Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 21 February 2013

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Rift Valley

I am training for a half-marathon on the slopes of Mount Kenya in June and I must prepare myself for failure. I may not even make it to the starting gun because at 47 I can look back on a life littered with unfinished book projects, smashed resolutions and missed deadlines.

Since I last ran cross-country at school I’ve drunk around 10,000 bottles of wine and at least 1,000 litres of vodka.For about 15 years, I smoked a pack of fags a day, so that’s 110,000 cigarettes. After school I rarely took exercise unless it involved chasing women, shooting birds, or running away from people shooting at me. Until now I have been able to delude myself that I am tough, frightfully tough, because I have ‘good genes’. But I’m falling apart and by the second kilometre of my routine run I hit a wall of pain that has me clutching at my chest, and my ten-year-old son Rider, who is already a good runner, has to jog on the spot, laughing and pointing at me coughing my lungs up.

It is no good being the overfed descendant of heavy-boned Vikings and fancying oneself as an athlete in Kenya, home of the world’s greatest long-distance runners. Highlanders here are a superior species, with huge hearts, big lungs and wiry, almost bird-like, frames. I am a sauropod among velociraptors — but I still think I might gain tips by hanging out with Kenyan runners.

My inspiration has long been Sammy Wanjiru, winner of the Beijing marathon, plus London and a string of American races before his tragic death at 24. I used to see him running in the misty dawn at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet. His technique was to ‘kill’ his opponent after the true wall of pain hits at 30 kilometres — by sprinting in short bursts, then easing off, then sprinting again. Talent-spotted by a man called Shunichi Kobayashi, Wanjiru was plucked as a teenager from the farmlands just up the road from my home and sent to school in Japan. Here he ran ekiden — the huge long-distance relay races put on by Japan’s big corporation teams, known as the jitsugyodan. Sammy learnt the code of gaman, a Zen Buddhist term for calm endurance, ideal for the mental discipline required of great runners.

Off the track it was a different story. I never met Sammy, but at different times we both drank a lot of beer in the same country town bars near our farm. Two years ago during a drunken quarrel with his wife, Sammy fell from an upper storey of his house and dashed his brains out. According to Britain’s own former champion David Bedford, Wanjiru was ‘probably the greatest marathon runner we have ever seen’.

‘Such talent — so much talent,’ Mr Kobayashi told me when I went to talk to him about Kenyan runners. Wanjiru might have been a god, but as far as Kobayashi is concerned, there are countless more where he came from in my home area of the Rift Valley. He told me, ‘In this part of Kenya, if you throw a stone, wherever it falls you will find a good runner — no need to search too hard.’

I thought I might learn something if I ran alongside Wanjiru’s young comrades. One dawn I met Olympic coach Peter Mathu at a rough-and-ready track overlooking the Rift Valley volcano of Longonot. Any expectations I might have had about joining in immediately vanished. Mathu was pushing a couple of dozen athletes through a speed-training session that was utterly relentless. Some of the runners were poor enough to not own a pair of running shoes — and they certainly had little chance of a decent breakfast after warming down.

‘A western child goes to school in a car,’ Mathu explained. ‘But these Kenyans start running at six years old — to go to school. They accumulate mileage early.’ There might be a handful of champions on this very track today, Mathu said. I went away proud of Kenya, but depressed about my own chances of making it around the Lewa Downs track without making a fool of myself on 29 June. Sir Ranulph Fiennes ran seven marathons in seven days — months after heart surgery. Eddie Izzard ran 43 marathons in 51 days — when he was exactly my age. Surely it can be done. My family and friends rather doubt it.