The blazing African sun poured over me as we passed through the archaic wooden gate and out into the open plains of the Massai Marra. Mavo, a modern day young Massai Warrior, moved effortlessly along side of me. His dark, slender physique was reminiscent of the powerful forefathers that roamed this wild country. Our feet turned in synchronicity and the dust kicked up behind us on the desert of Kenya…
My quest to run with the Kenyans had become a reality. And it was more then what I had thought to be “the Kenyans,” it was the ancient Massai Warrior tribe. Little did I realize that nearly every step would integrate a new lesson I had learned this year about running. Now, it was time to embrace the moment…
The one book I brought on this trip to Kenya was Born to Run, written by Chris McDougal. The story is of a reporter covering the mystical Tarahumara ultra-distance runners and the best American ultra-runners pitted in the “race of the century” in the fabled of the Copper Canyons of Mexico. It’s not only a great read, but inserts a variety of style oriented “secrets” to ultra-distance running. It was a perfect complement to the year I have had. While I have not broken through into the ultra realm I have begun to run a lot more this year, to the point where stepping out for a fifteen miler is actually a highly enjoyable pursuit.
So there I was, lying in bed in my Safari Camp in the Massai Mara region. The sound of the river was overshadowed only by a pack of laughing hyenas. I paused to ponder with dichotomy as they laughed and killed.
I clicked on my headlamp to once again enter the world of ultra-distance running. I hung on every word as the exciting race came to a finish. With one chapter remaining and not wanting it to end, I decided to treat myself to one last read the following day. I closed the book, drifted off and began dreaming of ultra-running, but the run was not for a race. The run was for a hunt. A hunt with the Massai Warriors across the open African plains…
The Massai have always had everything they need for surviving: two feet and a very sharp spear. That’s it. And not even shoes. Only the kings had that privledge apparently. Well okay maybe a make-shift shield to protect themselves when they hunted lion, but no horse and nothing to ride and enable them to hunt down their prey except themselves. Turns out the Zebras are much more like a wild donkey and not very helpful when it comes to riding.
Somehow still the Massai were able to hunt down their pretty and survive on the African plains. It turns out that humans really were born to run. And in fact, there isn’t another species with even close to the capacity to run ultra distances. Sure, the cheetah is the fastest animal on land and will take down their prey on a sprint of a couple hundred yards or less.
A pride of lions will stalk prey waiting in the grass and separate the weak from the pack for the kill. Lions are actually otherwise quite lazy. Maybe this was perhaps the real reason why the Massai chose to hunt them.
A pack of Hyenas will wait until the kill has already been made and sneak in for the steal.
And as for the hunted, mostly they stick together, signal each other in various ways and run like hell for those short distances as well. Take the gazelle for instance, these animals have a relatively short ability to escape the kill. Why? For starters they don’t have sweat glands and no way to stop from overheating. These animals need to rest to get ready for a another burst of escapism.
Survival on the African plains is primarily a series of short term events. Remember, it’s Africa, and it’s often hot. So what then was the primary Massai strategy for the hunt? RUN. And keep running until the animals can’t run anymore. They wouldn’t have to catch them on the first burst, or even the second, third, fourth or fifth. And would only need to keep the prey within eye sight, which is some distance on the open plains of Africa. Eventually, tired to the point of exhaustion, the Warriors would come in with their sharp spears and finish the job.
So there I was running toe to toe with Mavo the Ilkeliani. I fell into stride as I felt the pure joy of being able to even consider making something like this happen. I began to remember the techniques I had learned from my mentors. I thought about Stu Mittleman who had coached me in my Endurance Mountain Race this year – and immediately began to monitor my breathing, vision and perceived rate of exertion to keep me from my entering my sugar burning zone too early in the game. I remembered the motivation of Rick Ivone and his dream to run his 100 miles in 24 hours next year. I flashed to running in the snow with Smitty in Jackson Hole just a few weeks ago as he taught me Chi Running techniques and how to “run like the Kenyans.”
I snapped out of it as I heard Mavo laugh. I looked over and he had a big smile on his face. “Okay Mavo, what’s the secret to being able to run like you?” I asked, with a big smile on my face. “Just enjoy. That is secret. Smile. Be happy. We will enjoy.” Isn’t that the truth. Let’s get back to basics. Enjoy it! Count me in. A wave of goose bumps flowed over me as my smile got even bigger. We continued past our first herd of livestock and bobbed and weaved through the cattle as if it was a game.
Massai Plains Run
I focused on my breathing to optimize my lung capacity. I remembered my long time mentor, Gurucharan Singh Khalsa and the dynamic meditation and breathwalk techniques he had taught me. Smooth big belly breaths flowed through me filling me up with great flowing energy.
We cruised along side the local town center and off into the country side. The look on the local village people as we ran past was priceless. Head cocked to the side with eyebrows squinting together. What was this Mazumbo (white person) doing? I shouted out the local Massai greeting to each passing villager. “Supa!! Habari Aku (Swahilee How are you)?” “Supa!” They would reply with a hand up. The wheels kept turning and I paid closer attention to Musa’s form. He was kicking up his feet in a fast rotation flowing behind him and his arms were moving back and forth like a smooth piston machine.
We kicked it into overdrive as we cruised along past a herds of goats, farm houses and the local school. The sun screen was starting to drip into my eyes and I pulled off my shirt to wipe off the sweat. If I wasn’t white enough before, I sure was now! But it felt amazing.
A breeze kicked up and the movement and flow of air cooled my hot Mazumbo body. We kept running and I shared what little water I had by tossing the bottle in the air and having a game of sharing the water.
Soon we were somewhere close to the middle of no where when Mavo slowed the pace. “We walk now.” “Asawa, Asawa,” I replied.
We continued up a sizable hill while the conversation flowed between us. We talked about his dream of being a business man and the challenges of the people of Kenya, and of the United States.
When we had made the crest one lonesome tree was off in the distance. “Look how far we go.” We turned back to see the town way off in the distance and it was clear that our return run was going to be a long but highly enjoyable downhill descent. We made it to the tree and paused under the only shade we would find amidst the desperate African heat.
I used the opportunity to expand my Swahili vocabulary.
“How do you say in Swahili, ‘We are running?’”
“Tu-na Kim Bee-aa.”
I quickly went to a pneumonic device by picturing Charlie the Tuna Fish hanging out by a grade school friend Kim while being chased by a bee. Done!
“Now how about, ‘We are having fun?’ “
“Pata Raha!” he said while laughing and jumping up and down.
Awesome. A vision of a duck holding his stomach laughing out loud came to mind… “Ra.. ha ha ha ha ha.” Perfect.
Soon enough we were off again and running a different way back toward the local village. I fell back into form and I began to vividly experience the memory of the Massai hunt. Off in the distance antelope scattered and it was as if I had seen this hunt before. I imagined the motivation to feed the village as we moved across the plains toward the animals. I felt an almost ironic sense of peace fall over me.
Up ahead three young children were playing on the make shift deck of their shanty cabin. “Tu-Na Kim Bea!” I waved and shouted out with hands waving and a big smile. “Pata Raha!” The children mimicked my behavior and jumped up and down calling back to the crazy Mazumbo. I kept the connection going with many of the locals with my shout-outs and each time felt a sense of gratitude that I could bring a smile to someone’s face.
As we ran through the winding roads back into the village we slowed to let a car pass, when I noticed another subtle running technique that Smitty had told me would be the most difficult to take on. Mavo kept running in place as we let the dust pass. And while he did his style became more pronounced. He was twisting his hips back an forth, kind of like a salsa dance move. Twisting the hips was all part of naturally running with ease. I smiled again and began twisting my hips ever so slightly into the next cycle of running.
“Nataka magi biridi!” was the last phrase I learned from Mavo as we entered the home stretch in preparation to share the story with the local friends. I visualized the tribe greeting us on the return from the hunt in celebration.
My soul smiled with an acknowledgment as we ran into the camp with an overwhelming feeling that I was indeed, born to run.
Interesting links with more information:
More about the Maasai People:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maasai_peopleShort Maasai Video
A great video about the Tarahumara runners of copper canyonWatch Born To Run Ted Talk by Chris McDougal
This is where I stayed and highly recommend the place in Kenya on Massai Mara:
Stu Mittleman: Slow Burn A link to one of his videos on how to choose a running shoe:
Gurucharan Singh Khalsa and Breathwalk concepts: http://www.gurucharan.com
Swahili Language: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swahili_language
Seeking True North: My book written with the incredible Erick Erickson, which includes various models, methods and tools similar to the pneumonic device I used to remember the new language phrases. Also, the reason that I actually do cool things like the story in this blog. www.seekingtruenorth.com
Bendetta at Magical Africa for logistics support and finding the ilkeliani for me! www.magicalafrica.net
Thanks to Holly Baade for your inspiration and giving me born to run for my trip. You rock!