Kenya: Mountain Runs Welcome Serving on Kenya's Healthy Athletics Menu

25 February 2020

Last weekend, Meru County hosted the Mt Kenya Mountain Running Championships with the inaugural meeting proving a huge success.

Save for teething problems that are, thankfully, being addressed -- principally the need for free-flowing access to the Kenya School of Leadership and Adventure venue -- Governor Kiraitu Murungi and his team did a remarkable job on the maiden run.

And the competition itself didn't disappoint, with a huge upset recorded when 23-year-old Purity Gitonga stunned the world's top-ranked mountain runner, Lucy Wambui, to win the women's 12-kilometre run in 53 minutes, 13.64 seconds with Wambui (53:32.40) second.

But, most significantly, the biggest take-home was that Kenya should diversify from traditional competitions and embrace fresh challenges such as mountain and ultra running.

And bid to host international competitions because, with tourists in tow, they boost our foreign exchange earnings and expose our counties to fresh revenue streams.

Founded in 1984, the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) has been running annual competitions for seniors and under-20s with the official World Mountain Running Championships first held in 2008.

Kenya's romance with the mountain started in 2000, but, already we have made in-roads into global competitions with the first Kenyan world medal coming in 2014 through Wambui, a silver at the global championships in Italy.

Wambui was also the first African woman to strike gold at the World Mountain Running Championships when the competition was held in Premana, Italy, in 2017, a title she successfully defended the following year in the Catalan Principality of Andorra.

She is currently ranked top in the world with 320 points on the women's log, ahead of Austria's Andrea Mayr (310 points) and Irishwoman Sarah McCormack. Two Kenyans -- Geoffrey Ndung'u (217 points) and Thomas Kirui (120) -- feature in the men's top 10 at positions three and 10.

Non-traditional

This goes to show the talent Kenya has in these non-traditional competitions which should be encouraged for variety's sake. It would also be healthy to see Kenya dive into ultra-running (races longer than the 42-kilometre marathon) where South Africa and Nigeria have firmly pitched camp, especially in the 50km race.

Ultra running distances stretch up to 100 kilometres with the International Association of Ultra Runners (IAU) also organising 24-hour competitions.

This year's World Mountain Running Championships will be held in the Spanish island of Lanzarote on November 14 and 15, and we hope to see Kenyan names featuring on the podium.

Before then, there will be various competitions across the world, except in Africa, with the next major dates being the first two WMRA World Cup races (trail, 42.5km and 14km) in Zumaia, Spain, followed by the third and fourth race meetings (vertical, 4.2km, 21.5km) in Nasego, Italy, on May 16 and 17.

Meru will now have to host three straight competitions before it can be considered for inclusion in the global calendar, but judging from the corporate support Saturday's race received, coupled with Governor Murungi's hands-on involvement, the future can only be brighter.

Besides testing athletes to the limit, mountain running, in the words of the WMRA, ought to be promoted "for all ages and abilities in places of natural beauty, giving people fantastic, memorable experiences."

Cancer research centre

Indeed, the drive from Nairobi through to Nyeri, King'ong'o, Chaka, Nanyuki, Timau and on to the competition venue at the Kenya School of Leadership and Adventure at Kisima is a road trip that should be on anyone's bucket list.

That Africa has no global mountain running competition offers an ideal opportunity for Meru to angle for the Mt Kenya championships' entry into the world arena by 2023 having polished up in the next two editions after Saturday's impeccable foundation.

Already, with a winners' prize of Sh500,000 and a total prize purse of over Sh2 million, the Meru competition ranks among the highest paying globally, which should hold organisers in good stead with foreign entries most certainly expected for the next races on February 20, 2021.

Kudos to the organisers of Saturday's run, and to Athletics Kenya for offering variety to our already rich running menu by supporting the Mt Kenya Mountain Running Championships.

It's more gratifying that, besides offering rich variety to Kenya's running menu, the Mt Kenya competition also seeks to invest sponsorship revenues in the fight against cancer with the construction of a cancer research centre at the Meru Level Five Hospital.

As media partners, Nation Media Group also played a significant role in highlighting the inaugural run, and fielded a strong team of runners that conquered the mountain!

The author is the editor (Sports) at Nation Media Group.

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