Hailstorms, Tea Plantations and the Next Generation of Elite Kenyan Athletes.
Hot. Sunny. Dry.
These are the words that came to mind when I was packing my kit to travel to Kenya with Exile Medics to provide medical cover at the 2018 Kenya Impact Marathon. That was until I checked the latest forecast online, which suggested a week of thunderstorms was more likely.
Oh well, weathermen tend to get it wrong most of the time, don’t they?
In October 2018, five other medics and I met in a hotel lobby in Nairobi: three GPs, a paramedic, an ACCS trainee with extensive experience of traveling around Africa, and a doctor who split her time between A&E and the DDRC in Plymouth. Later that day we were to travel 264km west to Kericho, a Kenyan town famous for its tea plantations. Tea grown here is exported worldwide by household names such as Lipton and Unilever and there are tea plants as far as the eye can see.
Importantly, Kericho also has a longstanding association with running. This started with Wilson Kiprugut Chumo[i], “the father of Kenyan athletics[ii]” who was born, raised and still resides here. The now 80 year old retired athlete was the first Kenyan to win an Olympic medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Each morning the dirt roads of Kericho, which is 2184m above sea level, are lined with groups of athletes, almost every one fast enough to be a national champion in virtually any other country in the world[iii]. Ten athletes from Kericho were selected to represent Team Kenya in 2017, showcasing its place as a rising athletics giant within Kenya[iv].
It is the perfect place to stage a marathon.
Over the next two days we met the Impact Marathon team, headed up by Nick Kershaw. Nick was a great character with an infectious enthusiasm and a passion for bringing people together through the power of running. Now in its second year, the Impact Marathon Kenya aims to raise money, in conjunction with local charities, to develop sustainable projects aligned to the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
In Kenya, their charity partner was Five Talents UK, an organisation that provides savings schemes, small loans, and business training for people in rural Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda[v].
Many of the runners that we met were involved with this charity back in the UK. The video below explains the Five Talents ethos and how their projects work.
Whilst the runners went to visit some of the projects supported by Five Talents, we had time to check our medical kits and visit the local hospital. We received a tour from the matron who was understandably very proud of the facility. This was a private hospital with wards, an operating theatre, onsite pathology with an X-ray machine and CT scanner. Nevertheless, facilities were limited.
We decided that the hospital would be suitable to manage simple fractures, investigate febrile illness and stablise patients with more serious conditions requiring evacuation to Nairobi. There was a nearby landing strip that could be accessed by the flying doctors service if required.
As with a lot of expedition and event medicine in resource poor settings, there can be an ethical conflict surrounding the use of such facilities and the knock-on effects on limited supplies and manpower. On the other hand, the Impact Marathon aims to support sustainable local development projects and help stimulate the local economy and this must surely be a good thing!
We had been in Kenya for a few days and the weather had established a pattern of being pleasantly warm in the mornings and very wet in the afternoons. We were driving through a heavy downpour, contemplating where we would pitch our tents, when we met Mr Kim Martin, the owner of the Chesumot Tea plantation, where the race was to be staged. Kim was one of the nicest men I have met.
He took one look at the sky and looked at us as if we were mad. “Why do you want to go camping?” he asked. Next thing we knew we were in his guest house, with the fire lit (despite it being pretty warm outside) and a pot of Kenyan tea brewing.
There was a gap in the rain and a chance to go tea picking with the runners. This was a strangely therapeutic activity, however I am not sure that we were quick enough to fill the baskets that the plantation workers carried. There is definitely a knack to quick picking.
Kim was excited to tell us all about purple tea, supposedly “the next big thing” with its high levels of antioxidants and numerous stated health benefits. Probably coming soon to a shelf in your local Waitrose, if it’s not there already!
Race day arrived and we were up at dawn, bright and early, to perform last minute kit checks and reach our checkpoints in time for the start of the race.
It was a dark and misty morning, however the mist gradually cleared to provide us with stunning views over the plantations. I was based in a hut with a straw ceiling, at the highest point of the course, with an experienced paramedic named Vic, looking out over the Rift Valley.
The marathon started and we set about our jobs. It was a 10km course and participants could walk or run various distances, depending on whether they were doing a full or half marathon. We busied ourselves looking at sore feet and making sure everyone was drinking adequately.
Luckily, the runners seemed to be setting a sensible pace. The course was off-road and the temperature and altitude were significantly higher than they were used to. The majority of participants were from the UK and Europe, and they were aware that this was not the occasion to be trying to beat their personal bests.
There were also approximately twenty Kenyan athletes taking part, who made the course look easy. The visiting runners had done a track running session with the athletes, prior to the race, in order to pick up some tips and local knowledge. This had clearly paid off well, as many of them were also making excellent progress as they entered into their final lap.
As I looked out over the valley, dark clouds were starting to gather on the horizon, and within five minutes the weather had changed dramatically. The heavens opened and torrential rain ensued.
The weatherman had unfortunately been correct all along!
The visibility was greatly reduced and we were no longer able to see the rest of the tea plantation. For the runners, in their Lycra t-shirts and shorts, this was less than ideal.
Those at our checkpoint were able to shelter in the hut, however this had no walls and the rain was blowing in horizontally. To make matters worse, it had started hailing (with hailstones the size of fifty pence pieces) and the roof was leaking.
We were able to create a makeshift group shelter within the hut, using my tarpaulin, to conserve body heat. We also had a foil blanket and some spare layers, hats and gloves to give to some of the runners. Luckily we had some hot water in a thermos to give to the runners to keep them warm and keep their spirits up.
Meanwhile, Kim and the Impact Marathon Team were picking up runners from around the course and taking them back to the start so that they could warm up and dry off. In due course the runners at our checkpoint were also picked up.
Unfortunately due to the unprecedented bad weather, and our concerns regarding potential hypothermia, the marathon had to be abandoned, however, most of the participants had been able to run the majority of their target distances, and overall everyone was suitably proud of what they had achieved in the midst of Kericho’s worst hailstorm in twenty five years.
Overall my time in Kenya was fantastic. I was lucky to meet so many inspiring individuals from different walks of life and help them raise money for important causes.
We experienced warm welcomes and great hospitality from everyone we met in Kenya. The food was good too and Ugali, a cornmeal-based porridge, quickly became a favourite. From a medical point of view, we emerged relatively unscathed.
The freak weather highlighted how situations can rapidly change and that it is important to be able to adapt quickly and always have a Plan B.
My advice to other people planning on doing similar trips or events:
1. If you are going with a group of medics or an expedition team, try and make contact or, better still, meet up before departure. I had met some of our team and spoken to others over the phone and this definitely helped us gel as a team.
2. Make sure you know what medical kit you will have access before you leave the UK. Depending on whether you are working solo or through a company, the arrangements regarding kit can vary hugely. We were transporting a lot of our kit out there, so had been able to sort through this in advance.
Visiting the local hospital is also a valuable experience to get an idea first-hand of the available resources.
3. Be flexible, as plans can change and frequently do. The pace of life is often slower in many developing countries than in the UK for many reasons, and language barriers and other logistical issues may lead to delays and waiting around.
Take time to enjoy and absorb these experiences, and remember to bring a pack of cards and a book for the long car journeys!
4. Make friends with the marshals and other local people helping out at the event. They often speak much better English than they initially let on and, certainly in Kenya, they were always laughing and keen to help out.
5. Remember to look after yourself- often you will be in a country you may never have been to before, with the same dietary, temperature and time-zone changes as the people you are looking after.
Take a “time-out” every so often and remember to eat, drink and get enough sleep, otherwise you will be of no use to anybody.
6. Lastly, I would recommend trying to tag a holiday onto your trip, especially if in Kenya, as the Masai Mara is incredible!
For more information about the Impact Marathon Series visit:
I was working with the organisation Exile Medics, for more information visit:
Lastly, to find out more about Five Talents UK or make a donation please visit: