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Running free: Kenya’s conservation-led Lewa Safari Marathon

For more than 25 years, a high endurance race through the protected habitats of endangered species has supported major environmental projects across Africa. We lace up to explore the frontline. 

‘We are well-versed in people not being able to cope with it,’ says Sarah Watson. ‘This is high altitude, between 5,500 and 6,000 feet. And obviously it’s very hot here, we’re right on the equator. Heat and altitude are not to be taken lightly.’ 

As Chief Conservation Officer for Tusk, a wildlife protection charity with arms across Africa, it almost sounds like she’s warning people off her organisation’s most demanding and intimidating fundraising event. Others evidently feel differently, though – Saturday 29th June will see 1,500 runners compete in the Lewa Safari Marathon, a significant increase on the first edition, held back in 2000. 

‘It started with 150 runners, now we have to cap it because of the medical and security coverage for the event, because it’s run through the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – one of the premier conservation organisations in East Africa, if not Africa, a stronghold of rhinos – 265 in total, black and white. It has become a real catalyst for conservation across Kenya and a lot of other projects come here to learn about the work of the organisation,’ says Watson. ‘It’s an incredibly beautiful but very wild landscape. 

‘In terms of getting out into nature, this is much more inclusive [compared to the cost of safari]. You don’t have to have millions of shillings in order to own your own vehicles. You just need a pair of trainers and a way to drive five hours from Nairobi to get here,’ she continues. ‘A lot of corporates take part, too, Kaikeyi are entering 50 runners against Safaricom, Huawei, Safarilink, a lot of big Kenyan corporations. They have a great time camping out, then this crazy physical event, then there’s always a big party afterwards.’ 

While numbers of international competitors are increasing, the Lewa Safari remains a largely Kenyan event in terms of who takes part, and even many non-nationals involved are based in the country. Nairobi, the capital, is home to the largest concentration of United Nations staff in Africa, most of who not born here. Far more local are the 24 communities in Lewa who also participate. 

‘They will spend a year training, they’ve ended up holding their own events in  order to work out the team that will take part in the Lewa. Then there’s also the schools, and a kids race, which is 5km… like any other marathon, it’s become a thing that’s renowned across the country,’ says Watson, confirming there are four race categorie; Full Marathon, Half Marathon, Executive 10km and Children’s 5km.

Regardless of which they enter, Runners will be faced with 24C temperatures across open savannah, equatorial sun ensuring the heat feels particularly intense. Racing across hillsides, the course is uneven, and Watson tells us it often has ‘elephant poo all over the place.’ Unsurprisingly, then, the event is cited as one of the 10 toughest marathons in the world, but the rewards are worth every ounce of effort – for competitors and crew. This year, it is expected to raise £10million.

‘It’s a huge amount of work, and that sort of starts from the minute the last one ends,’ says Watson. ‘It’s great for cognitive crisis management abilities, but also once it’s all done you hear the feedback. It’s always great to know that it’s sort of changed people’s lives, getting them out of their normal nine-to-five kind of day, to do something that’s totally different. Really see the impact that it has to people that live close by, but also across the country.’

‘One of the biggest learnings from my time here is that most things are possible if you think slightly outside the box,’ she adds, soon revealing she has been involved in the Lewa Marathon since inception, and has faced all manner of uphill challenges over more than 25 years. Including the course itself – Watson has raced every edition during her time at the organisation. 

‘We make sure our impact is as small as possible, so you could go on a game drive within an hour of the race finishing and wouldn’t see any evidence of the race happening,’ we’re told. ‘We’ve done an [environmental assessment] to measure the impact on wildlife, and you see wildlife returning within a couple of hours of the marathon finishing.’ 

For the fastest, completing Lewa could take as little as two hours 17minutes, a little over the current marathon record of two hours one minute. Others will be much slower, which is understandable given the extreme conditions. Whichever camp you’d fall into, participation is what really counts, raising awareness around conservation – something Lewa has excelled at, catalysing an entire subsection of eco-minded endurance races, from Kilimanjaro to Max in the Mara.

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