This is a cross post from a recent article I wrote for the Mission Kenya newsletter here. I have no idea why you’d be interested in it.
When I learned that Nairobi was going to be our next post, I could not have been more excited. Kenya! Land of the world’s most elite runners! Heck, I’ll probably see Kipchoge every now and again when I go out for a jog. This is going to be spectacular.
That assumption, along with a whole host of other ideas I had about what running in Kenya would be like, has gratefully been challenged and I have grown to appreciate the nuances of this beautiful culture that we find ourselves among here. Have you been surprised by the “city life” and what outdoor exercise looks like in Gigiri? Not everyone is a runner here. In fact, there are surprisingly few runners that I encounter on my jogs (jog should probably be in quotes - shuffle is more accurate). Most of the elite Kenyan runners either train elsewhere in the world or in other parts of the country, but mark my words, I will run in the Rift Valley before I leave. Who’s in? What I didn’t expect was the solace I would find in what has become one of my most treasured places on the planet, Karura Forest. Not only is it one of the largest forests in the world that is completely contained within a city’s limits, it is also cloche of clean air and a welcome respite from running on the bricks and streets.
Quick Tip 1: find running shoes with dark soles - even if you’re running on the streets.That Kenyan clay, it always wins. Always. Don’t believe the Omo hype.
Your time in Kenya is surely enhanced by more time outdoors. While many of us initially seek out the mystique and pampering afforded us on safari as we can use our resident status to afford adventures that might otherwise be out of reach, I’d like to put in a plug for hyper-local exploration on foot in addition to your exotic adventures. Whenever our family visits a new place in the world, our first agenda item is almost always to head out on foot, usually a jog, to get rid of our “flight legs.” Running here in town, especially around the compounds and surrounding neighborhoods, can get a bit monotonous but with Nairobi having the threat/security five-star rating that it has, we’re best to stick to the surrounding roads (and, dear lord, hills) unless accompanied by a guide/coach. The pedestrian entrance to Karura is only about 1.5mi from both the Grove and Ridge. It’s perfect if you’re doing something on the longer side (or for your lunch/post work runs, it’s basically across the street from the embassy).
Quick Tip 2: If you’re a runner runner, you might consider looking into the Lewa Marathon and half-marathon. For those of you that have always wanted to run
fromwith wildlife through a conservancy, there’s race for that.
Running here is really not much different than running at many of your other posts, or even at home. The biggest surprises for new arrivals tend to be the altitude, the safety precautions needed, and the lovely demeanor of the local drivers and bicyclists. Here are a few thoughts to get you up and running:
Ears and Eyes Open
You’ve likely already heard RSO & Co. talk about the security risks of Nairobi and beyond and informed you of a few of the no-go zones. Pay attention to those. In addition, it is unwise to run with your earbuds in here (even in transparency mode for those that have it). If you’re a podcast or audiobook listener or even a music listener, my recommended solution would be to look into a pair of Aftershox or similar technology. When not just enjoying the Nairobi soundscapes, I run with an old pair of them and it leaves my ears free and open to stay attentive to what’s going on around me. I was once almost seriously injured by a local on a bike whose brake cable had broken and he was out of control flying down a hill. Thankfully I heard the cars screeching and him yelling and was able to dive out of the way.Don’t be that American that just blasts whatever they’re listening to out of their phone speakers. Nobody wants to hear that. Remember, we’re guests here.
Map it Out
While at home I’d be content running without my phone, we should have ours with us when we run here. I use a nifty lightweight app called EasyRoute to map out my adventures on foot. It’s a breeze to use, built by an indie developer, and, if I choose, it will provide me with turn-by-turn alerts and directions on my watch or phone (it’ll even guide me back OR reroute me if I make a wrong turn). There are dozens of route making apps/services that work fine here, so if you’ve already got one you like and it works, just use that. I’ve included a few of the routes that I run regularly, but mapping your own is fun! I have loops for everything from a mile to 30mi+ through Karura. Get to know the area that you want to run before mapping it out. I always recommend that you drive your route before running it to make sure you are in high visibility neighborhoods and know how to find a major thoroughfare if you get turned around.
Sun Protection and Hydration
We’re a mile above sea level and that’s a mile closer to the sun. My entire family is much more prone to sunburns here (we’re pretty pasty) and on top of that I’ve decided to save money on shampoo by going bald. I always run with a hat and all my running tops are SPF rated. I don’t know what they’re rated but the label said they were rated. Those mineral sunscreen sticks that are shaped like deodorant are great for a quick face appliqué before running out the door.Along with the sun and altitude comes increased water intake. I hate carrying water with me but on longer jaunts I need to. As you have likely already discovered, the only recommended drinkable water is from our distillers or purchased bottles. You won’t find water bubblers along your route but if you run through Karura you can always stop or finish at River Café.
A Way Out
The safety precautions that I take aren’t much different than I would take at home in the States, but my awareness is much more heightened (see: running with headphones). I never run in an area that I couldn’t call an Uber from (Karura excepted) and I have Post One as a contact directly on my home screen. I’ve never used either, but I’m no spring chicken and someday I’m sure I’ll pull something or some part of my leg will come off and I’ll need a lift. Running with friends/enemies/pups can be a great way to keep it social and have a someone with you if you’re not quite ready to run on your own here.
Always Be Constructing
Since day one at our post someone somewhere has been building something. Always. It’s loud and usually rather poorly marked. Early on in our tour I completely ran through what was supposed to be a blocked off drainage installation project in Runda. I had no idea. Apparently, there was a cone or something somewhere (as I was told later) and I was curious as to why the road was suddenly all dirt and there was nobody around (apparently it was lunch?) but little ol’ nature-nerd me was too busy trying to identify which plants were indigenous and which were exotic to even notice until I heard someone yelling at me. Also, we need to mention the hills. Sorry. There isn’t much you can do about them. Nairobi comes from the Massai expression for “cool waters” but half the time on my runs it’s coming out of my lips as the curse word for “land of unfathomable undulations and lack of level ground.” At least the camber isn’t too crazy. This is Nairobi.
Head for the Light
Lastly, keep in mind that we’re on the equator. The sun rises and sets at essentially the same time the entire year, give or take 30min. Run during daylight hours. I know it can get a bit finicky with work schedules and getting kids ready for school, but you might have already noticed that the streets at night are not well illuminated and in our area of the city, it is pretty quiet after dark - there aren’t a lot of people out and about should you need assistance for any reason. Sun’s out run about.
We’re a great community here in Kenya and so many of us are excited to help others get adjusted and settled into our mission. If there’s any role that I can play in helping you live life outdoors, please let me know, whether it be helping you build/run a new route or sending you some recommendations. Kenya build yourself a habit of running or walking while at post? Kenya?! The community that puns together, runs together.
If you have kids (or even if you don’t) give Wangari’s Trees of Peace a read. Unbowed is Wangari Mathai’s autobiography.
Or not - maybe you like the battle worn Red Badge of Courage like I do. You do you.
He was fine as he was headed for an uphill and gravity did its job and eventually slowed him down. He pedaled up the hill for a bit before deciding it was too hard and then left his bike by the side of the road and continued on foot 🤷🏼♂️
Before you ask, yes. I have put it on as deodorant before. In my defense my kids peel the labels off of every single thing that we own so… but now I feel confident that I have successfully taken steps to combat that underarm skin cancer everyone on them TikToks is tick talking about.