Climbing Mount Kenya

As I had run a few half marathons before (and hadn’t appreciated just how tough the Maasai Mara half marathon actually was!), when I embarked on my fundraising for So They Can I decided to add in a few extra challenges to engage you, my supporters.  So I came up with a trifecta of events in a 2 week period – the Maasai Mara half marathon, a 5-day hike up Mount Kenya and a 29km trail run back in Sydney.  I’m happily now two-thirds of the way through, having completed my hike up Mount Kenya last week.

Mount-Kenya-046-1024x768I did a lot of hiking when I lived in the UK.  I grew up living near the Peak District and then Snowdonia National Park so lots of opportunities to get out for walks.  I’ve hiked less in Australia – perhaps because of a fear of all the snakes, spiders and other creatures lying in wait for me…  As a result, its been over 15 years since I did a multi-day hike and the only mountains I’ve climbed have been day hikes – Mt Snowdon in Wales and Mt Kosciusko in Australia.  So climbing Mt Kenya was definitely going to be a challenge, and an unknown entity.

Day one was a pretty relaxed day of trekking (thank goodness as we had started trekking on Monday, having completed the half marathon on Saturday).  We travelled out to Mt Kenya National Park where we met our guide, David, from Last Mile Treks, and our entourage – 2 porters, a cook, a waiter(!) and another general helper.  All for just me and my friend Simon, who had joined me from London for the trek.  We hiked for about 3 hours on relatively easy terrain, covering a distance of 10kms to arrive at Old Moses Camp.  Yep, Day One went well and we fell asleep in our hut feeling accomplished and happy to be embarking on this adventure.

imageOur second day of trekking was a longer day, covering a distance of about 16km but over more challenging terrain and so it took us about 7 hours to reach our destination, Shipton Camp.  We crossed 2 valleys which involved some serious climbs, and increased our altitude to 4300m.  I could feel the shortness of breath that came with the change in altitude and it became important to pace ourselves and take things slowly.  One of the biggest mistakes that trekkers make in these conditions is to go out too fast – to try and complete the trek at their normal pace and not give their body the time to adjust to the changes in altitude.  We saw a fellow hiker, a young American guy, suffer quite severely from altitude sickness that day.  He headed out about the same time as we did from Old Moses but galloped away into the distance.  When we arrived at Shipton Camp some time after him, he had headaches, no appetite and was screaming out how he just wanted to get off the mountain. The next day, instead of climbing to the peak, he returned to Nairobi.

Shipton Camp sits at the base of the final ascent to Mount Kenya. Its basic, but provides a bed and much needed shelter.  It is also unbelievably cold.  There’s no heating and so as the night draws in you are reliant on the many layers of clothing you packed to keep you warm.  This picture should give you some idea…

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I hadn’t grasped it would be so cold on the mountain, not when we were so close to the equator and the temperatures everywhere else had been high 20s.  How could it be minus 3 on the mountain?  I had actually packed a ski suit – not because I thought I would need it, but because it was the only hard shell wet weather gear I could get my hands on.  Big thank you to Ashley from FDC for lending me the ski suit – I don’t know what I would have done without it!!!

The weather conditions on the mountain were changeable.  We’d had some rain on our second day and David told us there was more rain and snow expected to fall, with conditions worsening each day.  As Simon and I were both acclimatising well to the altitude we decided to forego our acclimatisation day on the mountain (a day where we would do a gentle trek close to Shipton Camp) and instead ascend the peak on Day Three.

We started climbing at 5am, while it was still dark.  David led the way and we focussed our head torches on his footsteps and followed.  It was amazing to see the sun rise as we trekked.  It started with just glimpses of light coming over the surrounding mountains.  And then the snow underfoot was lit up, dazzling in its brilliance.

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This part of the trek I was not prepared for.  I didn’t expect to be climbing across snow and ice.  And the altitude was really tough.  We were ascending steeply and whilst my legs felt strong, I couldn’t get any deep breaths.  The higher we got, the more difficult it got to maintain the pace.  More breaks were needed.  And the terrain got icier and changed from something that resembled a path to just clambering over rocks.  David was great at navigating us through and after a few hours we were making the final climb, up a metal step ladder, and we arrived at the summit.  And we were the only people there.  Amazing.  The sky was clear.  We were above the cloud level and we could look out at the national park, and beyond.  I was awestruck.  It was beautiful.  We had made it.  We sat for a while, lost in our thoughts, taking it all in.  I could have sat there for hours had it not been so cold.

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When we were ready to go, David led us back down the mountain.  I don’t know about you, but I really struggle going down hill.  I find it difficult to get a sure footing, and on this occasion it was compounded by the snow melting in the sun so the route was slippery.  As a result my descent was pretty slow, but I made it in one piece, returning to breakfast set up outside the camp by our truly impressive chef, Sam.

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Because of the worsening weather (it snowed all afternoon) Simon and I decided we would try to cover the distance from Day One and Day Two in one day, so that we could return to Nairobi and warmer conditions on the Thursday night rather than Friday.  It meant an early start and a big day trekking, but we felt it was manageable.  And it was.  Although we made it far more difficult than it needed to be.  Early on in the trek David needed to stop to tie his shoelace and told us to go ahead, so we did.  And we reached a fork in the road – one path went down, and one went slightly up.  We couldn’t quite remember which path we had come in on, but decided it must have been the higher one, so off we went.  David rushed after us telling us it was the wrong path, but that it would still get us to our destination, so we kept with it.  And the path that went slightly up became the path that steeply climbed to the summit of another (smaller) mountain.  And I hated everyone at that moment.  My legs kept working on autopilot, but my body was exhausted and all I could do was focus on putting one foot in front of the other and praying that we’d reach the top soon.

Whilst that first part of the hike was pretty awful for me, it turned out to be the best decision – we managed to keep ahead of the weather front pursuing us and missed the rain pouring down around us.  We made it to Old Moses Camp where Sam had prepared a vast lunch, and then we started the final leg of our trek.  This was always going to be a nice way to finish – easy terrain and all downhill.  We were on autopilot.  And then something very exciting happened…

I need to backtrack slightly here.  On our first day trekking David told me that there was an array of animals living on the mountain, including lions, hyenas and elephants.  I found this very difficult to believe – the conditions were so different to those in the Mara.  Surely the cold, the altitude and the steep inclines would repel these great beasts?  Anyway, I accepted what David told me, but decided he must mean elsewhere in the national park and didn’t give it any further thought.  Until Day Four.

We were walking down the hill when a motorbike went shooting past, the rider shouting out something in Swahili.  David translated saying that there was an elephant further down the track.  I was extremely excited – we were going to see an elephant, right here.  And them common sense kicked in.  This wasn’t a safari.  We weren’t in a vehicle providing some protection.  We were on foot.  And elephants on their own, rather than in a herd, are likely to charge.  The dynamic of our team changed.  We all slowed down, the porters and some local construction workers descending the mountain joined us.  We all walked together, quietly.  David went ahead, searching for signs of the elephant.  And then he spotted it.  Them.  There were 5 about 200m ahead of us.

Suddenly the motorbike we had seen earlier went speeding past us, with Sam, our cook and one of the porters on the back.  We saw the bike go round the corner towards the elephants, presumably to try to get them off the track.  The next thing we saw was Sam and the porter come sprinting back up the track, away from the elephants.  Not a good sign!  Still, we continued our slow descent down the mountain, with David leading the way.  The elephants were off the track, but they were close.  I couldn’t see them anymore – there were high trees and bush all around us.  I had presumed they had all crossed the track and so I kept to the far right, away from where I thought the elephants were.  Until David looked back at me and beckoned me to walk a lot quicker and away from where I was.  A few minutes later I understood why.  The herd of elephants had been separated – 3 on one side of the track, and 2 of the side of the track where I had been walking.  Right by where I was walking.  Not a good place to be!  When I looked back I saw the 2 elephants cross over the track to join the rest of the herd.

With David’s calm demeanour and awareness of the surroundings, we had been able to safely navigate our way through.  It was an exhilarating experience, but also a stark reminder that we were sharing this mountain with others.  All the times I had been wholly focussed on where I was to place my feet each day, David had been looking for signs of the animals.  He was a great guide, but this event showed me that he was doing far more each day than leading us to the mountain.

Climbing Mount Kenya was a great experience.  It wasn’t easy, but then we don’t do things because they are easy.  We look for challenges in life, things that will stretch us and build our resilience.  Each time I undertake a venture like this, I come away with the confidence that I can do anything if I set my mind to it.  The world is full of opportunity and I intend to make the most of it.

#WKKenya2016 #WeRunSoTheyCan #marathonefforts #MountKenya

We Ran So They Can – Maasai Mara Marathon race report!

Its been almost a week since the W+K team completed the Maasai Mara half marathon and I apologise for the lateness of this report – after the run I headed across to Mt Kenya to complete the second leg of my trifecta of fundraising challenges and I have only just resurfaced.

I have mentioned to anyone who would listen that the Maasai Mara half marathon was going to be unlike any other half marathon I have completed – the uneven terrain, altitude and temperatures of around 28 degrees.  Whilst I knew the race would be tough, nothing I had done prepared me for the run I was about to undertake.

I came across to Kenya with a race plan in mind – a nice slow run, take some photos along the way and really enjoy the experience.  Once I got here, I started to get some confidence in how I would fare.  I did some practice runs in Nakuru, including the amazing training run with Ken, the cook (and elite athlete!) from So They Can.  I could comfortably run 8kms in the altitude and heat.  I was feeling good and I adjusted my race plan, deciding to aim for a faster overall pace and see if I could get round the course between 2 hours and 2 hours 15 mins

Race day arrived and the whole W+K team were excited and ready.  The team had been training for this day for almost 8 months.  Today was the culmination of a huge amount of effort from a group who (apart from me) had never run a half marathon before.

We jumped in our safari trucks to make the journey to the race start.  Slightly disconcertingly, about 100m from Race HQ we saw a hyena and 2 jackals.  A helicopter had started clearing the course of the animals and we were in the direct path of their escape route.  Thankfully they passed us by without much interest and we arrived at HQ.

This is by far the most unique and exciting race start I’ve ever encountered.  A few hundred people standing in the middle of the Maasai Mara – nothing around us apart from the wide expanse of the reserve.  The vast majority of runners were locals with a handful of overseas entrants, many running for charity – including these guys who were heading to Nakuru after the run to build chicken pens (hence the outfits…)

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The most exciting part for me was seeing so many of the local Maasai tribesmen and women at the race.  It made it abundantly clear that we were actually here, in the Maasai Mara, about to run.

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After some waiting around and a group warm up, it was go time.  The Kenyan elites strode into the distance and it was truly amazing to see.  The speed they were running, the colourful running gear quickly disappearing from sight.  I was and still am awestruck at their talent.  It was a real privilege to run with them (albeit briefly!).

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My uni friend Simon (who had travelled over from the UK to join me for the run and Mt Kenya hike) and I started out at our goal pace and we were feeling pretty good.  For about 5kms…  After that, I had to slow down – I had quickly realised that my race plan was flawed.  There was no way I could maintain my goal pace over 21kms.  So I sent Simon ahead and I slowed down.  Really slowed down.  The next 5kms went surprisingly well.  I got into a grove and started to really enjoy the race.  I could breathe, I was enjoying the views, and the terrain was so novel – I was completely distracted looking out for any animals left on the course.  I reached the 10km mark feeling confident – so confident I got snap happy with the guys manning the water station.

I maintained my pace and my enthusiasm for another 3kms.  And then something happened.  This indescribable fatigue hit me.  I started feeling dizzy.  My vision wasn’t quite right (not what you want when the terrain is rocky and you really need to watch where you’re going!).  I started walking, taking in deep breathes and trying to pull myself together so I could run again.  At that moment I serendipitously got mobile reception and a message came through from my mum wishing me well.  From that moment on, my connection with my family in the UK became my saving grace.  I felt awful and it sadly didn’t improve over the next 8kms.  However, I was determined to finish and so I set out running the next km.  And then sending my mum a message to let her know I was still standing.  And then another km – and another message.  And that’s how I got through the next 8kms.  Running for a while, letting my family know I hadn’t collapsed on the course and been eaten by a lion (apparently there were 7 on the course!)

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I finished the race in 2 hours 24 mins.  Not my best!  However, all of our running watches clocked over 22kms for the course, so I probably came in on the half marathon in under 2 hours 20 mins which wasn’t too far off the range I was aiming for.  Saying that, this race was not about time.  It was about the experience, and what an experience it was.  It was one of the toughest races I have ever completed, and because of that I am extremely proud to have got round the course in one piece.  More than that though, I am incredibly proud of the rest of the team – Emily, Karen, Mica, Hope and Robert (Hope’s husband).  This was their first half marathon and they all completed it – in better shape than me!

We all completed this run as part of our fundraising efforts for So They Can. I can tell each of you who sponsored and supported us in undertaking this challenge that it was exactly that – a challenge. It took every ounce of grit to get through the run. It took months of training and dedication from the team. This team has done W+K proud – because of their significant efforts, we have raised close to $100k for So They Can (and I’m still hopeful we’ll make it across the $100k mark). We’ve spent the last week witnessing the great work that So They Can is doing here – and the need for them to be present here in Kenya and providing opportunity to the communities in Nakuru. Every bit of training, and pain during the run itself, has been absolutely worth it. Through these efforts and your support, we are making a difference here. And if that isn’t motivation to get out for another run, then I don’t know what is.

#WKKenya2016 #WeRunSoTheyCan #marathonefforts

 

A big dose of reality

Today was tough.  We visited the IDP (internally displaced persons) camp where the So They Can journey started in 2009.  Despite huge improvements in the camp over the past 7 years, it was still an extremely confronting experience.  I have spoken many times in recent months about So They Can’s core purpose – to empower women and children through education so that they can escape the poverty cycle.  Today I witnessed the poverty this community is trying to escape.  And I was able to finally comprehend just how significant the projects So They Can is setting up and supporting are to this community.

Our first stop was a visit to the community health clinic, run by 3 nurses who on average see 70 patients a day from the camp and surrounding communities.  They provide this service from 3 rooms.  For 20 Kenyan Shillings (about 20 cents US – which contributes to the running costs of the clinic), patients can access most medical services and medications.  For more serious ailments, they need to be referred to the local hospitals where they will be expected to pay significantly more for their care.  Before So They Can became involved, the clinic was only open 2 days a week – now it is open 5 days, and the nurses have seen a significant reduction in illness and disease in the community as a result.  One of the nurses told us of his dream that the clinic will get funding to enable them to expand, build more treatment rooms, and get more medical staff on site to attend to the needs of the community.  Having seen the queues outside the health clinic while I was there, I can understand why they want more staff – but until they have the treatments rooms to work from, it simply isn’t possible.

The micro finance business school is another critical project being undertaken by So They Can.  The aim of the business school is to teach business management to the poorest women in the community, empowering them to take out micro finance loans to start their own businesses, generate income and improve the standard of living for them and their families.  Whilst we were at the IDP camp we visited several of these women and heard from them the difference the business school has made to their lives.

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The entire time we were at the IDP camp we were surrounded by the children that live there.  Their clothes were tattered and worn, many didn’t have shoes, or the ones they had were falling apart.  They were dirty.  They had no toys to play with.  But they were full of smiles and love for one another and for their families.  They clung to our hands – the young ones unable to communicate with us, but wanting to stay close.  I finally understood why the kids at school on Monday had such huge appetites – having 2nd and 3rd helpings of rice and beans: most don’t get dinner when they get home.  I also saw how school uniform is an equaliser – many of these kids go home to very little, but in their school uniform, everyone is equal.

I can see how So They Can is making a significant difference to this community.  I can also now understand why it is so necessary to invest in this generation of children and to enable them to live a different life – one of opportunity rather than poverty.

The children I met today will occupy my thoughts.  It astounds me that we can live a life of such excess when there are so many with so little.  I don’t want to imagine how life would be for these children if So They Can wasn’t here.

I am so glad that Wotton + Kearney made the decision to support So They Can and that so many have got behind the cause and enabled us to raise $95,000.  I thought that almost doubling our fundraising target was enough, but after today, I want us to raise more.  So, if you’re reading this and I have at least conveyed some of what I witnessed today, please make a donation.  Let’s exceed $100k in our fundraising and help empower this community.

https://give.everydayhero.com/au/heidi-s-masai-mara-marathon-effort

Thank you.

#WKKenya2016 #WeRunSoTheyCan #marathonefforts

WK Kenya 2016 – Abigael and Joyce

At the end of 2015, Wotton + Kearney started sponsoring the education and feeding of Joyce Wambui, a 7 year old girl who lives in Kenya and attends the Aberdare Ranges Primary School (a school established and run by So They Can).  Our sponsorship of Joyce was really the start of our partnership with So They Can.  It was through understanding the difference the child sponsorship program made to children like Joyce that we decided to make So They Can the focus of our CSR initiatives, to make this trip to Kenya, and to fundraise for So They Can with the goal of funding the sponsorship of a further 80 children at Aberdare Ranges for a year.

Today, we went to Aberdare Ranges and we met Joyce.

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I felt very emotional going into the school today.  Maybe because I have spent the last 8 months talking about Joyce.  Maybe also because last week I started sponsoring the education and feeding of another little girl, Abigael, and I knew that I would also have the opportunity to meet her today.  Whatever the cause, I felt overwhelmed during the school assembly – unable to believe that we are actually here, at the school in Kenya and that our efforts over the last 8 months have come to fruition.

The school assembly was fantastic.  The kids made us feel extremely welcome – particularly as they had come into the school during school holidays to hang out with us.  They put on great performances of music, dance and acrobatics, with some highlights including a performance of the Haka (for our team mates from Trilogy in NZ) and a rendition of Waltzing Matilda.

After school assembly, we were introduced to our sponsored children.  Abigael is just 5 years old and is new to the school this year.  When we met, Abigael came over to me and gave me a big hug and huge smile.  She is confident and full of joy and it was so so special to meet her and be able to spend time with her, drawing pictures, playing and meeting her big sister.

I had been thinking for a while about getting involved in the child sponsorship program, wanting a way to continue to support So They Can in the years to come.  I am so happy I made the decision to get involved.  It was a privilege to be able to meet Abigael and Joyce today and to see them both having access to a great education, giving them the foundations to achieve their dreams – Joyce wants to be a doctor, and both Abigael and her sister Joan tell me they want to be lawyers.  Maybe when they are qualified it will be time for W+K to open its Kenyan office??

Its been a great day, full of fun and activities – participating in a sports day with the kids (I came 3rd in the 100m sprint, beaten by 2 very speedy Aberdare boys; David Kearney came 1st in the sack race!), helping to serve up lunch to 350 children with impressive appetites, and hanging out with the kids, getting to know them, chatting, playing.  At the end of the day we walked the kids who live at Miti Mingi Children’s Village back home, and spent another hour playing with them.

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You can’t help feeling happy when you are surrounded by so many exuberant people, who appreciate the world around them, and want to create a better future for themselves.  I’m glad that all of us at W+K are able to be a part of their lives and that we have an ongoing commitment to Joyce.  I’m looking forward to following her progress over the years – and I very much hope to meet both Joyce and Abigael again one day (yep, I’m already thinking of coming back!).

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To learn more about the child sponsorship program look here – http://www.sotheycan.org/ways-to-help/sponsor-a-child/

 

#WKKenya2016 #WeRunSoTheyCan #marathonefforts

WK Kenya 2016 – We Run So They Can

I’m writing this looking out whilst the sun sets over Lake Elementata, and reflecting on an amazing first day in Kenya with So They Can.

We travelled this morning to The Sleeping Warrier Crater, about an hour’s drive through Zebra infested plains, for an hour and a half hike/mountain clamber up to the crater.  One of the goals of this expedition was to help us start acclimatising to the altitude, in preparation for the Maasai Mara half marathon on Saturday.  It was an extremely challenging climb – with some rock climbing thrown in for good measure, but it got our legs moving after spending a day in planes and buses, and the views and wildlife were spectacular.

Our afternoon was spent at Miti Mingi Village, the children’s home established by So They Can to care for orphaned and vulnerable children, particularly those living on the local dumpsite, where they have to compete with vultures for scraps of food.

Its hard to describe what a wonderful place Miti Mingi Village is.  It exudes happiness – from the children, the house mothers, and from the Village Director, James and Operations Manager, Moses.  So They Can has achieved something special at Miti Mingi – a true sense of family, community and home.

Our visit here started with a welcome from the children – involving poems, acrobatics and a fashion show. We were then shown around, able to see first hand the great work being done here and the impact the donations to So They Can have had, with many new houses being built to accommodate the children in a family environment rather than in dormitories.  On average, 8 children live in a home with a house mother.  They take their meals together, do home work together, and build a family environment for all the children to live in.  Since making this change to the village over the last year, the children have prospered – doing better at school, being healthier, and happier.

I got to share in this happiness for several hours this afternoon, playing with the kids.  There’s 120 children in the village and they all have a tonne of energy and wanted to play.  I attempted skipping (I was absolutely outdone – getting to 20 on my turn with the skipping rope whereas most kids seemed to make it to 100 and then stop!); had a ball on the seesaw – my extra weight meaning each child went flying into the air every time I hit the bottom; playing thumb wars; doing star jumps and other semi-athletic exercises with the kids; running; laughing; chatting; and attempting to learn some Swahili.  Its hard to remember that times haven’t always been this good for the children at Miti Mingi, and its noteworthy that their joy comes from interacting with each other, from a sense of community.  There are no material possessions, no TVs or Pokemons to distract – its about creating happiness from what you have, and valuing yourself and those around you.

I finish my day feeling exhausted, but elated.  Elated to be here in Kenya and to be supporting the work that So They Can is doing, and to be able to meet the kids, and experience a small part of their lives.

Thank you to all of you who have supported our fundraising for So They Can over these past few months.  I can now tell you first hand that you could not ask for more appreciative recipients of your help.  These kids love school and are very aware that its their education that is going to make the difference in their lives.

#WKKenya2016 #WeRunSoTheyCan #marathonefforts