The Accidental Racer

The day started out with a plan to watch a race and ended up like this!

We’ve all had them. Those unexpected experiences. We went out to pick up some milk and eggs, ran into a friend at the grocery store, and ended up getting home at 2AM from the concert we never planned to attend.  That Friday afternoon conversation at work that turned into a weekend road trip. That sort of thing.

Well, yesterday, I accidentally ran a race, the Nike Discovery Kenya 10k in Eldoret.  And I did better than expected!

Every year, in late January and early February, folks from the Italy-based Rosa management group, come to Kenya and put on a series of races under the Discovery Kenya name. These races are to Kenyan runners what the early auditions are to people wanting to participate in American Idol, The Voice, or America’s Got Talent.  For years, at least since the late 1990’s, the Rosas and their crew have put on these events as a way of identifying their next recruits, maintaining their profile at the top of the Kenyan running scene, and giving scores of Italians a reason to come and enjoy some time in the sun.

That brings us back to yesterday, and the 2014 Nike Discovery weekends.

Traditionally, on the last Sunday in January, the Eldoret Sports Club is transformed from a collection of soccer, rugby and cricket pitches to a looping, European style cross-country course.  Then the discovery begins, and it takes all day long.

Starting early with races for the very smallest of kids and progressing through the afternoon when the senior men and women take the stage, the day features thousands of runners hammering around the fields in front of the watchful eyes of managers, coaches and spectators.

Getting noticed at these races isn’t an instant ticket to success, but it can mean moving to one of the camps where the chores and worries of home are set aside and athletes can focus on running – and hopefully standing out enough to get a race invitation and a ticket overseas to race.

The following weekend, the first weekend in February, the Discovery Eldoret ½ Marathon for men has traditionally taken place on a criterium style course in downtown Eldoret – and this year, for the first time ever, a women’s 10k was added to the program.  This is no small undertaking – the race course runs along Uganda Rd in Eldoret, the major route for traffic heading from Africa’s east coast to Uganda, Rwanda and beyond.  Imagine shutting down I-40 or I-70 for a couple of hours to put on a race.  But this is running, and this is Kenya, so it happens.

Last weekend I wanted to go over to Eldoret for the cross-country races, but I was tired from my own training and Jay had to leave on Monday morning for a few days in Nairobi.  We decided that this weekend would be a better time to go – and we made plans to watch the road races and then meet up with Desiree Davila and Lanni Marchant for lunch at Sunjeel Palace, a great Indian restaurant in Eldoret.

It sounded fun.  Until I looked at my training schedule.

On tap for Monday was one of those great Jack Daniels workouts – 6 Miles at Marathon effort, basically a nice hard tempo run.  This would be my first long workout in months, and I was having a hard time lining up pacers and a location – it’s hard to find one mile of reasonably flat terrain here, much less 6.

Then I had a brilliant idea, I’d just run the 10k for my workout.  No, probably a bad idea.  I dismissed it and focused on what I’d order for lunch in Eldoret.  I did my long run on Saturday, 30k up and down the hills around Kapsabet, but that stupid idea kept popping in my head “run the race, run the race, it’s just a workout.”

As a sort of internal compromise, I decided that we could wake up, travel to Eldoret, and if things looked and felt perfect, I’d jump in and do my workout.  It would be a Nike event, and as a Nike athlete, I want to be out there when I can – even if just to cheer.  I packed a few things in a bag, and Jay and I agreed we’d just head to Eldoret and see what happened.

Sunday morning dawned crisp and clear and we headed up to the road to catch a matatu, the only real form of transport around here, to Eldoret.

And we waited, and waited, and waited.  Nothing.  The clock was ticking, and it was becoming clear that we wouldn’t get to Eldoret in time for the race – probably in time to watch, but no way would I have time to warm up properly – a recipe for disaster.   Or so it seemed.

Jay and I actually gave up and started the 2 mile walk to a crossroads where matatus are more frequent – then suddenly a large cargo truck came down the road and offered us a ride, which never happens.  Turned out the driver was an old friend.  He dropped us at the crossroad – even refused my offer to pay him, and we started waiting again.  Within 30 seconds car pulled up and another runner rolled down the window – would we like a ride to Eldoret?  Suddenly it was looking like I should run.

We stopped and picked a couple of athletes on the way, and we were off to Eldoret time to spare.  We got to the race headquarters, Eldoret city hall, and suddenly I had to make a decision – would I run or not?

Running would mean changing clothes – I’d worn jeans since I didn’t really think it would happen – and it might not go well. Did I really want to run? It had been months since I’d tried a long workout, and after the way my NYC Marathon ended, my confidence has been pretty shaky.  It wasn’t an easy decision.  Then I saw the bib numbers – they were so cool.  An iconic acacia tree silhouette with runners – not just a white rectangle with a number.  I know, it’s lame, but I love my collection of bib numbers, and I had to have this one.  Plus there was no entry fee and finishers were getting a cool Nike t-shirt. I was in.

Me with The Legend, Kipchoge Keino, just before I headed to the starting line. This guy still inspires awe in me.

I signed up – the clerk had the hardest time spelling “Bawcom” right.  If I’d told her my name was Cheptebkeny (my sister’s last name) or Lonyangata, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but Bawcom was unfamiliar and difficult!  Then it was time to find a place to change clothes.  Fortunately, in recent years Eldoret has renovated the public toilets in town, and for 10 shillings, (12 cents) I was able to duck in and change in relative cleanliness – probably better than some race porta-johns in the US.  Then it was time to warm up – which everyone was doing by running circles in the city hall parking area.

At some point during the warm-up, Jay was kind enough to point out that, in my hurry, I’d put my tracksuit pants on backwards.  Oops.  It was too late to bother changing them, so I finished my warm up and was ushered to a staging area with the 120 or so ladies I’d be running with  – I don’t want to say “racing” because I was here to do a workout.  I had a certain pace to run, at least for most of the distance, and then I’d see where I was.  They marched us all over to the start together – it was actually pretty cool how they did it – and lined us up across the empty road.

On the starting line.

I kept waiting for the usual commands when suddenly an air horn blasted and people took off. I started my Nike GPS watch and went out with the pace – until I looked down and saw we were running 4:40 mile pace, uphill, at 6,900 ft. This was not my prescribed workout pace.

I slowed down and my first mile split read 5:09. I was probably in 40th or 50th place at that point, but I’d slowed to around my target pace, and settled in.

The course was a 2k loop – basically running back and forth on either side of a divided road with one diversion through City Hall on each circuit.  After 2 loops I started thinking, “Wow, this is going to take forever.”  Like I said, it’s been a while since a long workout!  I held on to my pace and kept picking off runners who’d gone out too fast.  On the third loop, Jay, who’d taken up a spot in the median, told me I was in 15th place.

By the 4th loop I was up to 12th – with one runner to keep me company, and we kept passing and re-passing each other.  She was getting all the crowd’s encouragement – a couple of US-based road racers knew me and were telling spectators that I was American, so “Beat the foreigner” was a popular cheer as was “beat the big girl.” Only in distance running can I qualify as a big girl.

When we hit the final turn-around on loop 5 I allowed myself to switch out of controlled workout mode into race mode and dropped her – I wouldn’t be able to run anyone down, but I did put a good gap on #12.  I crossed the line 11th, in 34:27, and felt great.  My goal had been to run under 36:00, appropriate marathon effort at this elevation, and I’d crushed it.  Better yet, that pain in my right leg – the one that plagued me for all of 2013, was gone.  I’d woken up in the morning thinking I’d probably be among those cheering on the sidelines, and now I’d finished my workout and just missed getting a little prize money – but I’d won back something more important, my confidence.

I got my t-shirt, congratulated a few other runners, and then went off for my cool-down so I could watch the men, who were just about to start their half-marathon, 7 laps of a 3k course through downtown.  It was a lot of fun watching 600+ Kenyans, and a handful of foreign athletes, flying along the course.  Then it was off to meet Desi, Lanni, and a couple of new friends for our lunch date with Palaak Chicken and Garlic Naan.

All told, it was a great experience – instead of doing my workout alone, or with one friend, in the forest, I had thousands of spectators, got to see some friends, and added another race bib to my collections. Here’s to hoping that this points to more good things to come in my 2014!

Have a great week and thanks for reading!

And we’re off – a little too quickly!

Apparently I look like a giant next to this lady as everyone kept telling her to “beat the big girl!”

 

Cruising down Uganda Rd. in Eldoret, Kenya.

After the race I was asked to come up and say a few words to the crowd – apparently, as someone who used my running to get an education and set myself up for what comes after running, I’m supposed to be a role model or something.

 

Not sure what Jay did to warrant celebrity status, but they put him on the microphone as well. He made sure to say some nice things about me! Good job dear!

 

The it was time for the guys to run, 7 laps of a 3k course – very spectator friendly!

And they just kept on coming.

Hmmm. Something’s different here.

How many of these laps are we supposed to run?!

The highlight of the day, some quality time with my niece and nephew!

 

That bib number I just had to have.

 

Finisher’s T-Shirt.