Over the last several years, I’ve come to love traveling to run marathons.  The reasons for this are straightforward: Most races have courses designed to show off the best parts of their host cities, which allows runners to explore the area in a way that simply isn’t possible from the inside of a vehicle.  In addition, big races create opportunities for runners from different parts of the world to meet each other.  One of my most memorable races was the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon in Moshi, Tanzania.

We hear a lot about violence in Africa on the news, but Tanzania is not a very dangerous country to visit. People sometimes refer to it as the Switzerland of Africa since its capital, Dar Es Salaam, is often the site of treaty negotiations among other African nations.  That said though, while Tanzania is home to over 120 different ethnic groups that all get along peacefully, its government still faces a number of issues related to political corruption.  My fellow runners and I came face to face with one of these issues firsthand during the marathon (more on that later).  I really enjoyed my time there though, and I’d return in a heartbeat.  If you’re interested in running a marathon in Africa, the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon should be at the top of your list.

Moshi is one of the more popular destinations in Tanzania because of its proximity to Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Despite the city’s small size, the number of travelers who visit area is large enough to warrant a regional airport.  There are no direct flights from Chicago to Moshi though.  In fact, there aren’t very many direct flights from anywhere to Moshi.  To get there, my travel schedule looked like this:

  • Chicago to Detroit (1 hour + an hour layover)
  • Detroit to Amsterdam (8 hours + a four hour layover)
  • Amsterdam to Dar Es Salaam (7 hours + an hour layover)
  • Finally – Dar Es Salaam to Moshi (1 hour)

After traveling for almost 24 hours straight, changing planes four times and crossing eight time zones, I was exhausted by the time my last flight finally landed.  Luckily, my hotel had arranged for transportation from the airport.

The new sights and sounds around me kept me awake during the 45-minute ride to my hotel.  I was in awe of everything and I still remember the ride like it was yesterday.  When you visit a distant place for the first time, even subtle things like the songs the local birds sing during the day or the way the stars look in the sky at night are new experiences that will remain etched in your mind forever.

When I finally got to my room, my exhaustion from all the traveling finally kicked in so I decided to lay down.  Mosquito netting hung over my bed and the mattress felt like it was stuffed with sawdust.  I was too tired to care.  Within minutes, I was asleep.

The next day, some friends and I stumbled upon an outdoor wedding as we walked out the front doors of our hotel.  We asked the wedding party if we could stick around for a little while.  They were more than happy to have us join them.  The party had about 50 guests and a brass band.  Most of people we met spoke Swahili, but we figured out ways to communicate with each other.

The night before the race, my fellow runners and I gathered at a local restaurant to pick up our race packets and attend a pre-race party put on by the race director.  Our hosts treated us to African food, drinks, and an excellent performance by a local band that sang about peace, love and what it’s like to grow up near Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to a better pre-race party.

When I tell people that I ran a marathon in Africa at the end of June, one of the most common questions they ask is how hot it was.  Actually, it was quite mild.  Tanzania is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means that the middle of June is actually the middle of winter.  Moshi is close to the equator, so winters there aren’t as cold there they are in the states, but the average temperatures during my entire trip ranged from about 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit (19-24 degrees Celsius).

On race morning, the other runners in my group and I boarded a bus that was waiting to take us to the start line, which was about a 20 minute ride from our hotel.  It had been raining for a few hours.  Normally, I like to run in the rain.  In this case, though, the first quarter mile of the course was on a dirt road that had become thoroughly soaked.  Within minutes, my feet were water logged and my shoes felt heavy from all of the mud that was sticking to them.  Once I got onto the pavement, I was able to knock most of it off and carry on, but that wasn’t the best way to start a marathon.

Moshi is at sea level and the course was flat, so hills and elevation weren’t a concern.  The biggest hazard on the course was all of the potholes and cracks in the roads.  Many of the roads in Tanzania are from the 1950s when the country was a British colony.  Tanzania became an independent nation in 1961 and at times its government has struggled to come up with the funds needed maintain its infrastructure.

It’s not easy to block off 26.2 miles of roads in Moshi because there aren’t very many alternate routes available for traffic.  So the course was a 10K loop that runners had to repeat four times.  Normally I would hate a course like this, but I didn’t mind this one.  Despite not having much to work with, the race directors made sure that the roads they chose would bring runners past some interesting scenery, and offer great views of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru.  The course also crosses some historic bridges built in the 1800s when Tanzania was a German colony (before Great Britain took control of the area in 1919).

Another interesting note about the course was that it had no water tables.  Instead, the race director and some of her assistants drove up and down the course in a van handing out water and orange slices to any runners who wanted them.  It was like having a personalized water delivery service available instead of having to wait until the next water table to get a drink.  It was also helpful since water in Tanzania has microbes in it that will make people who drink it sick if they didn’t grow up in the area.  The water that the race officials handed out during the race was bottled and purified.

After the first few miles, I had one of my most bizarre race experiences ever.  Before I get into it though, I have to provide some background information:

  • The Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon is the original marathon in Moshi, Tanzania.  Marie Frances is the race director who had the vision to create it.
  • After a few years, the race began to garner international recognition.  Runner’s World Magazine named it one of the top Wonders of the World Marathons and Forbes Magazine listed it as one of the top five international destination races.   This led to an increase in registrations, which brought more runners (and more money) to Moshi
  • Eventually, a group of business owners in Moshi started to take notice of the money that was flowing in.  They decided to create their own race.  Now, most major US and European cities have races of varying distances almost every weekend.  In many cases, the directors of these races work together to make sure that their events offer enjoyable experiences to all participants.  So this shouldn’t have been a big deal.  Things didn’t work out that way in Moshi though.
  • The rival race directors called their race the Kilimanjaro Marathon.  Their race was during a different time of year and had a different course, but they purposely picked a similar name to trick potential runners into signing up for their race instead of the original.  They also used the influence they had over local government officials to try to sabotage the other race.
  • Remember the political corruption I mentioned earlier?  The year I ran the race, there was a police officer in charge of directing traffic.  He sent a large group of runners (me included) in the wrong direction when we got to his intersection.  We didn’t realize that we were going the wrong way until about 3 miles later.  By this point, we had split up into two groups.  The group that was further back realized what was going on first, so it was up to us to pick up our pace so we could catch up with the others to let them know what happened.  After we caught up with them, we all had to turn around and run back to the actual course.  Our race director found out later that her rivals had paid the police officer to give us bad directions.

I wasn’t very happy when that all went down.  When I look back now though, that story makes me smile.  The extra mileage I put in technically made that race my first ultramarathon, and something that I’ve come to learn over the years is that the most challenging experiences become the best stories later.  I wouldn’t have changed it.

Lastly, the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon attracts a nice mix of runners from all over the world.  Many of the local runners from Tanzania and Kenya ran the entire race barefoot – potholes, cracks, mud and all.

The most remarkable thing about this was that the slowest Tanzanian runner finished an hour ahead of the fastest American runner.  Even with bare feet.

After the race, there was a big post race party where the mayor of Moshi handed out trophies to the top finishers.  Because of the huge differences in finishing times, there are actually two sets of awards: one for local runners and another for people who traveled internationally for the race.  I thought that was funny, but my favorite post race memory was the time I was able to spend with a new friend.

My friend Nelson is a local runner from Tanzania who ran the race barefoot and still finished second overall.  After he got his award, I asked him if we could take a picture together.  We talked for a little while and, I happened to notice that our feet were about the same size.  I gave him my shoes and that sparked a friendship between us that continues to this day.

Not long after I left Tanzania, a company in the US presented Nelson with a sponsorship opportunity.  He’s been to the US a few times and placed high in marathons in Washington, D.C. and Seattle.  He and I haven’t had a chance to see each other in person since I left Tanzania but we stay in touch via email even though we speak different languages.  I can’t think of a better example that illustrates why I love running and traveling.

All runners share a common bond that reaches across physical and cultural barriers.  It doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re in – all it takes is a pair of shoes and a good run with someone to make a new friend for life.