The Globetrotting Diaries: Running with the Masai

Africa

Maasai Shepherd Leading Flock of Goats, Kenya, East Africa

As an avid runner, I always make room for my running shoes and gear when I travel, with the best intentions to fit in a few runs while I am away. If I am honest, the gear doesn’t always make it out of my suitcase and as I like to travel with carry-on only I find myself peeved at wasting precious space.

Having said that, on my trip to Kenya in November 2019 I was feeling the need to go for a run more than ever. Perhaps it was knowing I was in the country that is home to the best long-distance runners in world or maybe it was the need to run off all the delicious food the safari lodges were offering up for breakfast, lunch, tea, snacks, and dinners, followed by delicious treats left on our pillows each night, and warm baked goods arriving with pre-dawn coffee delivery each morning to gently wake you up before you head out on early morning game drives.

We were doing an epic 14-day safari that was jam-packed full of awe-inspiring game drives, but game drives do tend to keep you in the safari vehicle, which does not help burn off any of the extra calories I was indulging in treats and my legs were just itching to run. But how exactly does one run in the Masai Mara when one is not a Masai who is raised learning how to interact with wild animals and runs for transportation? Well, at Cottar’s 1920s Camp in the Masai they’ve actually got that covered and they arrange for guests to go running with one of their Masai staff members. I was paired with Salash Pirikana, who is nicknamed “Impala” due to his prodigious jumping.

Comparing footwear. (Credit: Carolyn Weppler)

Some things to keep in mind about this moment in time: I am 54-years old while Salash does not speak a word of English and is about 22-years old. I am wearing my brand new Nikes and running tights while he is in sandals and his normal work attire (making one question if one needs any special gear at all).

One doesn’t just set out for a normal run through a conservancy though. A meeting time is set and the running guide meets you. Our driver guide Wilson follows in our safari vehicle and my friend and colleague Moira Smith is along for the ride to take a video of the entire event.

The actual run takes place in the middle of the day and it is pretty hot so I only last about 25 minutes, but they are an exhilarating 25 minutes that pass by in a flash with zebra and impala on both sides of me. It’s a feast for the eyes and like no run I have ever gone on. I have to remind Salash several times that my pace hovers in the 8-9 km per hour range versus his 13-15km per hour range. I do this through hand signals as I have no Masai in my vocabulary and he no English, but he does eventually slow his pace. My heart is racing as we turn each corner, worrying about an encounter with a lone male water buffalo, as those guys are cranky and pretty volatile, but in the end we see none. We return to camp in the late afternoon and Cottar’s has set up a portable safari bath tub full of bubbles on the deck of my safari tent, complete with a bottle of bubbly and hors d’oeuvres for sunset viewing and post-run relaxation.

This was truly an unparalleled experience and a unique travel memory I can relive on my regular running route back home.