Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Michelle Sikes in Kenya: A Long Hill

Michelle Sikes Doing Hill Work in ItenMichelle Sikes, Rhodes Scholar-extraordinaire, has spent the past few weeks in and around western Kenya  pursuing some first-person scholarship about the rise of the female Kenyan distance runner.  Between dozens of interviews with local running legends, she has even managed to fit in some training, and shares below…

We ran up a mountain today.  Godfrey (Kiprotich) was EXACTLY on-time – 8:30am on the dot.  Thinking that he just might happen to arrive late, I went off to breakfast in order to have a pre-run coffee.  However, just after I left the room, he pulled up in Ben Maiyo’s faithful white truck!

We took our usual seats, in our usual order, in the cabin of the truck.  From left to right, we sit (fellow Oxford student) Jonathan, then me, and then Godfrey behind the wheel (the driver sits on the right in Kenya!  Another legacy of the British…)  We passed the Viewpoint and from there, it was down, down, down…The Viewpoint was to be our finish line.  Our starting point was a primary school 2000 meters below it. The distance we were going to run was for me, 6km, and for Jonathan, 7km.

Godfrey parked the truck just before the primary school, exactly 6km away from the viewpoint.  Jonathan and I then jogged for 10 minutes and stretched.  Meanwhile, a boy and a girl who were walking down the road stopped by the truck.  Godfrey, the friendliest man on planet Earth, immediately began to get to know them.  The two were siblings and the girl was a few years older.  She very recently had completed high school and was going on to attend university at Moi University, Chepkoliel campus.  Her goal is to become an accountant and her English was very good, signs that she is both intelligent and ambitious.  More than that, she was polite and friendly, and I liked her a lot.  After Godfrey explained what we were going to do (run up the mountain), she said that she would like to become a runner too.  Godfrey gave her his contact information and perhaps he will be her coach from a distance, over email.

After taking a few pre-run pictures, finishing the conversation and the last-minute stretches, it was time to run!  I took off down the road in the direction of the viewpoint while Jonathan ran in the opposite direction.  The plan was for him to run for 90 seconds away from me, turn around, and then run on in the same direction as I was going for the rest of the run.  We hoped that such a strategy would leave him far enough behind that he wouldn’t catch up to me in the first few minutes of the run, yet at the same time would allow him to pass me before I finished running.  It worked beautifully!

Michelle Passing Schoolboys in ItenThe first kilometre was relatively flat.  I kept it easy because I was very aware of what was ahead.  Godfrey, in his truck, caught me just after the 1km and for the rest of the run, the white truck was never far away.  At the base of the first very long and steep hill, Godfrey stopped the truck and dashed down the road towards me, brandishing the water bottle in front of him.  Once he was level with me, he jogged alongside with the bottle so that I could take a small swing and return it to him.  I’m not sure which was more helpful, the water or his words of encouragement!  It took both to get me up that hill.  “Hill” is not a fair word to describe this incline, because I use the same word for “hill” repeats in Oxford.  This hill simply kept going and going.  I didn’t dare look up too much for fear that the sight of it extending beyond my field of vision might leave me too disheartened to keep going.

The rocks under my feet were both a challenge and a blessing.  Challenge because I had to navigate a path around them and blessing because the focus that that task required was a welcome distraction from the thought that still, I was going uphill.

At 4km, I reached the road!  This was a good change for several reasons.  Most importantly, the terrain switched from dusty, rocky dirt to compact, flat and even tarmac.  It was much easier to travel over this ground than it was to run along the dirt path.  Secondly, Godfrey gave me my second swig of water and further verbal encouragement – both very needed!  Third, I knew that I had conquered the forbidding dirt hill and that I had only 2km to go.  Last, but not least, I looked below me as I rounded the sharp right-hand bend onto the tarmac road and I could see Jonathan just reaching the summit of the dirt hill below.  I knew that it wasn’t long before he would catch me, but the thought that he was coming along behind was another distraction from the interminable climbing.

Jonathan said afterwards that as he reached the road, he felt like he was competing in the Tour de France.  He was like Lance, having left the pelaton to try to chase down an errant biker ahead.  I was the breakaway bike, with the car of cameras (aka Godfrey in his truck) alongside.  Of course, the part that made it most like the Tour was the fact that we were at 8000 feet and still climbing!!

Michelle Sikes Over the Rift ValleyJonathan soon went past, and I kept on pushing.  I had settled into a sort-of rhythm with the main goal to just keep going.  I relied on my favorite mental tactic of counting from 1 to a certain number, 100 in this case, over and over.  It kept me focused on something besides how far I still had to travel!  Switchback, then another switchback brought me to the final push – 500 meters from the finish at the Viewpoint.  There is no doubt that those last 500 meters were the most difficult of the entire run!  Godfrey was there in his truck, shouting out the distances as I covered them – inch by slow and painful inch.

That last stretch was unquestionably the most difficult portion of the run for me.  I wanted so much to stop, but I knew that I couldn’t.  Again, seeing Godfrey in his truck ahead and hearing his countdown of the meters I had left to travel was a huge help in the fight against this feeling.

Finally, I could see the tree in the eye of the needle that was road around the top of the Viewpoint.  I could see Godfrey out of his car and waving at the imaginary line that marked the end of the hill.  I could see Jonathan shuffling towards me and was happy for his company for the last few meters of the run.  Before I knew it, I was finished!!

All in all, it was a tremendous workout.  It was a tempo and a hill session combined, at altitude, for nearly 30 minutes.  After finishing it, I really felt like I had accomplished something significant, and the challenge inherent to it made it exciting.  Most of all, the comraderie among Jonathan, Godfrey and me made it genuinely fun.

I’ve enjoyed every single second of being in Kenya.  Even my Swahili is coming along, under Godfrey’s expert coaching!  My hope is that the next 10 days are as stimulating, challenging and fun as the last 11 days have been!

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One response to “Michelle Sikes in Kenya: A Long Hill”

  1. Sher Bush says:

    Dear Ms. Michelle Sikes,

    I am co-president of a running club in Michigan called soul2sole. ‘Soultosole Running’ on Facebook. We have a member who resides in Eldoret, Kenya. We have sent him shoes & an s2s training shirt. We have questions & a story we would love to share with you pertaining to our ‘sole-brother’ and your experience in Kenya. Email us please at your convenience at

    Thank you.

    Sher Bush
    co-president soul2sole running club