to the relief of the others accompanying him.  The actual race registration site was a bit chaotic and confusing, but we all got our race kits consisting of basically a bib and some pins – absent were things like an electronic timing chip, and a gift bag with granola, lip balm, deodorant, Vaseline, bagel and other giveaways.  I had to remind myself I was not in Toronto or Reykjavik.  When I got to the desk to pick up my kit the South African Indian guy asked for my name, to which I responded “Ishwar.” He immediately looked and pointed to the heavens, leaving a couple of my friends looking perplexed.  OK – I will fess up – my name means “God” and I’ve even been told sometimes that is means “God of all Gods”.  I have never been able to live this name down.  Once when I was in University in the Bahamas we went to a magic show at the Cable Beach Casino.  I got asked to come on stage to help the magician with one of his apple juggling tricks.  He asked me my name, and then surprisingly what it meant, to which I blurted out “god.”  He then turned to the huge audience, with a smirk and said, “Everyone, meet God!”

The Strategy - You Can't Get Thrown in if You are Already In the Pool
That night at dinner, a betting pool was started by a fellow volunteer, as to whether I would finish before my country director or whether he would beat me to the finish.  The overwhelming majority bet on him - I guess my month of training in Dubai and anthroponomical (related to my name) considerations were not compelling enough reasons to put their money on me.  The plan for race day was to have a solid good night’s sleep, be up at 5am, get ready, have some breakfast and then at 5:45 a.m. take the bus we had chartered to the stadium for a race start of 6:30 a.m.   As fate would have it, and is usually the case when I am doing a marathon, things did not go to plan.  One year heavy volcanic ashing in Montserrat closed the airport and I nearly did not make it to Toronto.  Another year when I was in British Virgin Islands, the door of the aircraft would not close, and I eventually got to Toronto the day before the race.  This time it was a combination of mishaps.  First of all I got eaten alive by mosquitoes all night.  Then the abdominal discomfort and “fallout” from the lunch buffet a couple days ago, reared its ugly head several times during the night.  Then at about 3am the loudest thunder I have ever heard, apart from the erupting Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat, started cracking and rain came pouring down.  My roommate had not locked front door properly, so I eerily awoke to a wide open door, a yellow burst of light and thunder.  My immediate thought was that the real god was coming to get me for impersonating him or her for the past 40 years.   After a few more hours of restless sleep I got ready and headed out to breakfast.  This is where the good news continued.

A Muddy Affair - The Bus Got Stuck the Morning of the Race
Our bus was stuck in a ditch on the muddy road leading to the hotel and could not get out.  We trekked in the drizzly darkness up the muddy road to where the bus was stalled, and valiantly tried to push it out of the ditch to no avail, which resulted in most us being smothered with red mud and my sneakers felt like lead. We decided to give up on the bus and made it to the main road, where miraculously a small dala dala (local bus) appeared with enough cramped space for the 12 of us who needed to get to the stadium for 6:30 a.m.  Despite the bus driver getting a bit lost trying to find the stadium, we made it on time, feeling like we had already ran a full marathon.  The good thing with this part of the world is that nothing really starts on time and the race would now start at 7:00 am., which was ample time to take care of my stomach issue which was flaring up again.  I did find a loo, but it turned out to be of the squatting variety, and notably absent were toilet paper and water.  My predicament reminded me of my friend Rod Stewart’s (all my friends have cool names) story about being in Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica in a thick crowd, and getting a case of the runs.  It took him half an hour to get to the facilities only to realize that he had only 30 Jamaican dollars in his pocket and they were selling toilet paper at 10 Jamaican dollars per square, with the two-ply being split into one.  Rod isabout 6’3” and over 250lbs – 3 squares of toilet paper was not going to cut it.  Urgently needing to “go”, he pleaded with the vendor for some more tissue for his J$30 to no avail.  She did provide him with an option which was to use his hand, and then she would sell him J$30 worth of disinfectant to wash his hands.  Rod never told us what he eventually decided. Well I didn’t even have that option to consider so I chose to bear with the discomfort and hoped that when I started running the problem would go away.

My Country Director and I Battle it Out with a Bet on the Line
At 7 am about 250 marathon runners set out on the course.  It was drizzly and overcast, which turned out to be a major blessing since we never had to face a blazing hot sun.  Although the clouds did block out Mt. Kilimanjaro for most of the day.  The first 16 km of the 42.2km course was relatively flat and comfortable and then we hit the hellish portion.  Basically we had to run a 13km section, all uphill, mainly through coffee plantations to an elevation of 1300 metres.  In Montserrat where I trained for years, there were steeper hills to climb, but they were not that lengthy and usually you would encounter a nice flat section which would help.  No such luck here, it just kept going up and up and up, and to add to the misery my stomach started acting up again.

The Hills Didn't Seem to Have Bothered Him Too Much
The organizers did not help my situation with their offerings at the refreshments stations.  In any normal race, water, Gatorade, gel packs, bananas and even Vaseline are the norm, plus multiple porter-potties. Not this race.  It was a choice of water or tepid Coca Cola, and worse yet, chappatis (greasy Indian flatbread) at one station at the top of the uphill climb.   I racked my brain to try to recollect whether old folks from the Caribbean said that hot Coke was good for stomach ailments and hot Guinness was an effective morning-after fixer for women, or was it vice versa.  Dropping that thought, I started giving cut-eye to the coffee trees and their lush green leaves with serious excretionary intentions. Dammit, I should have paid more attention to that documentary on which leaves are safe to use as toilet paper in Africa.  Alas, I decided this would be unbecoming of someone whose name signified the omnipotent.  Well actually, the truth is I really didn’t want to lose valuable minutes to my running nemesis (my Director) crapping in a coffee plantation, after all I had a bet to win.  So I plodded on, surprisingly running without stopping about 12.5 km of the uphill climb. I only walked a short portion to get some rest, and then resumed the arduous climb, trying not to be disheartened too much by the other runners coming down the hill, heading for the finish line.

I Actually Sprinted to the Finish Line With This Guy - I Lost
You would think reaching the top would mean the worst was over and the next bit would be a leisurely 10km downhill descent to finish the race. It wasn’t to be.  My quad muscles were tighter than Joan River’s face and I had to resort to running backwards down the mountain to the amusement of many.  At one point I leaned up on a tree next to a refreshment station and almost gave up.  But then I saw my competition coming around a bend at a hurried pace and I summoned all the will in those achy muscles, reminded myself what my name signified, put my sneakers back on and took off like Forrest Gump.  What did help immensely was that an Aussie guy started running next to me at the same pace, and also some magic spray on my quads from the lady at the First Aid station.  I actually picked up the pace and left the Aussie with 2km to go, and entered the Moshi stadium to the cheers of my fellow VSOs in 4 hours and 39 minutes. By the way the Kenyans dominated, with the winner coming in 2 hours and 13 minutes and they took 18 of the top 20 places.

We Did It - Dan, Eddie, Me & Jean and Cold Kilis
After picking up my medal and t-shirt, I had a quick stretch and then came the treat which makes it all worthwhile – a cold Kili beer.  I then cheered on my competition who came in 6 minutes later and also Dan and Eddie who came in shoulder to shoulder in exactly 5 hours, but somehow in the official results Dan was ahead by 2 minutes. You can’t beat African timing.  I spent most of the afternoon trying to avoid getting thrown in the pool and collected about 25,000 Shillings as the winner of the bet with full bragging rights. I am not particularly religious, but maybe someone should have told my colleagues that when you bet on God, you can never lose. Next morning it was saying goodbyes to most of the group, as a couple of us were staying on for a few days.    Anyway it was a super experience and in the process I raised US$5,300 for education programmes in Tanzania, thanks the generous sponsorships from many friends and family.  Next up is the Peace Marathon in Kigali, Rwanda in May - now that’s a place that could have done with having me (God) around in 1994.  I say this in jest by the way.


  1. I've had the pleasure of meeting Ishwar. It was an interesting evening, that has some stories that will be left untold(Haha...Cab ride)!..Great blog Ish! Look 4ward to crossing paths again. Congrats to ur physical and mental accomplishment..and of course the Money raised for a worthy cause.PEACE.

  2. Hey Brad...thanks......I had forgotten about that cab ride....god I am never god after bachelor did get me out of that without having gotten arrested or fined...thanks! catch up somewhere in canada when i am back

  3. sorry that should have been "good" not "god" in that comment....guess I used the latter so much in the blog it just came out

  4. Well written, its just like you're here telling the tale.

  5. Yes I'm only now reading this...sorry! But nice write up; I enjoyed it. You forgot to add that not only does your name mean god, but that God is a Trini so either way you were destined to win.
    Keep on running Bayta.

  6. Lovely experience. Good luck

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