Running in Africa and the Benefits of Travel
A few years ago, I was feeling a bit adventurous, so I decided to make the 8000+ mile trek from Chicago to Moshi, Tanzania to run the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon. At 4,900 meters, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest Mountain in Africa. The marathon course brings runners through downtown Moshi and into Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park, near the base of the mountain. The race directors offer travel packages that include the race and options to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and cross the border into Kenya to go on a safari in the Serengeti. One piece of advice I would give anyone that’s interested in doing this race is to sign up for the full ten-day package that includes all the activities. It may be your only opportunity to do some of these things and the memories will be etched in your mind forever.
Getting to Moshi is a little bit of a challenge because of the lack of direct flights to the Moshi airport. Getting there from the US typically involves a flight to Amsterdam (8-12 hours), followed by a plane change and another flight to Dar Es Salaam (7 hours), and then one more plane change and a short flight to Moshi (1 hour). After traveling for almost 24 hours straight, changing planes four times and crossing eight-time zones, I was exhausted. I wasn’t even really sure what day it was anymore at that point, but I was so excited about the trip that I wasn't ready to sleep just yet. Everything about Africa was a new experience for me. Even subtle things like the animal sounds I heard off in the distance and the position of the stars at night was nothing like the US.
The drive from the airport to the Mountain Inn Hotel where I was staying took about 45 minutes and by the time I got to my room, the exhaustion from all the traveling finally did catch up with me and I pretty much just flopped in my bed and fell asleep. The next morning, I got up, had breakfast and met some of the other runners who had flown out for the race. There were people from all over the world, and as we ate, we introduced ourselves to each other and talked a little bit about our backgrounds and what we were going to be doing for the rest of the week.
Our agenda for the week included a trek up the mountain, some stops to see local wildlife, a walking tour of downtown Moshi, and of course, the race itself. One of the best parts of the trip was being able to meet some of the local Moshi residents. For all of the stories about war and violence that we hear about other areas of Africa, Tanzania is one of the more laid back, peaceful countries in the region and its residents are among the friendliest people you'll meet. It’s home to over 120 different ethnic groups that all get along quite peacefully. Even though I don't speak Swahili (which is the most common language in Tanzania), I still managed to find a way to communicate with everyone and by the end of my second day there I even found myself with an invitation to a local wedding.
The night before the race, all of the runners gathered at the hotel for a pre-race party complete with food, drinks, and a performance by a local band. As we headed back to our rooms for the night, I couldn't stop marveling at what an amazing experience this was turning out to be.
It rained overnight and the first quarter mile of the race was on a dirt road that had turned to mud so it wasn't long before my feet felt soaked and heavy, but other than that, the rest of the course was on paved roads and everything eventually did dry out. The streets in Moshi are not as well kept up as they are in the states. Even though the majority of the course was on major roadways, it still took a bit of effort to dodge the cracks and potholes in the asphalt. What was unbelievable to me though was the number of local runners who ran the entire course barefoot - potholes, cracks, mud and all… What was even more impressive was that the slowest Tanzanian runner still finished the race almost an hour ahead of the fastest American runner.
I struck up a conversation with a local runner at the post race party. His name is Nelson Grangathon and he's one of the people I mentioned who ran the entire race barefoot. Even so, he finished in second place overall. While we were talking, we noticed that our feet were about the same size and he mentioned that he liked my shoes. So I gave them to him. I figured that he could use them a lot more than I could. We chatted a little more and he showed me an invitation that he had gotten from Elite Racing to travel to the United States to run marathons. He’s been here a few times since then and we still stay in touch to this day. Even though we speak different languages, we’ve always been able to find ways to communicate with each other and this is a perfect example of why I love to travel as much as I do. Travel brings people together from different parts of the world. It allows us to learn about each other's cultures and see how similar we all really are. It teaches us tolerance and acceptance and shows us what a beautiful place the world can be if you're open to exploring it.
I had one last lunch with my new friends before we all left for the airport to catch our flights back home. I managed to get one final shot of the sun setting and I thought it was a perfect end to an amazing trip.