This African Marathon Is the Ultimate Bucket-List Challenge

  • Photo by Lewahouse.com
    Participants in Kenya’s annual Safaricom Marathon race through the 55,000-acre Lewa Conservancy Photo by Lewahouse.com

I had just passed the dusty wooden post bearing a neat “20K” inscription when, out of nowhere, a bright-orange blur whizzed by me like a neon ghost. The figure appeared to glide on air, floating over the Kenyan savanna on impossibly long legs that never seemed to touch the ground. But this was no apparition; it was Philemon Baaru, one of the fastest marathon runners in a land of fast marathon runners. Watching Baaru head for the horizon, his day-glow jersey becoming a tiny speck in the distance, I was overcome with dueling senses of inspiration and defeat. Only moments ago my pace had felt strong and steady, but unlike my seasoned competitor, I still had more than 13 miles to go before crossing the finish line.

There are no real-life scenarios in which Baaru and I (a respectable but by no means professional-level runner) would race alongside each other—except in northern Kenya’s Safaricom Marathon (safaricommarathon.com). The annual event, which is held in the 55,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, lures some of Africa’s most famous athletes, as well as amateurs from around the globe looking for an unrivaled running experience. At more than 5,000 feet above sea level and with a hilly route covering more than 7,000 vertical feet, the race is ranked among the world’s most challenging. Comprising two half-marathon loops—hence my brief neck-and-neck with Baaru, the race’s eventual winner—it is one of the only marathons set among roaming Big Five wildlife.

“This is a marathon with a cause,” says Sarah Watson, director of programs at Tusk, the nonprofit organization that created the marathon in 2000. “Since its inception, the event has raised millions of dollars that have been invested back into Kenya to support a wide range of conservation, education, health, and community-development initiatives.” Funds raised by marathon runners have gone toward building local schools, hospitals, and infrastructure; they have also supported the local wildlife—which includes a population of 133 black and white rhinoceroses—that runners might glimpse on their 26.2-mile trek.

With Baaru and his orange jersey little more than a mirage-like memory, I continued along the dusty path as Kenya’s golden savannas unfolded around me. Mile by mile, my running safari produced one wild diversion after another: two zebras loping alongside me, galloping apace like a pair of pin-striped cheerleaders; a trio of giraffes swiveling their lanky necks in my direction before darting for the hills; and, beyond a tangle of acacia trees, a small herd of Grant’s gazelles staring wide-eyed and innocent as I plodded by. And then just past the 42K marker, as the dirt road widened and the crowd grew thicker, I glimpsed the most thrilling sight of all: the finish line. 

Sweating the Details
The 17th annual Safaricom Marathon takes place on June 24 and promises the same thrills—world-famous athletes, big game, and all—as last year. If you think you’re ready to battle never-ending hills, scorching temperatures, and choking altitudes, all in the name of helping Kenya’s communities and wildlife, then it’s time to check in with Scott Dunn USA (scottdunn.com). The travel company is Tusk’s official partner and the best outfitter to ensure you’ll stay in one of the area’s top three accommodations.

Lewa House
This seven-cottage hilltop lodge offers some of Lewa’s best wildlife sightings right outside its doors. Glimpse endangered black rhinoceroses and Grevy’s zebras at the watering hole just beyond the camp’s swimming pool, or venture out for safaris on foot or horseback. (lewahouse.com)

Sirikoi
Set in a secluded grove, Sirikoi features four luxury tents with fireplaces, expansive verandas, and Victorian baths. The exclusive-use Sirikoi House is the lodge’s top accommodation, with three bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, and a 4×4 vehicle for private game drives. (sirikoi.com)

Lewa Safari Camp
Eleven thatch-roofed tents overlook the Laikipia Plains at this laid-back Elewana Collection lodge on the western edge of the conservancy. Spot the Big Five on daily game drives or from within the camp’s acacia-covered hide. (lewasafaricamp.com)

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