Late Aug | 166 km | 1D | Mountain | F:2K | 46 HL | △△△△ | Multi-Country
As I was flying to Arusha, on the way to a town called Moshi, I couldn’t stop thinking of the adventure ahead. I’d be running my third marathon and climbing Kilimanjaro with 12 other runners, all crazy enough to fly halfway around the world for the event.
At the start line the morning of the Kilimanjaro Marathon, a yellow and blue banner overhead read, “It’s Kili time! Make the most of it.” Everyone was jumping around with energy and nerves, ready to run. The gun went off just as the sun was rising. It didn’t take long for things to warm up.
I tried to take it easy, since I was starting the mountain climb the next day, but my adrenaline got the best of me. I ran hard for two-and-a-half hours, passing through the town of Moshi and being cheered by hundreds of onlookers. Most of the runners were African and male, so I looked a bit out of place and drew stares. This only made people cheer more for me, so I didn’t mind. At mile 16, the course veered towards Kili’s peak and the next five miles were straight uphill. I’d trained on hills, but not in 80-degree heat. My training also wasn’t complete, since I’d been training for Boston, still a month away, when I got the crazy idea to sign up for this race. But dwelling on it wasn’t going to make the hill going away, so I’d just have to get through it.
After two miles of grueling running, I was miserable and trying my best to keep slowly chugging along. As my attitude plummeted, an energetic young Tanzanian girl bounded uphill beside me. She was encouraging me to run faster, pulling me forward by the hand. I was so tired. I didn’t really respond at first. In fact, I was a bit annoyed. I couldn’t go any faster and she hadn’t been running the past 16 miles, I thought. But as we neared the turnaround, I realized I was being rude, so I asked the girl her name and we started to chat.
Her name was Vanessa, and she was 12. I expected to say goodbye to her at the turnaround, but she stayed with me. We had five downhill miles left. I was picking up speed as gravity and inertia did their work. I wondered how long she would keep up, but she never fell back. After three miles, I noticed Vanessa was wearing sandals! A broad strip of plastic was all that held a flimsy pad to each foot, yet she was running an eight-minute-mile pace. She finished the race with me and I bought her a big ice cream cone to celebrate. Kenneth, another foreign runner in my group, finished the race directly after me. The impressive part was that he was 67 at the time. I’d been humbled on either end of the age spectrum.
The next day, we traveled for six hours up Kilimanjaro’s Machame route through the African jungle to a height of ten thousand feet. It was a beautiful climb, more like a steep hike. Most of us had no trouble, despite the marathon. The route was draped in tropical greens, glistening from the rain. Vibrant green moss covered the damp twigs and logs that lined the trail of gravel, dirt, and mud. Large boulders provided firm footing from time to time. I could hear monkeys in the distance. The incline varied from flat to relentlessly uphill, although the flat portions were few and far between. “Pole, pole,” meaning “slowly, slowly,” was the anthem of our march.
We took frequent breaks, eating snacks of soggy bread, stale crackers, and black currant juice, along with an obscene amount of water. Even though many of us were taking Diamox to prevent altitude sickness, we still had to drink—it’s the best thing for acclimatization. It rained for a good part of our trek, and my rain hood made it difficult to see anything but the feet in front of me. I made an effort to glance up periodically, and was rewarded with amazing views. We passed waterfalls, lookout points, and streams trickling gently along. It was serenity in its wildest form.
When we reached the campsite, we congregated in the kitchen tent for tea, popcorn, and biscuits and I chatted with the group. I soon realized I was the odd man out, since it seemed everyone had been anticipating this trip for almost a year, whereas I’d made a snap decision less than two weeks ago. In my rush, it hadn’t occurred to me that others with more normal lives actually plan vacations. I don’t always want to be normal, but in this instance I did.
The next day, we climbed to 12,000 feet. We transitioned from the jungle to the heather zone, climbing beyond the tree line into a fairytale landscape where dry patches of grass sprung up through elephant-skin rock. A soft fog hung around us, as we weren’t quite above the clouds. We continued through the muted scenery for some time before reaching a small waterfall. Three strands of water poured out of the rocks above, as if three knights were guarding the cave entrance behind them. With nothing to do all day but hike, talk, and think, my mind started wandering.
I thought back to my jungle-themed childhood bedroom. I recalled its leaf-green walls, rainforest paintings my dad brought back from Costa Rica, and giraffe and elephant statues. It even had a full tree house on stilts. On the wood frame of my bunk beds, Dad and I once carved all of the places we wanted to travel together. Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Savannah, Mykonos, Barcelona, Bangkok. I’m not sure Kilimanjaro made the list, but it would have if I’d thought about it. Thinking back to that day when Dad and I imagined all the places we could go, I felt grateful to be in Tanzania. I was doing what my childhood-self had dreamed of doing.
By the third day, my body was starting to feel the altitude. After eight hours of hiking, we reached 15,100 feet, but then we climbed back down to camp at 12,800 feet. I knew it was good for us to be exposed to the thin air above for a brief time before immersing ourselves in it over the next two days. But it was a bit demoralizing to walk downhill for half the day, knowing we would have to walk back up the next morning. My head hurt. It was throbbing from the altitude and exertion. I was better off than some, though. A couple from Sweden fell fiercely ill and it became clear they would have to go down. I took comfort in the fact that the summit day was near. One more day of climbing and then we would make attempt.
The next morning, I followed my typical morning routine of stuffing myself with biscuits and far too much coffee and Milo. We were above the heather region now, rising into the rocky terrain above the clouds. We were following a nearly vertical, snaking trail traversing the great Barranco Wall. I was feeling pretty adventurous until I saw the train of porters ahead of me carrying loads of pots and pans, food supplies, and my team’s personal gear on their backs. While my fellow trekkers and I slowly made our way up the mountain in our waterproof jackets and hiking boots, the porters wore sandals and T-shirts. The best dressed among them had Converse sneakers. I realized how privileged I was to be out there climbing as a client and that this privilege had weakened me somehow, so I needed the waterproof jacket and hiking boots.
Along the walk, we enjoyed fleeting glimpses of Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru peak. Our guides explained the mountain is shy, revealing itself for a moment and then disappearing swiftly behind the clouds. When my team and I got to our camp that night, we were two short. The Swedish couple had descended. A few others were in bad shape. One fellow from New York with a bad knee insisted on continuing even after the guides advised him to go down. The woman from South Africa had altitude sickness, but she seemed strong.
By nightfall, everyone had gathered in the dining tent for popcorn and tea before dinner. We were jittery with excitement. The summit attempt would start at midnight. A gentle rustle of my tent woke me out of a deep, dream-filled sleep just before the day changed. When I unzipped the tent, I found a porter holding a plate of biscuits and Milo. Heaven!
Catching a glimpse of the stunning night sky outside my tent, I was as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. I watched, fixated, as lightning flashed miles behind the scattered lights of Moshi while the Milky Way twinkled overhead. It stood out like a sparkling stream against the blackness of the universe beyond.
My team gathered to begin the ascent, all chilled by the midnight frost. We headed up a single-track trail. By the light of our headlamps, we pushed forward up the steep path, “pole, pole.” Other than looking up to check for threatening rocks and steal glances of the moon, all I saw for the next few hours was a little circle of light and the feet of the climber in front of me plodding up and over the rocks. We had 4,600 feet to climb, relentlessly weaving back and forth over tight switchbacks. The guides warned us not to expect many stops, but I was starting to grow hungry. As we neared the summit, the hunger intensified. I was going on juice boxes and a handful of nuts every now and again. The climb was brutally monotonous. I just kept following the feet ahead of me, step after step, ever upward. I felt near desperation, starving and mentally drained as day broke.
Gazing into the wondrous Tanzanian sunrise, my mood lifted. We were supposed to see sunrise from the summit, but we were running late. A psychologist in my group was having knee problems and a South African woman was struggling with every step. Just before we reached the final ridge, the two went down, the psychologist in a wheelbarrow! Three porters carried him, putting them all at risk given the altitude and steep trails. We were all pretty upset with the situation, since he had been advised not to attempt the summit in the first place.
Our team was only ten now. As we rose over the ridge, I could see Uhuru Peak. There was still a ways to go, but the sight gave me a much-needed second wind. I forgot about my hunger and set off for the summit, noticing a huge glacier and snow-capped rocks alongside me. As I finally reached Uhuru Peak, my eyes welled up with tears and goose bumps coursed across my skin. All I could think was how proud my Mom would be. I’d just lost her to cancer a year prior, a few months after she saw me finish my first marathon. She is the reason I’m here, I thought. She taught me the importance of living life to its fullest and the power of hard work and perseverance. She made me believe I could take on anything.
It had taken seven hours to get to the summit, and we were three hours into the descent when we finally got to our camp. The sun was burning-hot and the dust made breathing insufferable. We ate lunch, then had another four hours to go. A sense of preemptive nostalgia hit me as I realized we’d be saying goodbye to Kili the next day. I knew I’d miss the mountain, but I also had plenty to look forward to. It was my first great adventure of hopefully many.
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