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Wandering the World

Stories and tips from around the world.

Malawi Day 7

The Inaugural Malawi International Marathon

Running a marathon in Malawi is not something I’d have imagined even two years ago; but here I was about to run 26.2 miles. It being a hot country, expecting the ground to be soft underfoot, and thinking the Malarone tablets could have an impact on pace; I wasn’t expecting this to be a fast one. I was there purely for the experience and to ‘tick’ another country off my list.

With a race start at 06:00, I had no choice but to be up for breakfast at 04:00 to have time for digesting. There was a positive though - a better chance of finishing before the sun was at its peak. This is of course why marathoners were starting so early as ideally nobody would then get sunstroke - a likely fatal situation.

The race start and finish was the resource centre we’d visited during the week. It makes sense - it’s the centre of the community we’re running around, and not too far from the athletes village.

The start was as you might expect - the locals covered the first two lines except for Keith MacIntosh who had won the Nepal International marathon the year I’d been there. For both of us this was our second impact race. Though after the start Eddie soon joined them - himself having been talking to the Malawi government about representing the country in the Olympics. He’d been born in Lilongwe, but has lived in London most of his life. In fact, he’s part of the same running club as my friend Gen Huss. Keith and Eddie would then lead the race until the finish, eventually coming second and third - amazing runners.

Photo credit: Edyta Wierzbowska

I held back behind the Malawians to try and see how they’d fare with the distance. Quite a few runners had entered this as their first race and hadn’t done this distance before. I stuck with some of the last Malawians, as they were doing the sort of pace I’d normally be doing - maybe just a touch slower.

Somewhere ahead we were being led around the figure eight course, with the first loop being one that the 10k runners wouldn’t do. The ground varied a lot, but the hardest part of this was the dried up river bed. It seemed to last ages, but it became a good opportunity to start to push ahead. I considered walking this section to conserve energy, but found that walking caused a lot more sand in my shoes than running did - so pushed on. One of the Malawians said he liked running with me as I “run quick” but he wouldn’t let me walk when I wanted a break. I’m not quick, but I appreciated the comment. Not only were the spectators we were running passed friendly, but so were their runners.

Towards the end of the riverbed it twists a little and drops before going up onto a sandy path that led to the first road section. This felt welcome and I stayed at a steady pace, losing the half of the group at this time. I wanted to walk as I could feel the heat bouncing off the road with every foot strike, but I knew this was still manageable. I also needed to cover as much ground as I could before it got hotter so I kept on running until the sandy road back to Nkope.

I wasn’t keen on the continued exposure to the sun. I couldn’t see an end to the road or shade, so found myself sipping on extra water. I should probably have thought about fuel, but didn’t like the idea of jelly babies - once every several miles I still forced myself to eat two.

Eventually I got to start the next loop of the figure eight, starting with the trail out passed the baobab trees. I couldn’t believe I was still going strong, the heat hadn’t really affected me yet, and I was still passing Malawians that were dropping back. I guess some were doing this for the first time and didn’t really know what it would be like.

When I rejoined the road I encountered a Malawian who was starting to struggle and had run out of water. I ran with him for a while but he didn’t want to stop so I pointed in the distance to where I knew the next water station would be with the medic, and then ran off ahead to warn them he’d need assistance.

The last part of the loop took me closer to the beach and Sungo with every step. I was back running with Malawians so dropped in behind them at a slightly slower pace than I’d have liked just so I could copy what they did. They hurdled over ropes from the beach to fishing boats, and in some cases stood on the boats in order to maintain pace. They stayed as close to the water as they could without actually going in.

Real-life isn’t baywatch - running on sand is not easy; but was in some ways fun. The beach was hard work which made it a relief to leave it behind, but the sand through the village seemed just as bad. When I passed the finished primary school we’d built it was nice to see it and think, “we did that”. It also happened to be around the time the ground got harder on the trail through crops where we’d been hoeing before. I could now hear music at the resource centre and was pleased the first lap was almost over even though I’d not walked too much.

At the halfway point I refilled my hydration pouch, and was handed an isotonic drink of squash with salt and sugar water. It tasted horrible, but I figured I’d drink most of it as I knew I’d lost a lot of salts in that first lap. There had been times I’d wished I was doing just the one, and had even convinced myself I would stop and do the half, but I kept on going for the second lap.

I was now running on my own - no Malawians in sight. Two had zipped a long way ahead of me when they disappeared in Sungo, so I had no idea how far ahead they now were. If my maths had been right then I thought that they’d be in around 5th and 6th place so far. The other I’d been with had dropped behind and was out of view also. When I’d not seen a red ribbon marking the path for some time I turned around and started heading back. Fortunately I came across that Malawian from earlier so knew I’d already been going the right way; so turned around again and sped off. This first loop wasn't as easy to navigate.

Without realising it to start with, I did actually get lost properly - I soon missed a hairpin bend and had kept on going. I passed a green building called Zomba’s Boys, and a large white building saying Primary Health Care Centre. I didn’t remember seeing them on the first lap - I’m sure I’d have noticed the oil drums being used for bins if we’d gone that way. Eventually I reached a dead end and realised I’d gone wrong. I stopped and looked around, in hope of seeing something familiar. Nothing.

I switched on my mobile and tried to call the race director, but had no signal. I wandered around some more and was able to call him, but only got as far as “Hi, it’s David, I’m…” before the call dropped as the signal had again disappeared. I had no idea what to do, I could picture myself being there for hours either looking for the course or abandoning the race and looking for the resource center.

I started walking down different paths trying to find the right one, but none seemed familiar. I couldn’t see any red ribbon either, and by now I’d lost at least twenty minutes. I knew whatever happened next I wouldn’t be able to recover that time - all that work I’d put into working my way forwards had been lost. Am I ever going to find my way back?!

I had noticed some villagers, and even some Malawian runners earlier had been wearing red ribbons on their arms. Although the markers had been put out as late as possible, some had still been removed - I wondered if maybe that was how I’d missed the turn.

Eventually a local jumped off the back of a bicycle and asked if I was lost. Fortunately he knew the way, and pointed me back on to the trail. What a relief! Once back on the trail I started to run again after having walked since making the phone call. My head was no longer on the race. It wasn’t long before I was walking again, yet I still wondered if I could catch up with any of the Malawians I’d been running with. No chance. I’d be better off taking it easy now, so I wouldn’t need the recovery time after. Maybe not such a smart move - it’d also mean longer exposure to the heat.

There were many more moments after this where I wondered if I’d taken the right way. Now whenever children shouted “wah wah” I was hearing “wrong way” but would still reply and wave to each and every one of them, sometimes with both hands. Some I’d give high fives to as well.

Eventually I saw a Malawian I recognised as we got nearer to the long riverbed section. He told me his legs hurt, so we walked for a while, talking, and I tried to encourage him to keep on going. Much later he did actually overtake me on the beach section until I overtook him again before the finish. He did very well - many of the locals were wearing ill fitting shoes, or sandals, and many weren’t drinking enough water. I later heard that quite a few hadn’t had breakfast before the race, and had started with empty water bottles. What they were doing was amazing.

When we reached the riverbed I started to run on ahead, not really wanting to go too slowly through the sand. Though this time there were bits of it I walked - I decided I’d have to put up with getting sand in my shoes.

At the end of the riverbed I noticed I was again alone. Completely alone. This was pretty much how it was for the first section of road back to the Nkope entrance. I started to think of how good it’d be to have a glass of Coca Cola. I’d long since given up on fuelling and was now solely using water, though I was starting to dislike the warm taste.

I really didn’t want to carry on. The heat was starting to become unbearable - I should have been a lot further into the race than I was, but I walked and walked. It felt like I’d been defeated. After the first lap I’d initially though a sub-4 marathon would be about right for this race - I could lose a reasonable amount of time in the second lap and still get that. It just wasn’t going to happen - I looked at my watch and realised it was now looking more like sub-5. From the point of getting lost it’d been a mental challenge - I just couldn’t convince myself to run, but then found the determination to as I reached the baobab trees. It didn’t last though - the heat was now getting to be too much.

By the time I reached the road again I’d adopted a run-walk strategy as I was overheating too quickly. I started thinking of a friend from back home who’d told me to stay safe, and had wished me luck in the race. I didn’t know why they sprung to mind, though perhaps it was because of talking the day before during the brief time I had internet. I remembered I’d got a snickers bar they’d bought me for my birthday waiting to be eaten - it’d be the salt and sugar I really needed.

I decided it better to continue to take it easy than trying to conquer the oppressive heat. Pushing myself too hard wouldn’t achieve anything. Can I actually finish this? Perhaps running MdS won’t be a good idea.

At the next medic station I drank some more isotonic drink, and poured a cup of water over my head before the long road to the beach. On my way there I encountered locals that pointed and laughed at me, hopefully because they didn’t understand why we were running rather than it being me personally. The problem was I let it get to me as I’d already run just over 25 miles with a few miles to go. I knew I was going to be at least a mile over.

It played on my mind for a while, but then I heard my name being chanted by a large group of children on the entrance to the beach - Bex and Nick had got them to do that for me. It was so kind of them, and I was very appreciative of it even if it didn’t look that way. It did at least get me running for a minute.

Moments after entering the beach I caught up with two of the half marathoners. They were struggling but happy for me to continue on at my own pace. This time I didn’t hurdle ropes or step up on on the dugout canoes like the previous lap - I was walking so had to step over them slowly. It didn’t help I was now getting too close to the lake as well so getting sand and water in my shoes. It wasn’t comfortable.

I hated every moment of the beach the second time around. It was so different to the first time and it felt slow, tough, and never ending. I so badly wanted some shelter from the sun. I think if quitting had been an option I might have as I’d already run 26.5 miles and had some way yet to go.

When I finally reached what had been previously the halfway point I knew I’d actually finish, no matter what doubts I’d had. I started to run and gradually built up speed. When I heard Nick over the speaker I decided that was the point to ‘kick’ - instantly speeding up to sprint speed so I could cross the finish strong.

Photo credit: Adam Dickens

Maybe my race had gone wrong, but it’d given me the energy for a fast finish. It was over. One of my slowest marathons got me 11th place, with a time of just over five hours. I wondered what that second half would have been like if I’d not gotten lost, would I have found the mental strength to keep on running for longer? Too late now, but I think there were lessons I could learn.

As with Nepal, this race wasn’t about the time - it was about the experience and adventure. It was about being there to help others through running. I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed in myself though, I shouldn’t have let getting lost make me give up. It felt like I didn’t want to talk to anyone as I didn't want them to know.

I saw plenty of people I’d not seen overtake me but had finished a long time before me - obviously because they’d passed whilst I’d been lost. It was disheartening, but a testament to their navigation abilities and strength. I was sincerely pleased for them.

I’d hoped for Coca Cola at the finish but Stu wasn’t there with his bar - it’d have to wait. We ate chilli and rice at the resource centre before heading back to the athletes village for a shower and to relax. I’d been that warm that even having drunk two litres of water during the race I still managed to drink four bottles of fizzy drink.

We sat around for much of the afternoon, talking amongst ourselves. That is until we all gathered for medals to be presented. Each one was hand carved by Alfred - a security guard for the cottage. It’s amazing just how good his wood carvings are - it’s a real shame he’s not able to make enough from it to not need to be a security guard any more. He’d also carved a plaque to commemorate the first Malawi Marathon - our names would be remain in the cottage long after we’d left it.

There was then live music performed by big artists from Lilongwe, a treat arranged by Augustine. As the room I was in was next to where they were playing it meant I could listen whilst packing for my flight.

Food was very welcome that evening. I’d not eaten much of the chilli at lunch and so was now in dire need of more. It was great they’d prepared sweet potato fries, sausages, beef steaks, and chicken. The music then continued into the night so people could celebrate their achievements.