In 2014, as my passion for travel peaked, and I embraced every journey I could find, Austin Fit Magazine extended a unique proposition. They wanted me to share my experiences running in foreign countries with their readers. While there was no monetary incentive, the idea of sharing stories around my twin passions – running and travel – was irresistible. Those few penned articles had almost slipped my mind until preparing for last week’s blog post about planning runs while abroad. Reflecting on its theme, I felt it appropriate to recycle it for this week’s blog.

Without further ado, here are reflections on my experience running with a small group of guys in Karatina, Kenya, in 2014!

Mornings in Karatina

The air isn’t reaching my lungs fast enough.  I can’t breathe, and I can’t catch my breath, and as far as I can see in front of me, the hills keep rising.  On either side of me, my new friends and running partners speak quietly and calmly to each other in a language I don’t understand.  They look at me occasionally and do a hand gesture, pushing their palms down towards the ground, indicating I should slow down.  My heart is exploding, and they look bored, yet they want me to slow down even more, further adding to my growing humiliation.

Finally, we reach the top.  The hills level out a little bit, and now we can see a ways, and spread out in front of us are miles and miles of lush green coffee and tea plantations.  The terrain flattens out, and I have a chance to catch my breath, and our pace levels out a little, and now we will spend the rest of the time meandering through tiny villages along dirt roads.  We will take shortcuts through backyards and cut through fields.  My friends Robert, Peter, and James will greet their friends as we run by them, always with a smile or a laugh.  We pass children in different colored sweaters representing the various schools we pass along the way.  They are amazed to see a “mzungu” (white man), and they point and stare, and my new friends teach me to greet them in Swahili.  I wave and greet them, and they stop in their tracks and watch us as we go by.

Most mornings, our runs would end with a pick-up.  About a half-mile from home, we would begin to increase the pace.  They would run casually next to me as I strained and strided with everything I had.  Often, Robert would look at me casually, running with me step for step, and make a little sign with his hands for me to run a little harder.  I am giving everything I have and doing my absolute best not to face plant on the rutted dirt roads, and he is toying with me.  In the end, we would finish together, and we would fist bump, and I would double over trying to catch my breath in the thin Kenyan air, and they would wait.  After a few minutes, we would stretch together, and they would walk me back to the gates of the home I was staying in, making sure to deliver me back just as safely as they had found me earlier in the morning.

Most mornings, I would go inside for breakfast served by our host, Mama Margaret, to get my day started with my friends from Goodwill Globetrotting.  Sometimes, though, we would make the short walk into Karatina and have hot tea or instant coffee with milk and sugar and a mandazi, a sort of breakfast bun.

Each morning, I would wake up, dreading those first climbs up away from Karatina, forcing myself out of bed well before anybody else in the house had begun to stir.  I would dress downstairs and go outside, ensuring the dogs that protected the house had been put in their kennels so they didn’t have me for breakfast.  (One morning, I didn’t make quite sure enough and had to rapidly scale a wall to avoid them.)  And every morning, as I made my way out of the gate, James, Robert & Peter would be making their way down the sloped driveway to greet me.  Much as they walked me home, it was important to them to meet me at the gate so that they knew I was safe.  They felt responsible for me.  This is just another tiny aspect of them & their culture that I came to appreciate.

And so it was that I spent my mornings 4-5 days per week for the 2.5 weeks we spent in Karatina.  We were there to work with an organization called Cheerful Special Home, which serves as a place to live for developmentally disabled adolescents as they attend school.  We were adding space for sleeping as well as extra toilets and showers.  Mama Margaret, the organization’s angelic leader, opened her home to us, even asking her sister to stay with her for the entirety of our stay to help with cooking and cleaning.  Our time there was spent working, walking around the village at night shopping for dinner and any extra daily needs, meeting friends of Mama Margaret, and taking small adventures like the 2-hour drive we took to stand and take pictures on the spot where the Equator passed nearby.

Those morning runs, though, were the highlight of our time there for me.  I looked forward to the warm greetings of my new friends, and I equally dreaded those first 20 minutes of climb that were inevitable no matter the route.  I treasured every step.  Running in far-off places seems to me a chance to see those places as they exist when nobody is paying attention.  A chance to see tiny villages come awake each morning, the chimneys filling with smoke and field workers heading off with their shovels over their shoulders and moms carrying babies with them into town to buy the day’s groceries.  The mini-vans that double as school busses would pass us each morning, the clamor that is universal to school children pausing just long enough to point and shout at the mzungu running next to the bus.

We went to Karatina to donate time and goods to Cheerful Special Home.  We did that, and everyone who traveled with Goodwill Globetrotting felt terrific about what we had accomplished when it was all said and done.  Between you and I, though, I came away from Karatina, having gained the most.  I will never forget the guys who welcomed me into their lives and shared with me and I will never forget the people and places we got to see when nobody knew we were looking.