For his 40th birthday, Victor Kamau wanted to do something special, one for the books, a folktale he would tell his grandchildren once his knees wore out.
The father of two wasn’t going to take a vacation, or add to his car collection, or get himself an exquisite watch befitting his demeanour of not keeping time but instead arriving before appointment time as he did for this meet-up. It had to be something many would consider weird if not ‘worldie’ [of the highest quality].
“I did my first ultra run in 2015. It was a 56k (kilometre). I had been doing half marathons, but when I turned 40 in 2018, I wanted to go big. In our club (Urban Swaras Running Club), we run our age when we turn a year old. So, it would have been normal for me to run 40k on my birthday. I decided to do a 100k instead,” says the engineer.
He invited two of his friends to the jamboree.
“Combining all the bypasses in Nairobi and its environs, that’s exactly 100k. At 6am, my wife dropped me at Kigwa on the Northern bypass, where I was joined by two of my friends, and we began the run snaking through Ruaka, Ndenderu, all the way to Kikuyu. Then we went around the Southern bypass, Mombasa Road, connected to the Eastern bypass and back to the Northern bypass. That was my birthday run,” adds the now 46-year-old.
Victor and a female friend were the only ones who finished the race in 13 hours, completing with the darkness already settled and the stars out.
“For such kind of a run, you must have stopped. Otherwise, you won’t sustain it. We had support for every 10k. Someone had a chase car with all our supplies. We would have some water, grab some bites, biscuits, and fruits, then hit the road again,” he says.
Victor’s fitness journey did not begin with extreme races. Before ultra-running became his thing, Victor was a gym rat.
When he lost interest, hiking became the remedy. During one of those hikes, he developed an interest in half marathons, which morphed into ultra running, basically any run beyond the standardised 42 km marathon runs.
“On my first ultra run, I ran next to Mt Kenya in the forest and around the villages. I finished but hadn’t prepared properly because I knew little about ultra-running then. So I would run and walk until I completed, and from then on, I was hooked.
The next was 65k in 2016. For this, I trained properly, and by that, I mean I set aside a four-month period where I consistently ran, gradually improving the mileage as I got closer to the race. A month to the race day, I did the longest distance, which was 50 kilometres. Back then, I resided in Thindigua, so I would run all the way to Tigoni-that’s about 25k- and back. See, when preparing for something like 65k, you aim for 50k. There is no science to it, just what feels right, you know,” he chuckles.
Source of motivation
Something about ultra-running unifies the body, mind and spirit. Victor understands this so well, but he lacks a more definitive response when I ask what motivates him to keep doing it nine years later.
“When you not running with someone you can talk to, you try to occupy your mind with all sorts of thoughts. At first, you think about everything; job, family, but after a while (on the road), you start thinking about the pain; ooh, that foot hurts, or that toe, or that blister, should I pop it (laughs). And sometimes, when you feel like quitting after being on the road for so long, you start counting. How about I do two more kilometres and see, or let me just get to that signpost? Should I stop and eat? And so everything along the journey becomes a sea of thoughts that keeps you going,” he offers.
Two months after his first 100k ultra run in July 2018, Victor did another at the foot of Mt Kenya.
“Funny thing, when you think you now have the experience, you end up disappointed. It’s still torturous; there is no mastering this thing. But I totally enjoy doing such extreme distances in extreme environments. And even when I finish, I don’t feel some sort of accomplishment, just a need to recover and tackle another challenge and another. It’s always about adventure, pushing the limits to see how far I can go. You never know until you try it.”
In the quest for the ultimate adventure, Victor has encountered interesting challenges.
“It’s called The Last Survivor, organised by our club. For every hour, you run 6.7k, then wait for the next hour to start and do another 6.7k. If you finish before or within the hour, you must wait until the next hour begins and do another 6.7k. If you finish after the hour, you are disqualified. And it continues until only one person remains and he or she becomes the champion. In the first edition at Oloolua Forest, guys dropped until I was the last man standing. If I work that right, I did 127k in 19 hours.”
Travel abroad for ultra run
But Victor hasn’t tested those limits only in the country. Every year, he goes to a foreign country to tackle a new challenge.
“I have done quite a number. In South Africa, I have done two Oceans Marathon. It’s a 56k race. It’s a beautiful run on the tarmac beside the ocean; it’s just too beautiful and very scenic. I have done the Comrades Marathon, still in South Africa, which was 90k, also on the tarmac. It wasn’t scenic, but South Africans are a vibe; they wouldn’t stop singing the entire journey.
In Italy, I did (the Tor de Geant) a Tour of The Giants in an Alp mountain of Aosta Valley. It’s 330k that must be completed in less than 150 hours (about six days). I only slept two hours a day because you can’t afford to sleep much; otherwise, you will not finish.
There are 43 refreshment points where you can eat, sleep, and, if needed, seek medical care. Tor de Geant is properly organised, I must say. It’s scenic, and people from the neighbouring villages stream by the trails to cheer you up, do barbeque and offer snacks. It’s such an amazing experience.”
Even then, Victor notes Tor de Geant was the most challenging ultra-run since his conversion to trails. It’s said that ultra-run hallucinations are common.
“Because of losing sleep, you hallucinate. At first, you don’t know what you are going through. At night, you watch shadows moving, speak to them, and they speak back. The weirdest one I had was seeing some Italian running ahead of me but backwards and talking to me in Italian, and I would talk back. I mean, I don’t speak Italian,” he recalls.
The engineer has also done the revered Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), regarded as the most competitive ultra-run in the world. It is the world’s longest and most difficult foot race, with over 2,500 starters.
It happens in the Alps, with the 174km race route passing through France, Italy and Switzerland.
“In ultra running, other than the distance, you also measure your total elevation. A proper ultra-run smartwatch measures your elevation by summing the climbs you did. At the UTMB, I did 10,000 metres. That’s like climbing to the top of Mt Kenya twice or climbing past the tallest mountain in the world Mt Everest, which is 8,849 metres. That’s what gets to you. The cut-off time for UTMB is 48 hours. I did it in 44 hours,” he notes.
Victor began preparation for his August 2022 UTMB in January of that year. “Part of my preparation was climbing the three peaks of Mt Kenya in January. In February, my friends and I did a day hike of Mt Kilimanjaro to the top. Come March, we did The Last Survivor. So, for every month, there was something you do to keep you in shape and give you the needed endurance,” says Victor.
It’s said expensive is relative, something Victor concurs with. He notes that for ultra running, one needs to be ready to spend generously. Expenses come in many shapes and forms, from registration for the races, with some costing as much as Sh400,000, buying the right gear, and travelling expenses, among other expense items.
“My wife and I always save towards these adventures. For international trips, you best look at it more like a family holiday for it to make sense. So, as you are holidaying, you do your runs, so you set a budget for that. Other than that, gears cost a lot of money, and it takes time to build a collection of the right gears.
For instance, mountain shoes cost at least Sh15,000, but the best quality ones will be in the range of Sh20,000 to Sh25,000 per pair, which can deal with all types of weather. You will need hydration vests. I got mine for Sh26,000. A proper running jacket is about Sh30,000 to Sh35,000. Generally, the most expensive gear will be the shoes, trekking backpack and the GPS smartwatch (This Garmin Fenix smartwatch costs Sh70,000). With this, you can’t get lost; you simply load a map, and it guides you,” Victor explains.
For this year, he has already begun his preparation.
“I plan to do Ultra Trail Kilimanjaro, an 80km race with an elevation of over 4,000 metres, in September. Next year, I plan to do Moab 240 in the US, a 240-mile (383 km) run with the beautiful terrain cutting through a desert, canyons, slick rocks, and mountain ranges.”