It’s Saturday, 6:50 am. A group of Nairobi residents gathers dressed in running sports gear. Some are engaged in early-morning chit-chat as they warm up while others are snacking on sun-coloured bananas.
This group, exploding with energy and enthusiasm, is part of the Urban Swaras Running Club. Among them is 38-year-old Margaret Njuguna. Since joining the club, Ms Njuguna has been ushering in her weekends with an early morning run.
As has been the case for the one year she’s been here, the runs start at 7am and conclude at a restaurant where breakfast is served. Sometimes the routes will have her exploring, at a fast pace, Nairobi and its environs, and other times, the awesome views of rural Kenya.
“Joining Urban Swaras is one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself. And it’s not just because of the health benefits. There’s much, much more,” she says. “I’ve become a better runner and ran my first competitive half marathon clocking 2 hours 13 minutes.”
Urban Swaras is a volunteer-led recreational running club based in Nairobi that was founded in 2006 and formally registered in 2010. Ms Njuguna is one of the newest members of the 200+ person club. It’s governed by a constitution and managed by a committee that is elected every two years.
“The goal of the club is to promote recreational running. Anyone can join the club because we cater to different kinds of running abilities, from those trying to figure out running to those flying the Kenyan flag internationally,” says Claire Baker, the secretary of the club.
Membership is Sh7,000 per year o rSh1500 quarterly.
The number of city residents joining running clubs is on an upward sprint. Covid-19 pushed people out of the gym into the outdoor spaces.
A nurse administrator at a local hospital, Ms Njuguna joined the club to keep her fitness lifestyle going during the pandemic.
“I joined a neighbourhood running group but their wavering commitment forced me to seek other options. A friend invited me to Urban Swaras as a guest and their consistency, accommodative nature and fantastic experiences got me hooked,” the mother of two shares.
“I reaped the fruit of this choice when I contracted Covid-19. By day three, I wasn’t struggling to breathe and by day 10, I was off Covid. My active lifestyle played a primary role in my quick recovery.”
She also attained her ideal weight of 65kg after losing the six kilogrammes that had stubbornly clung to her despite her commitment to her gym workouts for three years. “Running really torches calories,” she notes.
Another recreational running club is Team Jasho (TJ), whose founder is Desmond Mulama. The founding ethos of the club established in 2019, is fun. Its members pay an annual membership fee of Sh3,000. This, however, was not always the plan.
“Before we were Team Jasho (TJ), we were ‘Medal Hunters’. Running was a way of collecting medals while having fun,” says Mr Mulama.
He founded Medal Hunters because he didn’t understand why he needed to pay to join a running club. What started as a group of friends who participated in races for medals soon became a movement.
“Because of soaring running demands, I realised I couldn’t continue organising races for free. To sustain it, I registered TJ and introduced a membership fee,” the 36-year-old says.
“I thought the movement would disintegrate with the membership fee but the pandemic saw a surge in numbers. At the moment, we have over 300 paying members.”
Before joining Team Jasho, Mr Adaji Indusa, enjoyed life as “a regular potato coach.” However, a health scare got him off the couch.
“At TJ, I was able to find motivation to start running because we have accountability partners. Instead of trying to do it myself, I can lean on people, especially on the days when the bed is more attractive than the track,” the 35-year-old nicknamed “Jaccuzi”, says.
After having fun as an outsider, he became a member last year. His eyes shine as he talks about the 1,500 kilometres he’s covered and the “very beautiful” medals in his possession during the past 17 months.
But the clubs aren’t in high demand for their wellness activities only. They’re birthing grounds for expanded organic social horizons.
“Social gatherings as we knew them had diminished to trickles. For me, Team Jasho was the easiest way to meet people, laugh, and hang out with them. I’ve been able to meet amazing people and make new friends I run with to date,” notes Mr Indusa, a supply chain professional.
Due to their huge numbers in different locations around Kenya and East Africa, the TJ members are divided into zones. Each organises their own daily or weekly running routes.
Once every month, the zones will meet for a group run. There are also other challenges held to build a robust, enjoyable community. Runs organised range from 5 to 50 kilometres.
“With fewer social interaction points, connecting with people weekly helps maintain my mental health and readjust to life after the pandemic,” he adds.
Before becoming its secretary, Ms Baker had been at Urban Swaras for two years, joining specifically for its social aspects. She explains: “I honestly didn’t want to hang out in a mini-England or France. I wanted friends beyond the expat community.”
With the club, she was able to engage with the local community in activities steep in authentic Kenyan culture. “I’ve been able to visit places I wouldn’t have before. From the trails and awesome views at Leleshwa Getaway to running on the same ground as elite runners in Fluorspar, Kerio Valley.”
To keep the community alive during Covid-19, Urban Swaras shifted activities online. They scheduled weekly workouts, talks with experienced runners, coaches, and nutritionists, and online story-telling events where members would share their success stories or solo running adventures. Easing back into in-person activities after Covid gathering restrictions were lifted was therefore easy.
“This proved to be a very important step. We kept each other engaged and motivated, it introduced structure to our disorganised days and sent us away with a heart full of happiness hormones to conquer the gloomy atmosphere that surrounded us. In-person running schedules are back and there are no signs of slowing down.”
While both clubs attract a small number of millennials and older adults, the majority of their members are between 30 and 45 years, and come from different professional backgrounds. This makes the club a networking gold mine.
Ms Njuguna expounds: “Through friendships here, I joined a professional club which has boosted my leadership and public speaking skills. Furthermore, the charity events we’ve engaged in and the elite runners I get to share space with have broadened my perspectives, which is very nice.”
Working in Business Development in the clean energy sector, Urban Swaras has allowed Ms Baker to hone her writing skills. “As a consultant content creator, this is a training ground for me.”
There’s a further unspoken benefit to running in groups - pooling together singles with common interests in a purposeful environment. It was here that Ms Baker met her partner and where Mr Indusa hopes to meet his future spouse.
“Running is fantastic. Besides the physical benefits, the mental and social add-ons are innumerable. You end up doing things you never thought you would, and that is what life is about. Instead of watching people run by you, why not join them?” says Ms Njuguna.