Daniel Howden: I ran for fun. But my friend Elijah didn't

Nairobi Notebook: Helicopters and wardens on motorbikes were busy herding the lions, rhinos and elephants away from the course
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The Independent Online

In many respects, Elijah and I had the same preparation for the Lewa half-marathon. We both did training runs every day in the build-up. We travelled up to the spectacular game reserve in the shadow of Mount Kenya in the same vehicle.

I was careful to take his advice on the pre-race meal – apparently maize meal, or ugali, is perfect running fuel. Standing in a thicket of fever trees at dawn on the morning of this unusual race, we both had hot, milky Kenyan tea with the obligatory shock of sugar. The wild elephants that had stood within trumpeting distance of the tents the night before had left.

A handful of spotter planes, helicopters and wardens on motorbikes were busy herding the lions, rhinos and elephants away from the course. Then the starting gun fired and I couldn't see Elijah anymore. As I laboured my way uphill with a pack of similarly ungifted runners along a rutted track that climbs and dips through the burnt grass of the plains, he was running in a group that included former world marathon record holder Paul Tergat, pictured, and the reigning Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru.

As I toiled to the high point of the course near the 16km mark, I had little energy to consider Elijah's progress. I barely noticed the baboons or the curious zebras, so much more accustomed to running away from humans than the other way around. Even the serrated peak of the country's highest mount was scarcely visible through the tunnel of self-induced suffering that is the reward of the enthusiast who is trying too hard. And then gloriously, suddenly, the hard part was over and there remained a gentle slope downwards towards the line. The two-hour mark was beaten with five minutes to spare. I was elated.

I looked for Elijah. I couldn't find him in person but his name was present on the roll of top finishers. He had come sixth in 69 minutes, while beating a handful of the finest distance runners in the world. When I found him he was distraught. The global recession has reached Kenya's extraordinary marathon men and a sixth place finish won't help him to get an invitation to an international meeting and a chance to make a living. He was caught up among the plodders, like me, for the crucial early minutes of the race and lost time on the leaders.

Engines of change

Ingenuity and adaptation are necessary in order to survive in harsh or unpredictable climates. And the Mercedes dealers of Nairobi have enough of both to survive the recent order – written about in The Independent – for Nairobi's political classes to trade their luxury vehicles for more modest transport. The edict from the finance ministry mandating a maximum engine capacity of 1800cc should have been the end of the road for the Wa-Benzi, as they are called in Swahili. Instead the newspapers have been running ads for a new S-Class Mercedes which looks just like the old one, only now apparently its engine size is 1796cc. Fancy that.