My Running Guardian Angels

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There is a twitch in my left ankle but am hopeful that it’s nothing serious. At Kamuti’s Butchery, the usual starting line of my morning run, I fish out my black Samsung phone and click on mapmywalk, my running app. In my mind, I hear the starting gun and start running at a mid-pace. I feel good. I almost wave at three ladies who are standing at the roadside, conversing in low tones. One of them has a kikoi tied around her waist. It reminds me of the seven kikoi fabrics that I bought a few days ago from It’s Kadzo’s Line in Malindi. They are for Charlotte, our Sasafrica.Shop agent in Namibia.

These thoughts meander through my mind as I keep running at mid-pace. I am controlling my breathing and not just breathing haphazardly. Apart from the sound of my breath and the patter of my footsteps, there isn’t a single sound to be heard.

The time is 4.57AM, August 29th, Saturday. At the first junction on this Rhino stretch, I increase my pace slightly, aware that I can’t just sprint in the final two hundred meters of the first kilometer and expect to notch a good speed. After a minute, I increase the pace even more. I can see the finish line of the first kilometer. I resist a temptation to run faster and save my fastest pace in this kilometer, for the final one hundred meters. My running app informs me that I ran this kilometer in 5.19 minutes. Great! My target today is to run the first three kilometers in an average speed of below 5.20 minutes per kilometer.

My breathing is great. Even and steady. My stride is also longer. Thank God for the Yoga that I have been doing every day. It has greatly helped my hip flexor muscles that had been misbehaving a couple of weeks ago.

I feel like peeing. But there is no way I will stop to do so. That will mess up my momentum. I can now see the finish line of the second kilometer. So just like Eliud Kipchoge did when he saw the finish line at Vienna, I increase my pace drastically. There is a guy in front of me who is running fast but I catch up with him and overtake him at the second kilometer’s invisible finish line. Interestingly, I have run this second kilometer in exactly the same time as the first kilometer. 5.19 kilometers. So far so good.

This third kilometer is my favorite part of the race. Partly because it takes me right through Umoja 2, where we lived for many years. I run past the matatu terminus. Today, I can’t hear the booming voice of Owish, the former newspaper-vendor-turned-matatu-tout. I run on and increase my pace as soon as Kayole Spine Road comes into full view. I can hardly wait to reach the footpath that runs adjacent to this road. I christened it Usain Stretch because it has the feel of a stadium track - straight and bereft of any bumps or potholes. 

This is it. I tell myself once my worn out running shoes hit the Usain Stretch. This is the time to run a consistently faster pace. Time to step up the gear. And so, unlike previous occasions when I usually hit high gears in the mid-section of the stretch, I increase my pace from the get go. Keep going man! I silently cheer myself on. Faster! Faster! I smile at this particular cheer, as it reminds me of stuff. Sweet stuff. When I cross the third kilometer’s finish line, I am informed that I ran this third kilometer in 5.13 minutes. Great! Looks like that sweet memory came in handy.

I can now see Kangundo Road. After a ten-second walking rest, I begin running at a medium pace. Once I hit Kangundo Road shortly, I will increase my pace. I tell myself, and proceed to do exactly that. Due to the success I had with the silent cheering words - faster! Faster! - I repeat them to myself and smile again. Interestingly, my legs respond and move faster. My heart rate also follows suit as does my breathing.

When I realize that my breathing is becoming uneven, I slow down slightly as my arms swing gently, next to my chest. I can now see the finish line of the fourth kilometer, so I run faster. I complete this third kilometer in 5.19 minutes. What! I smile into the darkness. That’s awesome! I had expected something like 5.28 minutes but obviously, the consistently faster pace plus those sweet memories are paying dividends. I punch my fist into the increasingly cold air and fist-bump an imaginary running guardian angel.

Time for the fifth kilometer now. This one is usually rather tricky. The road linking Kangundo Road and Kangaru Road in Komarock has too many potholes. The road’s footpath is even worse, with many rocks and mounds of sand. So I usually run slower here and with much more caution. That’s exactly what I do today.

But as soon as my feet land on Kangaru Road, I discard my Nissan car for an Alfa Romeo sports car. There was now a need for speed. Enter Malewa Road 2, which slopes downward. This is one of three sections where I run my fastest speeds. This particular section is the sweetest of the three because of its gently downward incline that stretches out for about three hundred meters. Today, the leopard in me emerges fully in this section. My strides are long, fast and confident. Just like Eliud Kipchoge’s. Of course the main difference between us is that he maintains those strides for 42 kilometers! I take my cap off for you bro. You are the G.O.A.T marathon runner.

I complete the fifth kilometer in 5.18 minutes. Unbelievable! I smile happily as I shake my head. Never have I run this section in such fast time. However, I don’t have much time to congratulate myself since I am now in the sixth kilometer, the hardest. It is the longest uphill incline in the route, so most of my worst times are usually in this kilometer. But I want today to be different. I will not allow the sixth kilometer to drag down my overall time. I will not. I narrow my eyes in determination and start running up at a moderate pace. My plan is to drastically increase the pace once the land levels out. This happens after three hundred meters and I instantly recall the leopard from the depths that it had recoiled into. It pounces back and hits the cold tarmac with a get-out-of-my-way growl.

I glance into the glass walls of a restaurant that sits in the final one hundred meters of Malewa Road 2. Those glass walls usually provide me with a clear reflection of my running frame. Good, I think with a faint smile. Watching myself run always gives me a clear indication  whether I am running like a leopard or a warthog. If I notice that my shoulders are drooping and that my upper body is leaning forward too much, I know that the warthog is in the house. Thankfully, today the warthog is nowhere to be seen. I take full advantage of the downward incline and run faster.

The air is thick with intense hope that I will finally conquer this sixth kilometer. I turn left into the Kenol Petrol Station then right, then take another right that brings me back to Malewa Road 2. It is time to run back to Highbury apartment, home sweet home, following the same route.

I cannot allow this sixth kilometer to steal from my overall speed. I think and hasten my pace. The beauty of this return trip along Malewa Road 2 is that the same uphill incline that makes life difficult when you are running upward is now an extended downward incline, which now makes life easy. I throw everything into the run and hurtle down. Picture a lean rhino hurtling down a hill and you will see how I was running that cold morning. 5.31 minutes. Yes! I clench my fist and punch the air, fist bumping my running guardian angel. Yes! I have conquered this sixth kilometer. Never before have I run it this fast. My sixth-kilometer time is always upward of 5.4 minutes.

In life, conquering one challenge often paves the way for yet another challenge. You complete secondary school with unbridled joy, especially if you were in a boarding high school like me, only for college to sneer at you. You walk down the aisle and celebrate the conquering of singlehood, only for marital life to chuckle at you with a low growl, ‘if only you knew what you have gotten yourself into?!’

I only had about five seconds to celebrate the conquest of the sixth kilometer. Staring at me, was a gentle uphill climb of about 300 meters, the toughest part of this seventh kilometer. The gentle upward incline of these 300 meters makes the section, in some ways, to be trickier than the steeper incline whose descent I had just concluded. When you can see a clearly steep ascent, you prepare psychologically and tackle it accordingly. In similar fashion, if the source of a conflict with your loved one is clearly evident, you will address it in a very definite and hopefully decisive fashion. But when little things have piled up over time to create a conflict, you don’t even know exactly what you are addressing.

Those initial 300 meters of the seventh kilometer are like little things that had piled up. For the first fifty meters, I run it like it as if its flat land. This slows me down substantially, so I inject more energy into my strides just to restore my pace. About twenty meters before Kangaru Road, I try to run even faster but decide against it, afraid that I will run out of energy and mess up an otherwise good run. At Kangaru road, I turn right, slow to a brief five-second walk then resume the run. This is usually a bittersweet stage of the run. On one hand, it’s thrilling that the distance I have covered by this point is now marginally more than the distance remaining. On the other hand, am usually acutely aware that despite my decreasing energy, I must maintain or even improve on the pace so that I can finish in decent time. Interestingly, this realization can be rather unnerving as it places onto your shoulders a huge load of responsibility. I push on and turn right into the potholed-road connecting Kangaru Road and Kangundo road. I decide not to rest at all and run on, eager to finish this seventh kilometer in a time below 5.4 minutes. I must hit that target. I must. Twenty seconds later, my weary shoes land on Kangundo road and I turn left.

This is it. I think with a faint smile. This final 300 meters will determine if I finish this seventh kilometer in a decent time. Because I am now running on a flat footpath that goes in a straight line for the entire Kangundo Road stretch, I hasten my pace drastically and sustain it with gritted teeth. I engage a higher gear and increase my stride length. A minute later, I finished the seventh kilometer in one of my best times for that kilometer - 5.31 minutes.

This time, I don’t shout, ‘yes!’ or punch the air. I am panting like a bulldog, so I just smile into the darkness. There are moments in life when you work so hard for something that when you finally get it, you don’t even have the energy to celebrate. But make sure you revel in the moment and later on, be sure to acknowledge and celebrate that triumph.

Now there is trouble ahead. The eighth kilometer. This is one of my three slowest kilometers. It has a stretch of about fifty meters with footpath bumps that usually slow me down, and a matatu stage that also forces me to slow down because there are usually two or three matatus right in front of me, waiting for passengers. With that in mind, I make a determination to run the fast half of this eighth kilometer before that matatu stage, in a consistently fast pace. But after about half a minute, I feel a slight twitch in my front, right thigh. Quadriceps muscles live in that section. I don’t want to antagonize, them, so I slow down a bit. The quadriceps return the favor and the twitch disappears. I complete the kilometer in 5.32 minutes. Great! I fist-bump my guardian angel and walk for ten seconds to catch my breath.

I sniff the cold air, smelling victory. I have run eight kilometers in superb, historic speed. Am determined to ensure that the remaining three and a half kilometers will not let me down. Because the upcoming tenth kilometer is usually my slowest kilometer, I purpose to run this current ninth kilometer as fast as possible.

It is time to switch on the Eliud gear. And so engage my mind and imagine Eliud running the final kilometer of the historic INEOS 1:59 marathon. I imagine him beckoning to his pacemakers to make way for him. He bursts forth. The finish line is in sight. The arms of history are outstretched, ready to embrace him.

As I imagine Eliud Kipchoge racing down the final four hundred meters of his historic marathon, I realize to my surprise that I am also racing past Naivas supermarket on Kayole Spine Road. Ordinarily, I would have slowed down here for another ten-second rest. But not this time. Momentum is on my side. So I race on in long strides. I see from the corner of my left eyes that I have just overtaken a cyclist across the road. I smile, wishing that one of my friends would see me at this moment overtaking a cyclist!

I am now in the final 100 meters of the ninth kilometer, so I switch on the Usain gear and pull out of my legs their best possible sprint. 5.22min/km. Yes! Another fist bump to my guardian angel. I can’t recall having run this ninth kilometer this fast. Now for the tenth kilometer.

I do not like this tenth kilometer at all. Just as I don’t like the Downward-Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) in Yoga. The thing with this tenth kilometer is that: Firstly, I am at this stage tired as I have already been running for nine kilometers; then secondly, it is the stage of the run with the most human traffic. Most of the tenth kilometer is run on a footpath that is sandwiched between the busy Manyanja road and the populous Umoja 2 estate. So even though the time is 5.25AM, there are already people striding down the footpath and I have to maneuver between them as I run.

Since I already summoned Eliud Kipchoge to get me through the ninth kilometer, this time I summon David Rudisha. I instruct my mind to recall his historic 800 meter run in the 2012 London Olympics. In that epic run, he had led the pack for 600 of the 800 meters. In the final 300 meters, he simply rocketed ahead of everyone and smashed the World Record. He finished the race in 1:40.91 minutes. I finished the tenth kilometer in my fastest ever time for the tenth kilometer. 5.36 minutes. Another fist bump to my guardian angel. Now for the eleventh kilometer.

This eleventh kilometer should be one of my fastest. After all, it is the final full kilometer, a sure sign that am about to complete the morning run. So I should be able to run quite fast at this stage knowing that I will soon be in my beloved Highbury apartment. Highbury is the name of Arsenal Football Club’s old stadium. When they moved out of it in 2006, I decided to name my house Highbury, in honor of all those great Arsenal moments at Highbury.

Despite the thoughts of my warm house and its cordial delicious aura, the eleventh kilometer has remained a pain in my side. I suspect that because of bad pacing, am usually completely worn out by the time I hit this eleventh kilometer. As a result, since July, my time for this kilometer has consistently ranked amongst the third worst.

This Saturday morning, am so tired as I set off on the eleventh kilometer that I can’t even summon another great athlete to spur me on. So I lean back on my on dogged determination. I urge my legs forward. You are on the verge of setting your own personal history. Don’t screw it up at this stage. I tell myself and inject a little more pace into my legs. My heart rate has drastically increased. Come on Bwak! Am now panting too much. Am aware that since my breathing is all over the place, my pace is being affected. But I can’t help it. Sometimes in life, you just have to keep pushing yourself even when every ounce of strength in you is pulling you down. That’s what am doing at this stage. 5:39min/km. Yes! But am too tired to fist bump my guardian angel.

This is it. I just have to run the remaining half a kilometer at a faster pace. I tell myself. You are almost there Bwak. You are almost breaking your personal record. Give it your best shot. That’s exactly what am doing now. Firing from all cylinders. I break into a sprint that delivers me to the Whitehouse finish line in an average speed of 5.33min/km. When I skid to a stop, I feel a joyous anticipation as I fish out my phone, confident that I am about to glance at history. 05:25 min/km. Yes!! This is my new fastest ever speed on this morning run.

One of the best things about setting goals and pursuing them diligently is that when you do achieve them, the joy that floods your soul lifts you to heights of deep satisfaction and unbridled inspiration.

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