Like most boarding high schools, my high school had a mandatory one hour of sports every evening Monday through Friday, 4.30 – 5.30 p.m. We called it games time. There was a variety of indoor and outdoor sporting activities to choose from -badminton, table tennis, netball, volleyball, and the now extinct tennikoit. I loved tennikoit and moan its demise, alongside that of rounders (Anyone remember rounders, the distant cousin of baseball?). During the start of athletics season, all other sports were set aside and everyone was required to participate in athletics and field events, in order to pick teams that would represent the school in regional inter-schools competitions.
On one of those seasons, the school was preparing to pick a cross country team. We had a no nonsense games teacher by the name Mr. Wairia. With the exception of the sick, the dying or the dead (that was his usual call – “can I have the sick, the dying and the dead!”), everyone else had to run the selected cross-country route.
The route passed through farms in the school’s neighbourhood, open grass fields and wooded areas, and a small shopping center – your typical cross-country route. Towards the end of the route, about a mile out from the school, was the toughest part of the route– a long inclining hill that seemed to go on forever. Right at the top of the hill were some bushes and long grass. On the first day of the run, my best friend (and partner in crime) and I took note of the bushes. And the long grass.
Day 2 of cross country, and as soon as we were out of the school gate, everyone else ran clockwise. My BFF and I went counter-clockwise but only up to the top of hill. Into the bushes we disappeared. We crouched and waited. After a while, the first few runners zoomed by. In a typical long distant run, there is a gap between the leading pack and everyone else. Let’s just say we saw that vacant space, stormed out of our resting place and run, arriving at school among the top ten runners!
We pulled this ‘trick’ for a couple more days, without being caught. No one seemed to notice that we were not sweating profusely at the finishing line. Or that our general body shapes were surely not the running type, at least not at the pace we were posting.
What we did not know is that these runs were the preliminary stages of forming the school cross-country team. We ended up on the shortlist. It was time to do some serious training for this group in order to pick the elite team –crème de crème! The next run, only this select group was to participate, with teachers keeping watch all along the route to make sure that everyone was running as per the rules. There was no way to pull the counterclockwise move.
Long story short, we did not die, but I came quite close. All I could think was there had to be easier, less painful way to die! By the time we made our way back to school, the games were over, everyone had gone for dinner, and teacher who was assigning position numbers had given up and gone home… And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story how I almost ended up in cross country team.
Several years later, running has become my preferred exercise and drug of choice. I have been asked why I run and my standard response is that I run as penance – to make up for my high school sins!
The real reason though, is I ran because running is the one activity that I was never designed for. I just cannot run! Why?
For starters, as soon as my mother named me Njeri, my fate was sealed! You may have heard of Mwalim Njeri, Njeri Kanjura (Councilor), Njeri wa Thoko , Njeri wa Mitumba or Pastor Njeri. But have you ever heard of a Njeri who runs when nothing is chasing her? Me neither. If you want to raise a child to be a marathon runner, Njeri as a name is not a great start.
Then there is the physique. No one would ever confuse me for a Kaleo or other running naturals. You have seen them; the ones with long slender bodies, lean long muscles and not an iota of fat or flab. I happen to be the exact opposite at 5ft 2.3 in (yes that is two point three inches. I claim every millimeter due to me). As far as flab endowment goes, if you can imagine a spectrum with a Japanese Sumo wrestler on one end and a marathon runner on the other, I would be closer to the Sumo Wrestler than to a Jeptoo. I even have flat feet to compete that Sumo wrestler picture.
Add that to the fact that I was born in Nyandarua, where I spent my earlier childhood before moving to Laikipia. There is nothing in these two counties that says ‘run’! Sure, there is the occasional talented athlete such as the late Samuel Wanjiru (may his soul rest in peace) but that is the exception rather than the norm. Compare that with a county like Elegeyo-Marakwet, where just landing in Iten and breathing the air gets your feet all fidgety for a run!
Running to me represents something that requires hard work. Because it does not come naturally to me, it challenges my whole being – will power, mental and physical endurance and my commitment to achieving seemingly unsurmountable goals. Crossing the finishing line is the ultimate goal. But between the day when you sign up for a run and the run day itself, there will be 3 or 4 months of agonizing training. The weather is great on some days, on other days it is rainy and stormy. On some days, you are pumped up and ready to go, while on others, even wearing running shoe and getting out of the door is an uphill task. There is blistering, muscle injuries, twisted ankles, painful knees, pulled calf muscle and hamstrings.
With each run, I build the mental fortitude necessary for everyday challenges. Whether in the office or at home, the plan applies: focus on the race day (end goal), have a training plan (plan), and execute the plan one-step at a time.
Penance for my high school sins is an added benefit.1