Swamp House Half Marathon: Frigid, Fast, and Festive

Don’t make me hold this smile too long because I have already burned all available calories today.

Don’t make me hold this smile too long because I’m freezing and I  have already burned all available calories today.

This handsome finisher's medal does more than merely collect dust -- it helps you celebrate or drown your sorrows with its handy bottle opener feature.

This handsome finisher’s medal does more than merely collect dust — it helps you celebrate or drown your sorrows with its handy bottle opener feature.


The alarm rang at 2:30 a.m. (why did I even bother going to bed?), rudely disrupting my brief and blissful slumber on a freezing cold night.  And I’m not talking “freezing” by wimpy Florida standards.  I’m talking freezing as in freezing.  Temps had dipped below freezing overnight with no sign of relief for the first several hours of the day.  Great.  It’s pitch dark, freezing cold, and now I’m about to drive 90 minutes to the Swamp House Half Marathon start so I can run 13.1 miles in these conditions (and pay for that opportunity).  Have I officially lost my mind (again)?  These conditions reminded me of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro – huddling in our tent to ward off the cold (without much success) during a sleepless night only to get dragged out of our tent for an all-night assault on the summit.  I felt that familiar pre-execution dread envelope me again as I loaded the car with my race day supplies and my trusty sidekick and pacer, Alek, who looked like he was still dreaming as he slumped into the car.  My only travel companions driving to the race at that insane hour of 4:00 a.m. were the light of the moon and the bright oncoming headlights of trucks in the Northbound lane of I-95 (because Alek was fast asleep shortly after we got moving).

The race started almost on schedule at about 7:00 a.m. as hundreds of frozen Floridians toed the start line.  This course was challenging by Florida standards  (not pancake flat) and I ran it aggressively, working the downhill segments to my advantage.  I felt very comfortable in the crisp air and settled into a comfortable 7:48 pace for the first five miles.  My splits for the three miles that featured some downhill stretches were in the 7:35-7:40 range.  But hills always take their toll on my legs, even when running down hill, and I really felt that unpleasant aftershock in my quads in the last three miles of the race, which were primarily flat.  I held on with a 7:58 pace for mile 13, though, which was faster than many of my recent half marathons (including Space Coast), when I have crashed and burned in the last few miles with splits at 8:15 or higher.

The race organizers bill this race as the best post-race party, featuring lots of beer.  The small town and friendly atmosphere was refreshing and the race was well organized with nice amenities (great technical race shirt and decent post-race food).  But drink beer after a race at 8:00 in the morning??  Never.  It’s like a death wish.  First, I hate the taste of beer and I would probably puke if I had any with my chronic post-race sour stomach.  Second, I am always severely dehydrated after my races, so the last thing I need is a diuretic to exacerbate my compromised state.  Third, studies have shown that beer is probably the worst thing to drink after a race because it can delay your body’s ability to recover as soon as possible from your efforts and may strain your heart when it is already in a taxed state.  But I suppose that people doing stupid, self-destructive things is a good form of population control for this overcrowded planet.  But who am I to talk about stupid, self-destructive actions?  I was the one who woke up at 2:30 a.m. to drive 3 hours round trip on a Sunday morning, to run 13.1 miles in freezing cold weather at the end of a two-week stretch when I was in the air more than I was on the ground with speaking engagements at conferences in NYC and Kansas, and when I wasn’t flying, I was trapped in a car with 15+ hours per week of commuting.  Hardly a recipe for success or health, especially with the toxic quantities of coffee I have consumed lately to get me through all of these commitments. The only post-race “festivities” that I was looking for after today’s race (and after most races for that matter) was a hot shower and my bed for a decadent post-race nap.

I finished 74th of 796 runners today (Top 9%) in a time of 1:43:07 (7:52 pace), which was a full minute faster than my time at the Space Coast Half Marathon in November.  The half marathon is probably my most competitive distance, and today’s race was my landmark 30th career half marathon.  I have run about half of those 30 races since moving to Florida in 2006 and today’s effort was my 4th best half marathon time since 2006 (and it was within approximately 30 seconds of my 2nd and 3rd best times).  Rest assured that there were no 8-year-old girls anywhere near me in today’s race.  Alek’s pacing services were indispensable in those last 4 miles, which is when I always start to unravel in half marathons.  I just focused on staying with him and fought hard to keep my head from reminding myself about how much pain and discomfort I was experiencing (compounded by a nasty cold headwind for most of the last 4 miles).  Alek would grunt something unintelligible at me and point to a spot behind him to indicate that’s where I needed to be, even though my legs could rarely take me there.  Alek promptly ditched me at mile 12 so he could run the last mile at a 6:30 pace and get a decent workout on the day.  I held up pretty well on my own for the last mile mile and picked off three or four runners as I closed in on the finish.

I was very pleased with my performance overall and felt that I ran a smart and strong race, but Coach Alek had a different view.  He bombarded me with “constructive criticism” (read: daggers) after the race:  “You’re running form is terrible,” “You slowed down too much in the last four miles,” “You need to control your breathing,” “You didn’t even try to stay with those runners who passed you late in the race,” “You were too aggressive in the first five miles,” and “You race like you train – like a weekend warrior.”  With “tough love” like this from your family members, who needs enemies?

Here’s a You Tube video that previews the course that I ran on this frigid day in Florida through the back roads of the “real Florida,” as the race organizers like to call it:

The Swamp House Half Marathon in DeBary, FL is a quaint and enjoyable course overall and I would definitely do it again, especially since it will be a “local” race for me when I move to Orlando in August.  My next half marathon will likely be the Orlando Half Marathon in December.  It will be nice to roll out of bed and be at the start line a few minutes later for a change.  My next race this spring will likely be the St. Patty’s Day 5K in Jacksonville on March 17.  It’s time for redemption after the disappointing outing at Pirates 5K.   Stay tuned and stay warm.


Pirates on the Run 5K: A “Peg Leg” of a Performance


The Pirates on the Run 10K/5K entered its 10th year in 2013 and this winter tradition grows stronger every year.  Held in Fernandina Beach, FL, a quaint fishing village in the northeast corner of the state dotted with pick-up trucks on every street corner peddling their “fresh local shrimp” catch, the race has a cozy, small-town, coastal Florida feel.  It features a low registration fee that includes a nice technical running shirt and an impressive hot breakfast of pancakes and sausage after the race, along with friendly, smiling volunteers decked out in pirate costumes.  What’s not to love?

I have run the 10K and the 5K versions of the race in the past several years and placed third in my age group in the 10K (2008) and second in the 5K (2010).  I opted for the 5K this year because the 10K is my least favorite distance in competitive distance running—it just feels like a long and miserable 5K to me.  It always helps to be prepared to unleash some speed when you toe the line for a 5K race, but I soon learned that my fast-twitch muscles apparently didn’t wake up for today’s race.  Even in my first mile, which was exclusively on pavement with a few rolling hills, I was only able to muster a 7:02.  My first miles for 5K races have been consistently below 6:50 for the past several years, so I knew I was in trouble after this slow first mile because I didn’t exactly feel comfortable as I entered the dreaded “greenway” (a.k.a. “brownway” at this time of year) portion of the course, which would consume most of mile 2.  Even in high school as a varsity runner on the #4 cross country team in Connecticut, I hated running on grass and dirt, and my disdain for the off-road stuff has only ripened with age.  I work twice as hard to maintain my pace on soft surfaces compared to asphalt, and my quads turn to jelly on this terrain about as fast as the air leaves a punctured balloon.  I was relieved to return to the road for mile 3, but then I encountered another challenge.  My lungs were spent.  The abysmally slow 7:30 second mile I had run on the Jeep-commercial brownway terrain had taken the steam from this tank engine.  My efforts to pick up the pace in the final mile fell flat.  I haven’t trained at a pace faster than 7:40 in my training runs in the past several months and it certainly showed in this performance.  I may run the St. Patty’s Day 5K in Jacksonville on March 17 to regain my 5K mojo.  I ran a 21:53 there last year on a flat, fast, and FULLY PAVED course.  Give me asphalt or give me death! (Famous last words of a die-hard environmentalist.)

My embarrassing time of 22:47 in this race (7:20 pace) enabled me to finish 14th of 324 runners (Top 4%) and was good enough for second place in my 45-49 age group.  I am now one of the the oldest guys in my old man age group – just a tad depressing.  I look forward to my sense of renewal when I turn 50 next year and “age up” to be the “spring chicken” in the 50-54 age group.  I also understand that “50 is the new 30,” so that’s good news, too.


Planning to refurbish your bathroom?  If you like the color purple, I’ve got just the thing for you (so much for my “manly” hopes for a nice hunk of metal or wood for my efforts in this race).

To add insult to injury, an 8-year-old girl almost beat me in this race.   When her barely 4-foot and 50-pound frame passed me, I almost accidentally stepped on her like a stray dog that sneaks up behind you.  And then I said to myself, “O.K., you’re having a bad day, but the buck stops here,” and I am loathe to admit that I struggled mightily to catch and pass pint-sized Barbie within 200 yards of the finish.  I hope this embarrassing late-race duel says more about her soon-to-be-an-olympian star power than it does about my underperformance in this race.  Her name is Reef McGee.  Easy to remember—like Spuds McKenzie—and it kind of has a superhero ring to it, don’t you think?  For the sake of my evaporating pride, I hope she is a household name on the national running scene sometime very soon.  I can remember when I was 4 feet tall and weighed 50 pounds, but the only “running” I was doing at that time of my life was inside my playpen.

I ran 144 miles in December, which was the highest monthly mileage that I have run in December in my 32-year distance running career.  I also ran 1,255 miles in 2012, which is the second highest annual mileage of my running career.   And I managed to run 101 miles in January while juggling an insane work schedule and 15+ hours of Orlando commuting each week.  And yet my lackluster performance in this race is all I have to show for these efforts?  All I can do is stop whining and get prepared for my next race – the Swamp House Half Marathon in DeBary, FL on March 3, www.swamphousehalfmarathon.com.  I will have the benefit of the ever-reliable pacing services of my son, Alek, for this race, so I’m already feeling better about my chances to excel.  My training in the past several months has been geared more for distance than speed, so we’ll see if I can get back on the right track with this one.  Stay tuned!


Space Coast Half Marathon: A Total Eclipse of Last Fall’s Half Marathon Performances


The Abate family placed two runners in the top 10% of today’s race.

Our day began to the sound of a loud and rude alarm clock in the middle of the night.  The clock regrets to inform you that it’s 3:30 a.m.   It must be race day.  Time to get your game face on and proceed through your pre-race ritual of getting ready and consuming your pre-race food and beverage of choice with sufficient lead time prior to the start.  The race began at 6:15, well before sunrise, and featured gloriously crisp and cool temps in the 50s.


The sun slowly rises on the course about 4 miles into the race.

Make no mistake:  this race is space-themed in every possible way.  The race begins with the theme from Star Wars blaring from large speakers while a Jumbotron displaying the liftoff of a space shuttle marks the official start of the race (in lieu of the traditional start “gun”) after the clichéd “3-2-1 … blastoff” command.   Volunteers and competitors decked out in space-themed attire appeared in every direction, including aliens, astronauts, and characters from Star Wars. 

The finisher medals, of course, are in the shape of a space shuttle.  They are quite heavy and artistically appealing. 


Stiff neck guaranteed when sporting this “schwag”

The race organizers may have taken the cute space theme a bit too far this year, however, by introducing “Moon Pies” as the official “space-themed snack” of the race.  These “nutritional anti-Christ” snacks (marshmallow filling sandwiched between cookies and then blanketed in chocolate) are just about the worst thing you can put into your body, second only perhaps to the infamous “deep-fried twinkies” available at country fairs throughout this great country of ours (check out this link for a description and photo of these “widow-maker” delights:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twinkie#Deep-fried_Twinkie).  High among the inalienable rights of Americans apparently is the right to shamelessly abuse our bodies with what we affectionately call “treats.”  I’d say that these fat-and-calorie bombs are more like tricks than treats for our bodies, but that’s just my humble (and hypocritical) opinion as I regularly succumb to cravings for donuts, chocolate covered pretzels, and kettle corn, so who am I to preach?

Today was my 28th half marathon race (and it makes my legs sore just stating that statistic).  Crazier still, I have run approximately half of those 28 races within the past six years.  Perhaps I should take up a more age-appropriate hobby soon, like finding a comfortable chair.  I recently had an amusing exchange with a fellow (aging) running buddy of mine on this very topic.  It went something like this:

Running Buddy:  I’ll be honest and say that I’ve stopped running for time/speed anymore.  It seems that when I push myself, I just get hurt and then I enjoy running even less.  It sounds like a cop-out in my own ears, but with everything I’ve got going on (not unlike you), I must have an outlet, both mental and physical, and it’s running.

Me:  Unfortunately, after racing for 32 years, it’s impossible for me to be that sensible.  I’ll stop racing when I’m incapacitated or dead.

Running Buddy:  Good luck with that!

My singularly focused (and perhaps misguided) competitive determination led me to run a 1:44:05 in today’s race (7:57 pace).  I placed 172nd of 2002 finishers (Top 9%).  Today’s race was faster than my pace (7:59) for the 10-mile race I ran last month in Jacksonville and more than 3 minutes faster than both of my half marathons from last fall:

  • Jacksonville Marine Corps Half Marathon (Oct. 2011) – 1:47:31
  • Philadelphia Half Marathon (Nov. 2011) – 1:47:16

I wore a new pair of running shoes for this race, the Saucony Kinvara.  Despite Alek’s incessant lobbying to go “minimalist” with my running shoes, I have resisted that bandwagon for a long time.  I come from the “well-cushioned’ generation of distance runners and that is a hard habit to break.  But Saucony running sneakers have always held a special place in my heart, dating all the way back to my senior year cross country season in high school in which I wore Saucony racers for my career best times at the 5K (18:35) and 5 mile (30:36) distances.  Well, these new sneakers felt like they had that magic in them, too, when I ran a training run in them earlier in the week.  But I detected mild soreness in one of my toes after that training run, and that soreness was much more pronounced during and after today’s race.  I also now feel soreness in my calves and hips, which are unusual areas of post-race soreness for me.  So, I just might be too big, too old, or both for these lightweight training/racing shoes.  I may decide to wear them only for shorter training runs and races.

I ran a smart race and held relatively even splits for most of the race in the 7:48-7:55 range.  Not surprisingly, my pace slipped a bit to an average of 8:05 for the last three miles, but that’s still better than many of my finishes in half marathons.  Overall, I was pleased with my performance, especially on the endurance and mental focus side of things.  It was a good (but not great) performance.  I still need to develop my speed and build my mileage from its current level (30 miles per week) up to 40 miles per week in the coming winter months.


Thundering toward the finish line in the last 200 yards.

Though I ran well, it was Alek who put on a clinic on how to train and race properly today.  Mind you, this kid has no natural speed.  I can still beat him in a 100-yard dash and most of the girls on his cross country team beat him rather easily in the 400 meter dash.  And this grim reality is precisely why it is so impressive to see what Alek has achieved as a distance runner.  By-the-book dedication and self-discipline in his training (70 miles per week for several weeks this fall) have yielded some remarkable results in his distance running career, including his recent 5K personal best of 17:34 at the state regional cross country meet in Tallahassee earlier this month, but today’s race is surely the crown jewel.  Two years ago at this race, in one of the previous standout performances in his competitive running career, Alek placed 24th overall and 3rd place in his 19 & under age group in a time of 1:26:38.  Today, he eclipsed that impressive mark and ran a mind-boggling 1:21:31 (6:14 pace), good enough for 9th place overall of 2,002 finishers and 1st  place in the 19 & under age group.   Alek is actively considering competing in cross country at the intercollegiate level.  The distance for men’s college cross country is 8K (rather than 5K in high school), so his best days are surely yet to come. 



Alek grinding it out at Mile 8


Alek on the award platform with internationally acclaimed distance running legend, Bart Yasso, and some tag-a-longs posing as astronauts.

Alek and I both owe a debt of gratitude to Nigara for another remarkable effort in supporting two runners in the same race over considerable distance in a short period of time.  She has virtually mastered the art of being in two places at once and always serves our race-related demands with a smile.  Nigara is training harder than ever in her own distance running efforts and will likely be running her third 5K race next month in St. Augustine, so stay tuned.

Evergreen Pumpkin Run 10 Miler: Marathon Plans Postponed to 2013

I felt good at the start, but my speed and endurance unraveled shortly thereafter.

This is one of my favorite races on the Jacksonville Road Race scene and I had high hopes for a strong performance.  And, for a change, even the Florida weather cooperated.  Too bad my lungs and legs didn’t do the same.

By race morning, I knew this wasn’t going to be a banner day in my road racing career.  I had just returned from a speaking engagement on Friday and Saturday in Miami.  I had driven approximately 20+ hours in the four days leading up to the race and it was accompanied by high stress and little sleep.  Somehow these unorthodox “race week preparations” left me feeling less than prepared for this undertaking.

Alek was nice enough to agree to pace me for the race, but he quickly became frustrated with how unresponsive I was.  He ditched me at mile 5 (my split was 38:52) because my race pace wasn’t a sufficiently challenging training run for him.  I was struggling to maintain a 7:45 pace by mile 4 and I knew by that time that a personal best (7:36 pace) was out of my reach.  I resigned myself to finish the race no matter what and just look forward to a hot shower and long nap after this torment.  “Coach Alek” predicted that I would struggle to break 1:20 in this race and he was right.  But at least this time I resisted the overwhelming urge to stay in bed and the equally overwhelming urge to finish as a 5K racer today when I passed the 3 mile mark (I would have placed 3rd in my age group in the companion 5K competition in this race, even at my disappointing 10 mile race pace).

I finished in 1:19:50 (7:59 pace) and placed 130th of 547 finishers (top 24%) in a very competitive field in this Jacksonville Grand Prix event.  Even if I had run my goal time of 1:16, I only would have been in the top 21% of the field.

Needless to say, my plans for the Space Coast Marathon have been “downgraded.” For the second consecutive year, after registering for a November marathon I will run the half marathon instead.  (I did the same last year at the Philadelphia Marathon where I ran a disappointing 1:47 half marathon).  I am determined to run a strong half marathon at Space Coast and then take it one step at a time from there.  My mileage remains respectable under the circumstances of my crazy schedule (136 miles for September and about 120 for October) and the cooler temps have enabled me to do more up-tempo training runs.  So I’m hopeful for good outing at the Space Coast Half on November 25.


If I had worn a costume for the race, I might have had a better excuse for my sluggish performance.

Jacksonville Marine Corps Half Marathon: I Should Have Stayed in Bed* (and I did!)

During the past several years, I have had my share of races when all I could say to myself when it was over was, “I should have stayed in bed.”  And what a terrible feeling that is – you train hard for weeks or months leading up to the race, you pay a hefty sum of money to participate, and then you fall flat on your face on race day.  Sometimes it’s because of the weather, sometimes it’s because you can’t silence the counterproductive voices in your head, and sometimes it’s because you didn’t train adequately.  Whatever the reason for your underperformance, you feel drained, miserable, and angry.

Well, today I spared myself all of that needless torment – because I never got out of bed!  Yep, that’s right.  Here’s a guy who can count on one hand the number of times IN HIS LIFE that he’s overslept and missed an obligation, and yet that’s just what I did today after gearing up for this race since June.  If that doesn’t tell you how mentally and physically overwhelmed I’ve been in the past few weeks, I’m not sure what else could.

Based on the numbers, I was ready to run a very good race today.  Compared to last year’s mileage from June-October, I had 115 more miles under my belt this year and I had also trained at altitude in Kenya and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (see blog entry below) for a week to build my endurance and mental toughness.  But my head wasn’t in a great place lately because I have been so drained from an insanely busy semester, and 15 hrs. of commuting to and from Orlando each week to make it virtually intolerable.  To make matters worse, I had a crushing deadline in the week leading up to the race to complete edits on the 880-page manuscript of my forthcoming book, Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples: The Search for Legal Remedies, which will be published in early 2013.  http://www.amazon.com/Climate-Change-Indigenous-Peoples-Remedies/dp/1781001790/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349571895&sr=1-2&keywords=abate+climate+change

Nevertheless, I had been focusing on this race since June and I was determined to do my best against these odds. The alarm rang as planned at 4:30 a.m., at which time I usually spring out of bed and busy myself with my race day ritual.  But not today.  I simply could not drag my butt out of bed.  It was as if a little gremlin sprinkled sandman dust on me and said, “You will be Rip Van Winkle for the day.”  Or perhaps it was just my body telling me, “You’re fired!” when it comes to making decisions that involve subjecting my body to extreme physical pain.  In either case, staying in bed today worked just fine for me and was “Just What I Needed,” as the fabulous ‘80’s band, The Cars, was known to say.

My body knew best.  Perhaps I should listen to it more often.  The weather today was utterly miserable.  The race started at 7:00 and the weather at that time was in the mid-70s with 100% humidity (no, I’m not exaggerating – those stats were obtained from weather.com).  These conditions are typical for mid-July, not October.  I have endured these conditions for some 5K races in the Jacksonville area and they were nearly intolerable experiences.  But to run a half marathon under these conditions is a virtual death wish for this runner who sweats profusely even in the amply air-conditioned environment at his place of employment.  If I had raced today, I surely would have dropped out or died.  When I checked the results, my sense of things was confirmed.  The times were RIDICULOUSLY slow.  The times of most of my local rivals were 8-10 minutes slower compared to their times last year.  I surely picked the right day to stay in bed.  This impression was further confirmed in the afternoon when I went on a 7-mile training run in these miserable conditions and practically died.  By that time, the temp had climbed into the mid-80’s with humidity around 85%.

But perhaps this is just the wake-up call I needed (pardon the pun) to get ready for the remainder of my fall racing season.  Florida weather is always a challenge for me, so I just have to face it and keep training.  The big test will come on October 28 at the Evergreen Pumpkin Run 10 miler in Jacksonville.  I need to break 1:16 at this race to have a shot at a 3:30 at the Space Coast Marathon on Nov. 25 in Cocoa, FL.  I don’t want to jinx myself, but the temps at the Pumpkin Run are always pleasantly cool in the 60s with low humidity.  I plan to set the course on fire and shatter my previous best time of 1:16:03 on that course from 2009.

*I borrowed the title for this entry from one of my favorite childhood books, I Should Have Stayed in Bed, http://www.amazon.com/I-Should-Have-Stayed-Bed/dp/B001V3O3F8

Notes from the Roof of Africa: The Trials and Triumphs of Trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro

“There’s no doubt the joys of climbing Kili are manifold; unfortunately, so are the ways in which it can destroy you.”  — Henry Stedman, Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain

“… and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the top of Kilimanjaro.  And then he knew that there was where he was going.”  — Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro


Prelude to a Major Undertaking

Let’s face it – trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro is not your typical vacation. Standing majestically tall at 19,341ft., Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest “free-standing” mountain (i.e., not part of a mountain range) in the world.  So what possessed Nigara and me, no longer spring chickens at the ages of 50 and 48, respectively, to tackle such a daunting challenge and still have the nerve to call it a “vacation”?  Believe me, we asked ourselves that question several times during our 7-day trek while we tested the limits of our mental and physical endurance.  When you are climbing straight up in the middle of the night in freezing cold temperatures at extreme altitude, every once in a while you think to yourself, “Remind me again why we aren’t sipping frozen drinks at an exotic beach resort instead?”

The seed for this trip was planted immediately after our Machu Picchu trek in December 2011 (see that entry below in this blog).  We had never taken a trekking/camping vacation and we were pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable, rewarding, and inspiring it could be.  Nigara had a bit of a “runner’s high” immediately after the Machu Picchu trek when she blurted out, “We should do something like this again, only more challenging the next time. Let’s do Mt. Kilimanjaro!”  This suggestion wasn’t quite as out of the blue as it may sound.  In fact, there were two factors that made Mt. Kilimanjaro a reasonable choice for our next trekking destination.  First, we had traveled to Kenya in the summer of 1998 when I taught a course in International Environmental Law at the University of Nairobi Law School.  At that time, we had considered doing Mt. Kilimanjaro but we opted for the more “vacation-like” and romantic destination of Zanzibar, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  So, Mt. Kili was already on our radar screen well before the Machu Picchu trek.  Second, and this factor brought it much closer to home, Alek wanted to train in Kenya’s Rift Valley this summer at the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya, where elite runners from around the world come to train.  So, now trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro seemed like a sensible thing to do under the circumstances.  We spent a week with Alek at the training center, where I reaped the benefits of double-session workouts on hills and mud at 8,000 ft., and then Nigara and I left Alek, who stayed at the training center to continue to train with the other runners there, while we traveled to Tanzania to conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro.  For a detailed account of our adventures at the High Altitude Training Center, please visit Alek’s running blog, www.faranjiruns.blogspot.com.

But I’m oversimplifying a bit.  Trekking Mt. Kili is a big deal. It’s far away (even from Iten, Kenya, it was 10-12 hours away by van), it’s potentially life threatening for a variety of reasons, and it’s incredibly expensive (which comes as a surprise to most people).  For all of these reasons, Nigara agonized over whether we should proceed with the plans for Mt. Kili.  She tried to talk me into going to Zanzibar again, which would have been much cheaper, safer, and more relaxing.  I had to force the issue and insist that we follow through with our plans.  This was a potentially “now or never opportunity” for us given how many other destinations in the world are on our “bucket list,” so we ultimately moved forward with our plans for the trek very late in the game (about two months prior to our journey) after debating the idea for months.

Preparation Is the Key to Success

Once we committed to undertake the trek, we resolved to fully prepare ourselves for this challenge. There were two dimensions of preparation:  logistical and mental.  We were a bit unprepared mentally and logistically for our Machu Picchu trek and we planned to learn from our mistakes. There was really nothing that we needed to do to prepare ourselves for the physical demands of the climb because both of us are well-trained athletes and the surprising reality is that many non-athletes are able to climb Mt. Kili without much trouble, just like many non-athletes are able to walk a marathon in about 7 hours.  In fact, even smokers tend to fare well with climbing Mt. Kili because they are well acquainted with functioning on a limited supply of oxygen on a daily basis; therefore, the altitude tends not to affect them as much.

As always, Nigara handled the logistical dimensions of our preparations exceptionally well.  She ordered several items for our trek via the Internet, all of which served us very well:  warm gloves, hiking books for me, warm clothing “layers” for our tops and bottoms, etc.  On the mental preparation side of things, both of us read Henry Stedman’s outstanding guidebook, Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain, which was extremely informative and refreshingly entertaining.  We also both read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which described the author’s adventures as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail. Reading Bryson’s informative and humorous account helped put things into perspective – what he endured over several months was much more challenging that what we were about to undertake for one week.  Everything is relative, right?

Our final task in preparing for the trek was to choose a trekking company and a route for our trek.  There are many, many companies that serve trekkers on Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Trekkers are not permitted to climb Mt. Kili on their own.  After much deliberation and agonizing, we opted to go with Team Kilimanjaro. Let me say at his point that there are several outstanding trekking companies that could have served our needs as well if not better than Team Kilimanjaro did, and choosing one company from so many options is a somewhat arbitrary calculus of cost, reviews on trip advisor, and just a sense of what the company appears to offer.  Ironically, we were attracted by the fact that Team Kilimanjaro offered the opportunity for a “day summit” instead of the typical “all-nighter” trek to the summit that most companies offer.  I say “ironic” because we ultimately elected to pursue the “all-nighter” option ourselves once we learned more about the details of what the day summit entailed (two nights of camping after reaching the summit, which we didn’t want).

Our final preparatory task was to choose one of the six routes to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  After much consideration, we opted for the Machame Route, which earned the nickname the “Whiskey Route” because of its difficulty.  In fact, it is the second most difficult of the six routes to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  It stands in stark contrast to the most popular route, the Marangu Route (also known as the “Coca Cola Route” because of its easy terrain and the fact that trekkers sleep in cozy huts instead of in tents).  Would you like HBO in your rooms while you’re at it, lightweights?  If Mt. Kili was going to break us mentally and physically, we at least wanted to go down with some pride remaining, so the Machame Route seemed to be a good fit.  It also was reputed to be the most scenic of all the routes.

One last planning item was deciding whether this would be a private trek (just the two of us and our crew) or if we would opt to join another group.  We had enjoyed the experience of trekking with a group on Machu Picchu, so we thought it would be nice to do this one as a private trek.  That decision proved to be a good one for the most part as we drew closer together during our journey and managed not to kill each other during the more stressful moments.

Now we were ready to embark on our challenging 60-kilometer journey (37 miles) over 7 days.

Day 1:  Machame Gate to Machame Huts (“A Walk in the Rainforest”)


After meeting with our guide, John, on the previous night to get a brief orientation about what we were about to undertake, the full Team Kilimanjaro crew picked us up at our hotel in Arusha at 8:00 a.m. to start our 2-hour journey from Arusha to Mt. Kili. The full crew consisted of a guide, an assistant guide, a cook, and 9 porters who would carry our provisions up the mountain and set up/break down our camp each day.

We reached the Machame gate and prepared ourselves for our long journey.  Trekking poles are a must for this undertaking.  We owned one set and we had to rent another set.  Another must are gaiters, which are strapped around your calves and attach to your shoes.  We each rented a pair of these nifty accessories, which work wonders in keeping the omnipresent dust and mud from the trail off of your pants.

We enjoyed a scenic and pleasant first 75 minutes of trekking before we stopped for lunch.  We were told it would be a “light lunch” and they weren’t kidding.  It consisted of a few slices of mango, a few mini-bananas the size of my thumb, and two small and stale squares of tea cake to accompany our tea.  Nigara and I were a bit taken aback by this lunch after we had seen other trekking companies that day on the trail (companies that cost less than ours because we had researched them on the Internet) serving their clients full hot lunches at nicely appointed banquet tables.  What we were served was indeed a light lunch if you were a medium-sized rodent, but for humans I’m afraid that it barely passed as a light snack, especially when you are engaged in rigorous physical exercise all day.  Fortunately, Nigara and I had packed some energy bars in our backpacks and that did the trick until dinner.  We later learned that our light lunch was a function of some miscommunication among the porters as to where our lunch site would be that day.  Things ran much more smoothly from that point forward and we enjoyed nice hot lunches for the rest of our trek.

The trek on Day 1 was a gradual and mostly pleasant incline through a lush rainforest with many exotic flowers. We trekked for 6 hours on Day I before reaching our destination for the day, the Machame huts.  Don’t be deceived by the name, though.  This was our campsite and we would be sleeping in a tent (not in huts) for the duration of this 7-day trek.

We were pleased with our modest accommodations, though.  Our tent and sleeping bags were well-insulated and felt warm (at least for our first night of sleeping anyway).  The tent had two compartments – one for sleeping and one for storage and getting organized.  We enjoyed a nice candlelit dinner featuring cream of cucumber soup and beef stew.

We were exhausted by the time we finished dinner, after alternately exchanging yawns and smiles at each other throughout our romantic dinner.  We were fast asleep by 9:00 and slept soundly until our morning wake-up call at 6:00 a.m. We would maintain this sleeping schedule most nights.  Some nights we fell asleep as early as 8:00 p.m.  And I was often asleep before Nigara.

Day 1 started at 5,942 ft. and ended at 9, 911 ft. after trekking 11 kilometers.

Day 2:  Machame Huts to Shira Camp (“Channel Your Inner Mountain Goat”)

In Stedman’s guidebook and other sources online, Day 2 was described as the shortest and easiest day of the trek.  Both of these statements are lies. Our journey on Day 2 took 6 hours (the same duration as Day 1).  The sign at our Machame Hut camp said it was 4 hours to Shira Camp.  That might be true if you have an outboard motor attached to your butt; however, the rest of us mere mortals need 5-6 hours to complete this stretch of the journey.   There were very steep and narrow passage on this segment of our journey that had to be navigated very carefully, often without trekking poles because you needed to use your hands for balance and traction.

Nigara struggled a bit toward the end of this stretch, largely because of low blood sugar for having eaten so little at our 7:00 a.m. breakfast. We were very hungry and cranky for our late lunch at 1:30 (we passed several other tour groups that had stopped for lunch at 12:00).  After consuming fried fish, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cream of carrot soup, we felt much better and ready for a nap.

The remainder of our “short” day included a 1-hour “acclimatization walk” at 5:00 to a nearby ledge for some nice views, followed by dinner at 6:00, and then to bed by 8:00.

As we settled in for the night at Shira Camp, we heard these strange sounds immediately above our tent that sounded like people were having a catch with a large boomerang at our camp site.  We later learned that this loud “woo-woo-wooshing” sound was the almost-mechanical sound of the slow-flapping wings of ravens, which are among the few species that live this high up the mountain.

Day 2 started at 9,991 ft. and ended at 12,595 ft. after trekking 7 kilometers.

Acclimatizing to Altitude:  The Double-Edged Sword of Diamox and the “Pole Pole” Mantra

I want to briefly digress here to stress what makes climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro so challenging compared to other hikes you may undertake at home.  It’s all about the altitude.  There are two principal coping mechanisms to combat the low-oxygen reality of trekking at altitude.  The first is to monitor your pace very carefully.  The word for “slowly” in Kiswahili is “Pole Pole” (pronounced Po-lay, Po-lay).  “Pole Pole” is the name of the game when trekking Mt. Kili.  You would be amazed how slow the pace is when climbing this mountain.  It’s so slow that if we had placed our arms out in front of us parallel to the ground, we would look like we had just escaped from the set of a zombie flick.  You must proceed at a “Pole Pole” pace to ensure that you are processing an adequate supply of oxygen for your lungs and brain and to avoid the perils of dehydration.

Directly related to the need for “pole pole pacing” is the wonder drug for altitude trekkers: Diamox.  Altitude sickness is serious business. Our guides were well trained in evaluating the warning signs of altitude sickness and engaging in early intervention measures to ensure trekkers’ safety.  Diamox helps prevent/diminish the debilitating symptoms of altitude sickness – severe headaches, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness and dizziness, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, unresponsiveness, and–perhaps most horrifying of all—skin that turns blue.  So, the guides are under strict orders that if any of their trekkers start to resemble Papa Smurf, they must be evacuated immediately.  Needless to say, altitude sickness is nothing to be trifled with – apart from spoiling your vacation, altitude sickness could cause you to become seriously ill and die.  So, it’s a no-brainer to take Diamox as directed and avoid that potentially gloomy fate, right?  Yet some trekkers don’t take it … and for good reason.

Like all drugs, Diamox is not without its annoying side effects.  The principal side effect is frequent (and I mean FREQUENT) urination.  While this may seem like a harmless and tolerable side effect, let’s probe a little deeper, shall we?  When I say frequent urination, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had to stop to pee every 20-30 minutes on every day of our trek, thanks to Diamox.  Again, this seems like a mere annoyance, but there are two related impacts that are worth noting.  First, by peeing so often, you run the risk of dehydration and, worse still, dehydration is one of the chief precursors of altitude sickness!  So, you have to monitor your water intake very carefully.  We needed to consume 5-6 liters of water every day because we would pee away about 2/3 of that water due to Diamox.  And that’s occurring in cold to very cold temps, so we were lucky not to have to worry about excessive sweating to compound the dehydration dilemma (sweating-induced dehydration got the best of me on Day 1 of our Machu Picchu trek).  The second problem related to frequent urination is that it’s freakin’ cold out there!  The more you have to pee, the longer you are exposed to the harsh elements.  It’s a small miracle that all parts of my anatomy are still intact after that week-long parade of indecent exposure in frigid temperatures.

Day 3:  Shira Camp to Barranco Camp (“A Tale of Two Halves of Our Day”)

If Day 2 helped prepare us for some of the steep and treacherous inclines that we would face during our assault on the summit on Day 6, Day 3 also had value in preparing us for the mental endurance necessary for summit day.

The first half of Day 3 was eternally long and mind-numbingly dull as we trudged up and down in a desolate lunar landscape of rock and dust.  We had a nice lunch under the impressive Lava Tower landmark.  Lunch was served in frigid and windy temperatures (unusually cool even for this altitude on Kili – just our luck).  Shivering through a body-numbing lunch and enduring the mind-numbing morning climb helped build our mental toughness for Day 6.


But Day 3 was only half over.  After lunch, things changed for the better.  First, the terrain changed in that our afternoon would be spent almost exclusively on a steep descent to Barranco Camp.  This was also good mental prep for Day 6 because it required focus and agility to avoid falling, which would come in handy in our ascent to and descent from Uhuru Peak on Day 6.  In addition, the temperature rose, the wind died down, the sun came out, and we were treated to glorious vistas of Kibo (the summit).  Nigara snapped several nice pictures and chirped, “This is my favorite part of the whole trek,” on the same day that she had moaned that morning, “This is so mind-numbing.”  The only thing that’s certain when trekking Mt. Kili is that you never know what you’re going to get (like Forrest Gump once said in likening life to a box of chocolates).

Day 3 started at 12,595 ft. and ended at 13,077 ft. after trekking 11 kilometers.  There were several ups and downs on this segment.

Day 4:  Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp (“A Rollercoaster of Challenges”)

On Day 4, I began to unravel.  The day didn’t start well as I awoke with a severe case of dizziness.  I tried to walk outside the tent and stumbled around like a drunk.   I was scared and concerned.  Fate had thrown a cruel curve ball.  On the day that we would tackle some of the most steep and treacherous ascents and descents of our entire journey, I was going to have to tackle those with a case of vertigo.  As you may recall, dizziness is a symptom of altitude sickness and it had picked the worst day to pay a visit.  Over my objection, Nigara force fed me a large dose of Diamox to combat this troubling symptom.  The small dose of Diamox already had me peeing like a fire hydrant.  I worried that this larger dose might make me incapacitated.

The Barranco Wall: Agoraphobes and Claustrophobes Should Stay in Bed

The Barranco Wall is well known for the challenges it poses to trekkers.  A straight up ascent along a treacherous path of narrow passages along a cliff is enough to make agoraphobes and claustrophobes (like me) want to cry.  At several points during our two-hour climb up the Barranco Wall, I felt like I was tip-toeing along a window ledge on the 25th floor of a skyscraper.  Mind you, now I had to conquer these challenges with an extra dose of concentration—making sure that my dizziness didn’t play tricks on me while executing these death-defying maneuvers.  Somehow I managed to get through the Barranco Wall and its traps.

One of the most well-known of its hazards is the famed “kissing rock,” which requires trekkers to snuggle up body and face with a boulder, which makes you look like you are engaged in a passionate embrace with a rock (kind of like geology’s version of a tree hugger).  There was a guide on the other side of this perilous tightrope walk who guided and pulled us to safety.

Smooching with the “Kissing Rock.”  Pucker up!

A Sense of Relief at the Top of Barranco Wall

After reaching the top of the Barranco Wall, the second half of day four was challenging in its tedium.  Lots of ups and downs through the Karanga Valley on our way to Barafu Camp proved to be a bit monotonous and challenging at times.  Nigara brought her iPod with her to combat the boredom and she told me it helped a great deal. I always used my iPod on my long runs back home (which were about 2 hours), so why wouldn’t I use the iPod to help overcome the tedium of a four-hour trek?  Nigara insisted that I borrow her iPod, which I finally did, and my mood improved immediately with head bobbing and lip syncing.  Her play list had an eclectic mix of some of my favorite bands from the ‘70’s and ‘80s  (including some tracks from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which was particularly well suited for this desolate lunar landscape) and some more modern selections from Alek’s playlist (Radiohead, The Strokes, etc.)

We finally reached Barafu Camp late in the afternoon, which was a cold and forbidding place that looked like an earthquake had hit it recently.  There were fragmented lava rocks strewn throughout the camp site, which sounded like broken glass when we walked over them, and the place had the depressing air of a concentration camp.  The howling, freezing cold winds made it even less welcoming.  It was nothing short of a crying shame that we had to spend two nights here.  The dark side of the moon surely was better suited for camping than this grim place.



These were some of the nicer toilets on our journey

Day 4 started at 13,077 ft. and ended at 15,200 ft. after trekking 13 kilometers.  There were several ups and downs in this segment.

Day 5:  Acclimatization Walk to Kosovo Camp (“Preparing for the Main Event”)

After a miserable night of sleeping in the freezer section that featured sub-zero Celsius temperatures and fierce winds, we were relieved to see that the day warmed up nicely by the time we began our acclimatization walk at 9:00 a.m.   It was so “warm” that we only had to wear three layers of clothing instead of five layers like we had the night before.  But our fatigue from the previous day served us well.  Even in the inhospitable conditions at Barafu Camp, we slept for a full 7-8 hours.  That would not be the case tonight, however.

Our “walk” was a steep climb to Kosovo Camp, which was about the first 20% of our long journey that would begin at 11 p.m. later that day – the all-nighter ascent to the summit.  Only this walk was a mere “training run,” like previewing the course on the day before you run a marathon.  But in our case, we weren’t previewing a course by car—we were actually doing the hard work of climbing up to Kosovo Camp and then back down to Barafu Camp in this 2-hour outing.  While it was good to get a glimpse of part of what was in store and see that we show any signs of altitude sickness in the process, it was depressing and frustrating to put that extra mileage on our weary legs only to have to do it all over again later that evening (anybody read “The Myth of Sisyphus”? – if so, you understand what I mean).

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and getting ready. We gathered all of the many layers of clothing, gear, and accessories that we would need for the ascent.  The list was dauntingly long:  summit jacket (very warm), headlamp, hat, balaclava (a facemask that is popular with bank robbers and always gets me in the mood for a nice piece of baklava whenever I hear the word), several inner layers on top and bottom, (fleeces, tech shirts, tights, etc.), glove liners, gloves, two pairs of socks (four pairs if your name is Nigara), gaiters, rugged summit boots, power bars, medications bag, water, and of course, Diamox.  We had an early dinner at 5:00 and then we were sent to bed at 6:00.  The plan was to sleep for at least three hours before our 10:00 p.m. wake-up call and 11:00 p.m. start of the ascent up “Mt. Kill Ya Tomorrow.”  But thanks to the frigid howling winds at Barafu Camp, coupled with our nervous anticipation of what was in store for us, we didn’t sleep a wink.  That fatigue was yet another challenge we would have to confront in our assault on the summit.

Day 6:  Barafu Camp up to Summit and down to Mweka Camp (“It’s Kili Time!”)

The slogan, “It’s Kili Time!” is for Kilimanjaro Beer, brewed and bottled in Tanzania.  This slogan sounds disturbingly similar to the “Now it’s Miller Time” slogan of Miller Beer, brewed and bottled in the U.S., don’t you think?

Well, our date with destiny had finally arrived.  We were about to tackle the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  We could finally put all the hype and urban legend surrounding this experience behind us and experience it firsthand.  In his excellent Mt. Kilimanjaro guidebook, Henry Stedman describes the summit ascent in these words:

“In my opinion, this is the hardest part of the climb, when the cold insinuates itself between the layers of your clothes, penetrating your skin, chilling your bones, and numbing the marrow until finally, inevitably, it seems to freeze your very soul.  The situation seems desperate at this hour and you can do nothing, nothing except keep going.”

This quote effectively sets the stage for the gut-wrenching drama that we were about to encounter on Day 6, but nothing can fully capture what we experienced other than what I am about to write. The challenges involved in the assault on Kibo (the summit of Mt. Kili) are multifarious.  First, not surprisingly, is the cold and forbidding weather.  We are from Florida, where anything below 60 degrees Fahrenheit is considered chilly.  The assault on the summit features temperatures well below -10 degrees Celsius and the wind chill makes it even more miserable.  Second is the altitude.  This is the wildcard of the whole experience.  You just don’t know how your body will respond (i.e., will you develop altitude sickness symptoms?)  until you reach a certain altitude.  All we knew is that Nigara and I had essentially dodged the altitude sickness bullet up to this point at 15,000 ft., but we were about to climb another 4,000 ft. on summit day— a whole new ballgame.  The third challenge is the sheer duration of summit day—17 hours of trekking in all, including descending several thousand feet after reaching the summit.  A very full day of challenges, right?  But wait –there’s more.  The fourth and perhaps most daunting of all the challenges is that we were to conquer these challenges on no sleep.  A full-blown all nighter.  Most people struggle to function properly in an all nighter when they are doing activities that are far less demanding than what we were about to undertake, like studying for an exam or driving.  How about climbing the steep and frigid slopes of Africa’s highest mountain as the focus of your all-night adventure?  It goes without saying at this point that summit day was certainly the most physically demanding day of our lives, if not the most taxing on our spirits as well.

Our “day” began at 11:00 p.m.  It was comforting to see that we were not alone in this seemingly insane undertaking.  Many others were getting ready to embark on this adventure with us and face all of these daunting challenges.  Remarkably, approximately 30,000 people climb Mt. Kili every year; however, about two-thirds of those trekkers use routes that are less challenging than ours prior to summit day.   But all roads lead to a base camp and cresting the summit is extremely difficult regardless of which route you have selected for your Mt. Kili trek.  Our legs had endured a bit more punishment than the legs of those who had opted for one of the easier routes, but summit day is a grand buffet of mental and physical challenges for all trekkers.  You simply haven’t earned your “stripes” (i.e., your summit certificate) until you conquer it.

The beginning of our assault on the summit began like all of the preceding days—slowly but surely.  Two things were different today, however.  First, it was pitch dark and our walk was illuminated by a breathtaking starlit sky unlike anything I had seen before back home in nature or in a planetarium.   Our immediate path was illuminated by our headlamps, and there were dozens of trekkers ahead of us and behind us in a long and winding headlamp procession.  It was like a candlelight vigil of sorts or like Halloween with everyone dressed us as headlamp-bearing Arctic expedition explorers.  The second new dimension for today’s trek was its length and difficulty. We would trek for a total of 17 hours today on unrelenting steep terrain (up and down).   Generally, I don’t even want to do anything that feels good for 17 hours, let alone something that pushes the limits of my mental and physical tolerance with every step.

The first stage of the summit ascent was familiar, albeit difficult.  It was the same stretch from Barafu Camp to Kosovo Camp.  It was more challenging in the dark because it involved some delicate tip-toeing up sheer boulder-faced slopes.  When we passed Kosovo Camp, we were only about one-fifth of the way to Stella Point (the initial summit), but still feeling fine and drinking plenty of water.

Things started to unravel a bit about halfway to Stella Point.  Nigara started to develop a moderate altitude-related headache, similar to the one she had experienced two days earlier.  She immediately took one Tylenol and continued to press on.  By that point, I had been taking frequent Diamox-induced bathroom breaks and was struggling to intake as much water as I was expelling.  Let me assure you that drinking ice cold water in frigid temperatures is not too pleasant.  I started to feel very weak from dehydration and low blood sugar.  We only had a small bowl of porridge for breakfast and that was already a few hours ago.  I quickly downed a liter of Gatorade and began to consume a Power Bar.  The temperature was so frigid that the Power Bar was frozen.  I tried to bite it and almost required emergency dental care for my effort.  I was able to gnaw and nibble about half of the bar with some considerable effort, like a dog wrestling a shoe in its mouth, and then we proceeded on our way.  Nigara shared her iPod with me and that provided a welcome added boost.  By this point in the trek, we already started to see some people giving up and turning around to head for the refuge of Barafu Camp instead of probing deeper into the unknown toward Stella Point.

At about two-thirds of the way to Stella Point, things became more stressful.  Nigara had multiple layers of socks on and yet her toes were still uncomfortably numb.  Worse still, her headache had not improved.  In fact, it had become more severe.  She took another Tylenol and we monitored her situation carefully.  We both knew that the only way that we wouldn’t reach the summit would be if we were overcome by altitude-related ailments and our health would be in jeopardy if we pressed on.  And now it looked like Nigara was on her way to develop altitude sickness.  She had a deep throbbing headache that would have sent most people straight to bed, but she persevered like a prize fighter.  When we were within an hour of Stella Point, her headache still hadn’t improved.  John brought out the heavy artillery at this point—four small orange pills.  I asked him what they were and he spewed out a long pharmaceutical word that I could never repeat even if my life depended on it.  Nigara took the pills (we were desperate—did we really have a choice?) and we trusted John that he wasn’t feeding Nigara speed or morphine.  Nigara started to feel better, but she still struggled from the headache and the thin air.  I was so focused on ensuring Nigara’s safety that I failed to monitor my own condition, and that would come back to haunt me later in our journey.

The last 20 minutes to Stella Point were miserable—extremely steep and slippery because of the loose rock underfoot (known as “scree”).  The finish line at the top of the ridge seemed to retreat with every step we took.  Nigara struggled mightily like a combat warrior with every step until she paused two times and bent over.  I felt a sense of dread because she looked like she was about to vomit (another symptom of altitude sickness).  But she was just trying to muster the strength and oxygen necessary to complete the last 100 yards.  I had nightmarish images of marathon runners who collapse within spitting distance of the finish and cannot continue.  But Nigara pulled through like a trooper and we held a long and teary embrace at the sign for Stella Point and then triumphantly posed for pictures.


Climbing to Uhuru Peak:  “My Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”

One of my favorite offbeat hits from the ‘80s comes in handy here to describe our uphill climb to Uhuru Peak.  We were now surrounded by snow and glaciers on all sides.  You have already heard of the myriad ways that Kili can destroy you.  Well, add one more to that list – snowblindness.  The bright sun beating down on the white terrain is hard on the eyes, so sunglasses are more than just a fashion statement up here – they are an essential piece of equipment to ensure a safe journey.

I would have been happy to turn around after reaching Stella Point.  Reaching Stella Point is a big deal and you get a certificate for reaching that point.  In addition to being worried about Nigara’s ability to proceed to Uhuru Peak (the highest point on the mountain which involved another hour of uphill trekking and more potential altitude-related problems), I was also beginning to become aware of how spent I felt.  Our guides were eager to proceed immediately to Uhuru Peak.  I wasn’t ready and should have insisted on more rest.  But we proceeded anyway because we were on a mission and we needed to close the deal and descend as quickly as possible.

The weather is unpredictable and harsh at the summit.  Just two days prior to our ascent, there was a severe snow storm with temps at -40 Celsius with the wind chill.  So, the unfortunate reality is that reaching Uhuru Peak is a bit of a drive-thru window experience because of the ominous weather threats and altitude-related ailments.

One of those altitude-related ailments was about to hit me between the eyes—lightheadedness and dizziness—like I had experienced two days before.  Our walk to Uhuru was very difficult.  With every step, I felt a “I need to stop now” sense of exhaustion setting in, but I continued to trudge ahead.  My breathing became ragged.  Nigara noticed that I was struggling and encouraged me to keep moving with some “We’re almost there” urgings.  After running 22 marathons and 28 half marathons in the past two deacdes, my least favorite phrase of encouragement is “You’re almost there!”

By the time we were within 20 minutes of Uhuru Peak, I was flying on nothing but adrenaline fumes and stubborn determination.  I felt miserable, much worse than my worse marathon meltdowns when I ended up in the medical tent after the race.  I need to add an important note here so you grasp the full sense of my debilitated state.  I had a bad case of diarrhea on every day of the trek.  I was having difficulty absorbing sufficient nutrients for sustained energy even on the easier days of our trek, and I feared what that would mean on summit day.  Well, I was about to find out.

We finally reached Uhuru, but by that point I was too exhausted and delirious to care about our achievement.   I posed with Nigara for a few pictures, feeling like I was in another world.

We immediately began our descent from Uhuru and that was when the full-scale imploding began now that the adrenaline rush was over.  I couldn’t walk in a straight line and started to stumble like a drunk again. Our assistant guide, Felix, noticed my condition and immediately assisted me.  He propped me up for the next 45 minutes back to Stella Point.  I was like an injured football player being assisted off the field, only poor Felix had to walk about 10 football fields with me clinging to his arm and staggering with every step.  We finally returned to Stella Point where John and Felix administered the “emergency provisions” to me—Red Bull and Kit Kat.  I also greedily consumed an orange and a piece of stale tea cake as I desperately tried to re-enter the land of the living.  I was having difficulty propping myself under my own power, like Wesley in the movie, The Princess Bride, immediately before they stormed the castle.  But, to rely on another movie analogy, I sprang back to life very quickly after consuming the Red Bull and Kit Kat, like Michael J. Fox did while performing on stage at the “Enchantment under the Sea dance” in the movie, Back to the Future.  Nevertheless, I was still fighting traces of delirium, as I felt burning hot in the sub-zero temperatures at Stella Point and I wanted to tear off most of my clothing.

The only thing we could do was to descend as quickly as possible.  Felix assisted me at the beginning of this challenging descent, and then I was soon able to descend on my own.  The commercial is accurate—Red Bull really does give you wings.  Much to Nigara’s and Felix’s chagrin, I was soon downhill skiing on the scree at a pace that made their hearts stop, but I was having a ball. The slope was so steep that you simply had to dig your heels into the scree one stride at a time to feel like you were skiing (without the need to snowplow).  Nigara didn’t take to this new hobby of mine and she slowed our descent considerably.  I downed another can of Red Ball and another Kit Kat and I was good to go for the remainder of the long descent to Barafu Camp, which involved some more tricky maneuvering on the boulders near Kosovo Camp.

We finally returned to Barafu Camp at 12:00 noon, 13 hours after we began our journey.  John permitted us to indulge in a 90-minute nap before lunch.  Immediately after lunch, we continued trekking for another 4 long hours to Mweka Camp.  This stretch was utterly miserable.  Our legs were completely trashed and now we had to cope with an unrelentingly steep descent with sharp rocks and steep steps.  This segment ruined our quads and caused blisters on our feet.  Worse still, Nigara dislodged both of her big toenails from all of the pounding.  She decided to paint all of her toenails black when we returned home to match the fashionable color of her big toenails.

We had to resort to our headlamps once again for the last hour of our journey to Mweka Camp.  We finally arrived at 7:30 p.m. after 17 hours of trekking on this summit day.  Both of us had completely unraveled physically and emotionally by that point.  We ate dinner and immediately went to bed.

Day 7:  Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate (“Are we there yet?”)

The honeymoon was indeed over by Day 7.  We only had 3 hours of trekking remaining (10 kilometers) before we would reach Mweka Gate, the end point of our journey and our ticket back to civilization.  If you’ve been paying attention for the past several pages, nothing comes easy on Mt. Kili, and Day 7 was no exception.  This last stretch of trekking was all downhill, which should have been easy, right?  But no, this downhill segment featured steep steps that pounded your knees—and just about every other joint in your weary body—with every step that you took.  It also included many loose rocks covered in mud.  I almost slipped several times and was saved only by my trekking poles from a humiliating and saturating bath in the mud.  It would have been nice to have had a smooth and flat path into the finish line so we could have savored our return to the pleasant scenery of the rainforest.  But no – all we could think about was not falling and making it to Mweka Gate in one piece after all the challenges we had overcome in the past week.

Upon reaching Mweka Gate, we eagerly washed up in bathrooms that felt like the Taj Mahal after the nasty pit toilets on the trail and the lack of running water for the duration of our 7-day trek.  We then haggled with some vendors to purchase t-shirts and paintings while sipping a Coke.  We posed for photos with the full crew, proudly displaying our “finisher certificates” confirming that we had reached Uhuru Peak.

It was good to be back in civilization.  John and Felix took us to a great local place in a neighboring town, Moshi, for some excellent cheeseburgers and fries.  Later that evening back at our hotel in Arusha, an overwhelming sense of soreness started to settle in that would last for the next two days.  But we didn’t care—we had accomplished what we had set out to accomplish and now it was time to rejoice and relax.

Seven days of facial hair growth without a shave while trekking Mt. Kili.  Sexy or shabby?  

Cast your vote now.  Our operators are standing by.

When we were preparing for this trek, I was convinced that my 22 marathons and 28 half marathons would propel me forward with the mental and physical toughness that I needed to successfully conquer Mt. Kili.  What I learned after my 7-day trek was that climbing Mt. Kili has toughened me up mentally and physically in ways that will serve me well in my fall racing season.  Climbing Mt. Kili changes you in a good way.  Like the saying goes, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I can’t think of a better example of that mantra than what we had endured for the past week.  If our Machu Picchu trek helped me run my second fastest half marathon in Florida since moving here in 2006, climbing Mt. Kili and pursuing the altitude training in Iten, Kenya should provide a strong foundation for success in my upcoming half marathon (October) and marathon (November) in Florida.  Now I just need to get reacquainted with the Florida heat and humidity.

Running Wild in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve

After spending an enjoyable and productive three weeks in the (mostly) pleasant Connecticut weather in June logging plenty of miles and racing in the Branford 5 mile road race (see previous entry), we traveled back to Florida for a mere three days to unpack and pack for stage two of our summer escape from the oppressive Florida heat and humidity.  And our next destination would be a little more exotic than Connecticut – we would travel to Kenya and Tanzania from July 2-28.  Our trip would have various components, which would involve an excruciatingly high number of hours in grueling transit. But as anyone close to our family would tell you, we wouldn’t be vacationing if we were not traversing multiple time zone and latitudinal degrees, and if we were not seeking opportunities for running as a top priority.

We started our vacation with a layover at an airport hotel in Rome.  We enjoyed a brief walking tour of Rome just long enough to see a few of the main attractions and have some good pizza and gelato.  Of course, the hotel was booked based exclusively on the assurance that it had treadmills, so Alek and I made sure to get a morning run in before we left.  Our itinerary then involved a two-hour flight to Amsterdam followed by an 8-hour flight to Nairobi (and if you add those flights to the initial leg of the trip from Jacksonville to Rome, that’s 20+ hours of time in the air).

We arrived in Nairobi early in the morning, cranky as ever after very little sleep on the plane and an annoying, hour-long, traffic- and exhaust-infested cab ride to the hotel.  Nairobi is much more developed and congested now than it was when I visited in the summer of 1998 to teach a course in International Environmental Law at the University of Nairobi Law School.  We checked into the Inter-Continental Hotel, a very swanky joint by Nairobi standards (with even swankier prices, courtesy of the 30% tax on everything), but like the hotel in Rome, this hotel also was booked because of its fitness center, complete with treadmills.  It also was located within walking distance of the University of Nairobi, where I was scheduled to give a public lecture on “Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples” at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences later that afternoon.  The lecture was well attended and went very well, and it was followed by a nice reception. Alek elected to stay behind in the hotel rather than attend the lecture so he could – you guessed it – run on the treadmill.

We left Nairobi early the next morning after Alek and I got our morning runs in on the treadmill (Alek complained incessantly about the allegedly sub-par treadmills in Rome and Nairobi — I thought they were perfectly fine).  Anyway, we were treated to yet another painfully long and unpleasant journey upon our departure from Nairobi – a 6-hour drive to our tented camp at the Masai Mara Reserve for our safari to kick off our vacation.  To say that this drive was unpleasant doesn’t quite capture the agony we endured.  We rode in a van that hadn’t replaced its shocks and struts since 1945, but that would have been tolerable if the roads had been paved for our entire journey.  But oh no – the last two hours of our difficult transit were spent not only on dusty dirt roads, but dirt roads that were infested with innumerable massive potholes and large rocks strewn throughout the road.  We were like human kernels of popcorn in Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn machine for two solid hours.  I took two Dramamine pills to ensure that I wouldn’t barf, but I still felt like “Raggedy Randy” after that drive and I was in a foul mood to show for it.



But we felt immediately at ease upon arriving at our long-awaited destination, the Oldarpoi Mara Camp, http://oldarpoimaracamp.com. We were greeted warmly by every member of the staff, including the resident Masai warriors clad in full traditional garb who performed a traditional warrior dance for us as soon as we exited the popcorn machine.

As with any lodging establishment, it’s the people and the service that make the experience, and that couldn’t have been more true than it was at the Oldarpoi.  Its physical facilities could not have been more modest: several private tents on platforms with private bath and thatched roofs and walls, a kitchen, a tiny common dining room area, and that’s about it.  So it’s remarkable that we had some of the best food and most restful sleep at this humble establishment that we have had in many years.

As for the food, the key ingredient was Willie the chef, who had years of experience as a chef at other five-star lodges in the Masai Mara Reserve before joining Oldarpoi.  His dishes were remarkably tasty and fresh and I say remarkable because the man cooks for up to 20 or more people per night in a kitchen that doesn’t have a refrigerator or stove (he cooks exclusively on charcoal or over an open campfire).  The vast majority of his daily supplies have to be brought to the camp from a city that’s almost 3 hrs away.  His dishes were not only tasty and fresh but also gourmet, which you would not expect while camping in the wild.  We had a similar taste of surprisingly good food in the wild while trekking on the Inca Trail last September, but Willie’s gourmet cuisine was a few notches above that food.

And when I say that we were in the wild, I’m not exaggerating.  We were in a fenced-in enclave that was situated among Africa’s most intimidating wildlife on all sides.  When we went for a run from the camp, we encountered elephant dung the size of small bowling balls within a few hundred yards of the camp.  When we went on a nature hike near our camp accompanied by Masai warriors, we encountered gazelles, wart hogs, and baboons (and lots more elephant dung).

The camp is so precariously placed in the wild that the engaging and enterprising camp owner, Nelson, employs Masai warriors on a round-the-clock basis to serve as night watchmen to ensure that wild animals do not breach the barriers that enclose the camp and scarf down a few unsuspecting campers as a midnight snack. We were located on the immediate periphery of the Masai Mara Reserve, which is teeming full of virtually every breed of African species of wildlife you could imagine (and we saw all of them except a rhino in our two days of game drives) – lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, zebras, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeast, topi, gazelles, warthogs, and the elusive and ferocious leopard).

So, it may come as a surprise that Alek and I continued our running routine without interruption while on this safari.  Rest assured that there were no treadmills at the Oldarpoi.  By the way, “Oldarpoi” is the name of a tree that is abundant in the Masai Mara Reserve, which features these sausage-looking ornaments hanging from it that are a favorite with the elephants and the locals alike (the locals make wine from it).

Anyway, Alek insisted that he not miss any days of running while on safari, so when Nigara was booking the accommodations with Nelson, Nelson kindly offered to have the Masai warriors accompany Alek and me for our runs so we wouldn’t be consumed by the non-human locals.  This worked out even better than Alek and I could have imagined.  The setting was ideal – cool, crisp air and rolling hills along dirt roads that wind through a breathtaking savannah landscape.

And having the luxury of outstanding runners by your side who also happen to wield a spear and sword as well as anybody to fend off dangerous wildlife was a nice perk.  Alek enjoyed three runs with the warriors and I did two runs.  The key word in Swahili that we learned for these runs was “Po-lay, Po-lay” (please pardon the phonetic spelling), which means “slowly.”  Alek and I had to gasp this word pleadingly a few times to reel in the speedy, zero-percent-body fat warriors.  Nevertheless, the warriors were wonderful running companions and we were grateful for their efforts.  These runs were one of the highlights of a very enjoyable visit to the Masai Mara Reserve.  They served as a great tune-up for the serious high altitude training that awaited us in Iten, Kenya.

Apart from the food, the wildlife, and the great runs, I should also note that we enjoyed surprisingly blissful slumber during our four-day stay.  The cool and crisp air and pitch dark conditions after 8:30 p.m. blended with a symphony of sounds from the surrounding wildlife that lulled us into a deep, trance-like sleep, far better than the night’s rest that we had at the Inter-Continental Hotel with the bright lights and cacophony of unpleasant urban sounds from the bustling city immediately below our window.

And let me end on this note of irony.  While on my run with one of the Masai warriors, I heard a ringtone from a Leona Lewis song (one of my favorite pop divas) out of nowhere and thought I was hallucinating.  Then I see Jackson, my warrior running companion, reach down on his belt and produce a cell phone, located right next to his razor-sharp Masai warrior knife, and proceed to have a conversation on the phone while running with me!

I was too dumbfounded to do anything but chuckle to myself at this ironic scenario.  Upon further reflection, though, I was worried that the long-arm of Western high-tech gadgets could spoil the serenity and mystery of the Masai culture, which has remained largely isolated from Western influence for centuries.  But then again, as long as they can continue to keep the McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Wal-Marts out of the Masai Mara Reserve, they will probably be just fine.