Ajaa Olubayi used to jog occasionally and failed to complete three marathons in a row. He then realised it was due to improper training.
“I decided to increase the frequency and distances of my runs. I joined the Nairobi Hash House Harriers (the Hashers) and ran with them every Monday evening. My pace improved. On my fourth attempt, I completed a 21 kilometres-marathon in six and half hours,” he says.
Thereafter, in 2005, he started running every Saturday religiously with a few friends.
“Word about our Saturday runs spread and leisure runners and learners joined us,” he says.
The fitness enthusiasts became part of Urban Swaras Club, which encourages people to run to ward off lifestyle diseases. The club is now a fully-grown organisation with the post of a chair, secretary, treasurer and a constitution.
James Wahome, 57, a patron of Urban Swaras says recreational running comes with many benefits, which has seen the club grow and now has over 200 members.
The fitness enthusiasts follow a calendar of events and train every Saturday from 7am. They also train for full marathons (42 kilometres), half-marathon or ultra-marathon (over 42 kilometres).
People also join the club to lose weight or to be physically active. Mr Wahome, for instance, has shed 14 kilos.
“Running requires a lot of willpower. When I started running, I was doing half a kilometre. As I kept pushing myself, I became fitter and able to run longer distances. It is a gradual process but a sweet addiction,” says Mr Wahome who ran 90km last year in Durban, South Africa during the Comrades Marathon, which is the world's largest and oldest ultra-marathon race.
Another member of Urban Swaras, Muthoni Maina started running three years ago, albeit reluctantly. “I tipped the scales at 80 kgs and I knew I was overweight,” she says.
Now she has lost 20 kgs. However, she says, weight-loss journey requires consistency. To get to her desired weight, Muthoni had to eat a balanced diet in right portions, do other exercises besides running five days a week.
“The running club also provides a forum for runners to share experiences, achievements and struggles thus inspiring others,” says Muthoni, who has made running with her husband a hobby that helps them bond.
“My hubby is my accountability partner,” says Muthoni. Last year, Muthoni ran over 2,000km in different races, which included an ultra-marathon. To start out, just get off the couch and do something, it could be walking, jogging, running or anything that keeps you on the move, she says.
Joshua Cheruiyot's journey is equally unique.
“My focus was not losing weight but gaining endurance,” says the 35-year-old banker, who started running five years ago when he embraced hiking.
“As a hiker, I had conquered Mt Kenya and set my sights on Mt Kilimanjaro. I took running so that I would be fit for it.”
When he joined Urban Swaras, Joshua started training intensively with the other team members. Every Saturday at 5.30am, he could run 15 to 20km four days a week.
Now, he travels to run in the Victoria Falls marathon in Zimbabwe, Kilimanjaro race in Tanzania, Berlin and Chicago marathons. Last year, he did 100 miles race (166kms) in the US.
“Running makes me feel alive,” he says, adding that it also enabled him to network globally and meet new friends. And because Urban Swaras run in different places, it has opened up his eyes to beautiful parts of Kenya that he did not know existed.
Kenneth Waichigo, another member of the running club, was born chubby, although his weight was kept in check by participating in childhood games. In his 20s, he adapted a sedentary lifestyle and enjoyed his beer. “In 2006, I moved from a being a slender-ish man weighing 68 kgs to a staggering 90 kgs. I was only 32 years old,” says Ken.
The weight gain came with health problems. He was diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes.
“I was handed medication and ordered to visit the diabetic clinic every two weeks. After the two weeks, I found out I was a pre-diabetic, not a diabetic. The major concern was my high cholesterol level,” he says.
Ken started researching about his condition and learnt that weight-loss and physical activity could mitigate the problem.
He hit the trail and sought comfort on the treadmill as he continued taking medication. “Soon results started showing, in about three months my weight had come down to 84 kgs from 95 kgs,” he says.
In 2015, he signed for the Ndakaini half marathon, targeting to complete it in under two hours. He finished in 2:23:17, exhausted and wishing he had stuck to running on a treadmill.
“After roughly eight months of going to the diabetic clinic, I took a glucose tolerance test which indicated my readings were normal as far as blood sugar control was concerned, that propelled me into running more,” he says.
His breakthrough came at Peter Mulley’s Machakos half marathon in October 2015. He completed in one hour 54 minutes.
“I then applied for the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in South Africa. I got myself a big travelling party that included my mum and siblings. Conquering this ultra-marathon despite having a shin splint injury put me ahead of my health issues,” says Ken.
Two years ago, he joined the Urban Swaras running club.
“More and more people are embracing running as a way of life,” says Mr Wahome, adding that one of their biggest achievements is organising a 100km ultra-marathon in Nyeri.
Their goal is to become a big running club in Kenya and change the perception of many that running is a punishment.
“Running rejuvenates the body. I feel like a 20-year-old energised both body and mind. I have become more focused and resilient,” says Mr Wahome.