Eric C.’s Race Report from Kampala, Uganda

MTN Kampala Marathon Start

MTN Kampala Marathon Start

I showed up at the 2010 Kampala MTN Marathon’s 10K starting line with the simple goal of establishing a 10K personal record on my 4th go-around in preparation for next season’s Olympic distance tri attempts. I didn’t think it would be too hard to achieve given my improved fitness, but was wary of the many challenges of the race:

  1. the 5,000 feet of elevation, which I’m no longer accustomed to after my relocation home (in the US) to sea level 6 months ago,
  2. the thick, smoggy air,
  3. the general disorganization of the race, and the fact that you’re elbow-to-elbow with 10,000 Ugandans from the starting gun, and
  4. the fact that in catching up with all my old friends, I’d traded in my pre-race Puritanism for a few festive days of golf and birthday celebrations.

But overall, I felt good going in and confident from three short but intense run workouts during the week.

I arrived at the start line on Sunday with a (relatively) solid 5 hours of sleep and a pre-race granola bar, feeling good in my warmup run to the Kololo airstrip in the dark -– where the President of 24 years lands his helicopter, and where quite a few public events take place. I quickly passed the multiple levels of security, and lined up in the holding pen around 6:25 AM, feeling nice and warm with 3 friends of mine close by. There we stood, squeezed in from all sides like sardines as the other 9,997 people filled in, mostly behind us and on the sides, along with quite a few latecomers to the half marathon squeezing through. We saw the 21K and 42K competitions launch.

Though the starting line was only 50 meters or so ahead of us, I correctly estimated we’d spend a minute or so after the gun to get there in the crowd. It was 7:30 AM, and almost an hour of standing completely still before the gun went off, when bedlam broke loose. With a narrow starting gate and 10,000 people trying to pass through it, the first few minutes of Kampala becomes an adrenaline-pumper not unlike the swim starts in a triathlon. The legs move, the arms are out pushing people away to avoid any entanglements, and the eyes move around keeping my arm-mounted ipod secure while looking for room up ahead, be it on the grassy sidewalk or a pothole-free route opening ahead.

eric-kampala-raceIronically, the upshot of this was that the beginning of the race flew by, with the first 2 miles rushing past in 15:10. This put me way ahead of my planned 8:30 pace and shot the heart rate up to threshold, 177-180bpm, long before I’d planned to ramp up the effort. As we passed the airstrip again on the way back down the hill to Lugogo bypass, I looked right and thought of the 1,000s who still hadn’t crossed the starting line despite me being more than 8 minutes into the race. Turning up Lugogo, one of two long, slow climbs in the race, I realized I was on too fast a pace to maintain at a 7:30 minute per mile pace, so I slowed things down a bit, backing off to an 8:30 mile pace, and trying to conserve a bit of energy for a strong finish. I dumped a few waters on the head, and put a foam sponge in the front of my running shirt, really just as insurance since the temperature was still in the low 70s and wouldn’t be an issue until, barring any unforeseen contingencies, I was long off the road. I climbed Lugogo and turned left on Kira Road, taking in the surging crowds and the beautiful views of my former home, a real African town with its lush greenery and sloping, disorganized rooftops across its many hills. The going was slow, maybe an 8:45 m/m pace with my heart rate settling down to 175 bpm for the next two miles.

As I reached the top of Kira and turned left down Yusuf Lule, I caught sight of the 7 km marker –- the only marker I noticed all along the route. I told myself to pick up the pace and kick it in. I ran hard down the sloping hill by the golf course, where I’d played a mediocre round the day before, and felt my reliable 5K gear kicking in. Another turn by the course, and we were downhill on Acacia with a mere 2K to go: it was go time!

Unfortunately, that’s where the road pitched up steeply, stopping quite a few runners in their tracks, and despite my T-pace effort, I was slowed considerably all along the stretch climbing back up to the airstrip. Thoughts of a sub-50 drifted away as I focused on keeping the PR alive, not a tough task given last year’s 1:07 effort! I pushed and pushed up a hill that I knew to be less than 2K but never seemed to end, finally wrapping around beneath the airstrip for the final short spurt left. Turning back into the airstrip, I caught a small surge and kicked with all I had left to the line. There was confusion about whether a second line in the distance was the actual finish line, so many, including me kept the sprint up for another 200 meters before realizing that was the starting line. I had already finished 200 meters ago!

Walking onto the grass and searching for the hospitality tent and a bit of space to stretch, I knew I ran sub-55 — and that the course was more like 10.5 than 10.2 — but would wait until that evening to get my official time of 51:49 online.

All things considered, a time I’m quite happy with, and a fitting end to a great first season of competing and working with Coach Lee and It leaves me ready for a bit of rest, but also excited to start things up in prep for New York Tri next year. And I took full license to relax and enjoy myself with a few beers and breakfast in the hospitality tent, a brief swim and an afternoon fish feast by Lake Victoria. Perhaps next year, we need to make Kampala 2011 a goal as well!

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