Above: Sunrise Over the Serengeti on 6/16/08
I’ve just returned from two weeks in the awesomeness of Tanzania, mostly in the vicinity of Arusha, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti. Before leaving, I fretted and huffed about the fact that I would not be able to run the entire time I was there. None at all. A vacuum in terms of running. Sloth on wheels. I probably haven’t gone two weeks without running since I had a stress fracture in ’84. Even then, I swam or did something (I can’t remember what. To be honest, I’m sure it wasn’t swimming since I can’t swim). In any event, I haven’t gone two weeks without sweating since I was a dumbass slug in high school.
And so prior to leaving, I feverishly researched just how much fitness I might lose. After much hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth, the consensus was that I’d lose approximately 4%. That’s right—4%. Of course, I had no idea whatsoever what this really meant, but I didn’t like it anyway. I actually sat with a calculator and tried to subtract 4% of the total number of seconds in my last 5k. This gave me a number that meant absolutely nothing. But it made me a little more worried, so I was satisfied.
Anyway, let me just say that not even 48 hours into Tanzania, the idea of worrying over not running seemed ridiculous.
We drove from Mt. Kilimanjaro airport to Arusha pretty late at night. Off in the distance, you could see the lights of the world’s only tanzanite mine, but that was pretty much the only light around until we got closer to Arusha. Then, strings of dimly lit, dusty, one-room buildings began showing up. In every one, people were crowded in the doorways or sitting around outside. More than that, hundreds of people were walking, running, riding ancient bikes–all going somewhere or doing something at 10:30 on Friday night. They weren’t sitting inside typing an idiotic running blog or watching TV or eating Big Macs. Everyone was moving. Lots of movement.
I had thought this might be a Friday night thing, but it turned out to be an all-the-time thing. From Arusha to the Serengeti, the Tanzanian people seemed to be constantly going somewhere–mostly on foot, rarely in cars. As we drove up nearly impassable mud roads over mountains the next few mornings, we passed droves of people (from children to elderly women) walking down the mountain with baskets on their heads or carrying heavy containers or pushing carts full of something. Our guide explained that they were on their way to the market in Arusha, maybe 3,5, or even 6 miles away. They’d sell what they had and then walk and run back up the mountain another 3,5, or even 6 miles. This was how 80% of the people lived.
Another morning, near Ngorogoro where the dirt is bright red like Georgia clay, we passed a group of children walking to their dirt-floored, windowless school. Some of the children began running beside our vehicle when they saw us, yelling “white people!” in Swahili and waving. One boy must have run effortlessly alongside of us for nearly two miles. We were driving slowly because of the ruts and mud, and he kept with us, waving the whole time. His bare legs were bright red with dust by the time we made a turn and left him behind.
Then we began seeing the Masai tending their herds of goats and cows. Boys as young as eight tend them all day long. Dressed in the traditional bright blue and red cloths tied at the waist, these men and boys follow their animals for miles, part walking and part running. Miles and miles. Every day. Sometimes they were barefoot, sometimes wearing sandals, but always carrying a large stick, their only protection from the wildlife that can range from lions to spitting cobras.
And so you can see how the idea of putting on a pair of fancy-pants Asics and a Garmin to “go for a run” seemed inane. For two weeks, what I think of as “running” seemed unnatural, forced, ridiculous. To think that we (I include myself in this) actually have debates in all seriousness about whether or not strap-on heart rate monitors are integral training devices seemed atrocious. The recent message board war over running skirts that I witnessed was like the blurry memory of an embarrassing dream. I was glad and relieved to not run. The entire time I was in Tanzania I never saw anyone intentionally running for the sake of running. Everyone just ran for the sake of movement and living day to day.
And we sit around and wonder why African runners always kick our asses. Sheesh.
I probably gained more insight into running by not running during those two weeks than I have by running in the past ten years. And that’s definitely worth losing that 4%.