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Marathon Training in Addis Ababa for the ROTOM Run

Over the Christmas period, I signed up and actually participated in my first marathon ever. The ROTOM Run at happened on 27th December 2019 in Muhanga, Rukiga District (formerly part of Kabale). The run is meant to raise money for the purchase of an Ultra-Sound Scan Machin for ROTOM Health Center in Muhanga. I started running from an early age. Surely all that fleeing from my mums swinging and flying sapatu after I had been naughty has to count for something. And now that we’ve flashed back to my athletic origins, I might as well go ahead and give you the entire backstory till to date.

I was an active sportsman through primary, making it to the school football team even. To be honest, this wasn’t much of a feat considering how causally we took extracurricular activities and how many goals we swallowed when we played other schools. I was in a bougie missionary-founded primary school where, among other perks, our kitchen baked us fresh bread for breakfast on a regular and I remember one of the schools we were playing with dissing us that, Abana ba KPS emigati yabawhamu , when we were playing an away much and were panting heavily as we tried to keep the other hardened kids who were camped in our half of the pitch from winning with cricket/basketball scores.

TBH, that migati comment has haunted me and characterized most of my halfhearted working out/sportsmanship attempts since then, apart from that time in A ‘Level when I became serious about rugby. I find myself often reflecting longingly about my 20’s when I was a young kadogo who couldn’t put on weight no matter what I consumed without having to work out, but age has caught up and I am now developing bodily curves that might make people think I have money yet the struggle is real. So, I need to get my act in order and that’s why things like this are consuming a lot of my thought RAM. Also, I need to get that elusive six-pack so I can finally kick off my Instagram model career.

Back to the marathon KB…If I am being honest, this is not my first attempt at marathoning. I grew up in villa and my siblings and I had phases when we did the morning jogging thing. Village air in the morning is the best for a run. Even the whiffs of fresh cow shit as you go past farms makes sense to the body. These phases never lasted long though and all of us lost it completely when we got to the city. I have also signed up for about 3 Rotary Centenary Cancer runs, because cancer is a problem that the government has left the CSR and NGO sector to address, but I have never turned up because the bed can really be sweet at that time of Sunday morning when those marathons happen, especially when fueled by hangovers. At this point, I am now just a collector of marathon kits.

I really don’t know why this one is special enough to have broken my marathon virginity. Maybe it’s because it happened via home base and the air is really clean around here. I had actually forgotten I signed up for it till my kid brother woke me up the morning after I bused into villa and said we should hit the road and do some practice. I allowed because I have been promising myself I would start working out regularly last year and this hadn’t exactly, well, worked out.

My last attempt at fitness was in January 2019 when I was in Ethiopia with the Great African Caravan and a couple of us on the team decided to use our serene surroundings to get our bodies in order before we embarked on the remainder of our drive to Cairo. Yeah, that title was totally clickbait. No one was training for a marathon in Ethiopia. I just wanted to tie together my two running stories. Sue me.

Soo, we were staying in the lion’s den at the Ethiopian Academy of Science. Yes, you heard that right, lion’s den. The owner of the property where the academy is located used to be a residence of one of the most renowned scholars and politicians of the 20th century Ethiopia, the late Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde Selassie and, naturally, he had pet lions on the promises, or so we were told. After the property was converted into a Science Academy, the pet lion project was abandoned and we were lucky enough to have it given to us free for our accommodation purposes during our stay in Ethiopia. Beggars don’t be choosers, especially considering we had been kicked out of the first free accommodation that had been given to us because of opposition to our presence from conservative Ethiopian officials.

The first accommodation we were bounced from.

The Ethiopian Academy of Science where we stayed after.

The lion’s den where we squeezed ourselves

Anyway, first of all, Addis Ababa is really cold. But that’s to be expected if you are in the city with the highest altitude on the continent. Secondly, the lion’s den was even colder. The rest of the Academy compound wasn’t that cold but the corner of the property where the lions’ den was located had good tree cover which meant the sun almost never reached it. While most of the other members of the caravan had coupled up, I was one of the minority that had no one to share a sleeping bag with. Which meant most mornings, I woke freezing despite sleeping fully clothed, including a jumper, in my sleeping bag. Fun times.

So, when Charan and Yllka, started doing morning runs, I jumped on that plan. Akram had been threatening us with running from when I first met him in Kasese but I don’t remember him ever actually doing it, even after he bought running shoes in Nairobi. I don’t blame him though, he had enough mental exercise going on with trying to make sure the journey was somehow funded and we managed to make it till the end. So, on the second day Charan and Yllka were running, I woke up early to join them but first passed by the loos to evacuate unnecessary materials from my body. By the time I was done with that, I had been left behind by those unloyal individuals. Smh. Still, the mindset was steady so I headed out and started running downhill.

A couple steps in and I was already wondering what had taken me so long to start doing this. This was a great feeling and my body was responding like a vehiko that’s been serviced. As my feet punished the tarmac, I started feeling The Man. The air was clean coz the cars hadn’t started moving about and I could feel the running spirit of the land take over me and propel me forward. Ethiopia is home to several track medalists, including the legends Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Abebe Bikila, Tirunesh Dibaba, Derartu Tulu…. and I now felt I understood why they were so dominant in the sport. This place had a way of catalyzing the body to run. I passed by some kids going to school and sent a jambo their way as I thundered past. I passed by some coffee women setting up their apparatus to catch the first customers of the day as they headed to work and I added some swagger to my running. You know how stunning them Ethiopian women be…I had to represent for Ugandan men.

By the time I reached the nearby Gulele town, I was ready to take on the world. The original plan was to turn back after reaching the trading center but I was now feeling so pumped I decided to cross the road and keep on going downhill for some extra meters before turning back. I had found my calling and there was no point slacking if I was going to break some records. I passed more people and I swear they were all glancing at me admiringly. They could see the potential champion in me and were glad to share in this moment of history in the making. Or they could have been wondering what this foreign-looking individual was doing running around their neighbourhood this early. But a few people had told me I could pass for an Ethiopian and some strangers had gone as far as begin talking to me in Amharic so I am going to stick with the version where they were admiring me. I might have even waved and thrown some peace signs at a few of the people I passed. A true champion practices their celebration too.

Soon, I saw a massive structure in front of me and decided I would run till it before turning to head back home. When I reached the structure, lo and behold it was a football stadium that was nearing completion. The Abebe Bikila Stadium. Gatdayum, destiny really was hollering at me. The stadium set up included a running track around the pitch so I decided to do a couple of laps around it to get a feel of that environment too. I could conquer on track and marathon and achieve true legend status. An all-round running champion. I went through the unfinished perimeter wall, climbed down the steps and took off around the track. Quarter way across, I noticed some individuals in the stands gesturing at me. Fantastic, I now had supporters here, I thought to myself. The gesturing became more energetic as I came closer to them and I figured maybe they wanted some autographs so I approached them to do my duty. They fired off rapid Amharic when I was in conversation range and after I had communicated that I didn’t understand what they were saying or have a pen to sign autographs, they told me in one syllable English that I was trespassing and I should go back. Oh. I apologized and made a hasty retreat out of the stadium.

Abebe Bikila Stadium

This mishap foreshadowed the rest of my return journey. Running back uphill was a different story altogether. I had not realized how steep the landscape was when I was running downhill because I was busy imagining myself as a superstar so I was demoralized by the sight of the task ahead of me after I stepped out of the stadium. Still, no pain no gain. I set off with determination on my face and dreams of fortune and fame in my mind. After a few meters, my lungs were protesting this hard labor. The crisp air from when I was running downhill now felt painful to breathe in. The other pedestrians that I thought were admiring me before had pitiful looks on their faces as they watched me sweat a bucketful per second. I somehow managed to find the energy to yell out repeatedly that I am Tanzanian. Gotta keep the Ugandan image clean. My entire body was on fire!

Soon, I was walk-running with more walking with hands akimbo than running. All hopes and dreams of ululating crowds as I crossed finishing line after finishing line started fading away as I fought to stay alive. Who even invented exercise? That psychopath! I reached the town and was assaulted by the fumes of morning traffic that was now jamming the road. Eh, Ethiopia was rio trying to kill me. By the time I made it back to the Academy, I was done with this running business. And in addition to waking up cold and alone in my sleeping bag, I now had to deal with an aching body. FUUUUUUUUUU!!

I run like two more times in Ethiopia, one of the times on the route that Charan and Yllka were taking. Its terrain was more dynamic because of ongoing road constructions and less steep because they were running on the roads along/across the sides of the hill. At one section, there were some kids playing football in the street. A street where cars passed and the two parties seemed to have some kind of understanding on how to share the road amicably. That made me happy. I promised myself I’d try to join in the game when I next run in that direction but unfortunately, I stopped running soon after that. We were back on the road to Sudan.

But, here I was trying to attempt this running business again. The first practice run with my kid brother wasn’t as bad as I expected. The brother, who apparently runs on a more regular basis and has participated in other marathons (look at that, one of us survived the Kampala curse), claimed I slowed him down but he can go and tell that to someone who cares, the showoff. I did one more practice round with him two days later and 1 day before the marathon to get the muscles and overall body used before the real thing. Even the morning after pains I was fearing didn’t manifest because the first run was followed by some hard labor. My villa is not the type where you go to chillax. There’s work to be done and my mum is allergic to idleness.  Still, the unexpected workout seemed to have rekindled old sportsing and life injuries I’d ignored till they ‘healed’. My ankles were also not handling all this pressure from my body well because they hurt the most. Henewe, no pain no gain!

The day of the marathon came and by the time the sun came out, we had driven to the marathon venue in the valley town of Muhanga and were doing energetic workouts to the sounds of raspy lingala blaring out of visibly tayad speakers (the hectic season bes intense man). Speeches were given, elections being around the corner, Kenneth said emotion-touching words about the work he founded ROTOM to do to take care of the elderly, some more speeches and then we were ready to run.

The 16 km guys took off first, my kid brother among them. When they yelled go, I was very disappointed they didn’t have a starting gun meanwhile, a number of guys in that 16 km race took off like they were doing a sprint. I proper saw the moment of realization on kid bros face that just maybe he had overestimated his abilities. Anyway, those ones were on a mission to win the prize money unlike the rest of us jokers. After they had disappeared up a Kigezi hill, the 8km group went on the starting line and were also ushered off. The biggest crowd, myself and my sisters included, waddled to the starting line for the 4 km. In the social media tradition of good-cause marathons, we decided to do extra stretches by taking more selfies. Eventually, we were also sent off.

Being the backbencher I am, I walked for the first minutes as the crowd ahead of me spread out and then started my jog. My strategy was to do as I had done during training…don’t push too hard and walk when things get rough. It’s been proven the spirit of Ethiopian runners didn’t enter you and you are here to run for the elders not injure yourself and join them prematurely. I overtook a couple of people before the first hill and then did my first walk. Kigezi hills hit differently from Ntungamo ones. Actually, they brought back trauma from the Ethiopian ordeal. Still, I had been training so I was back to jogging when my body had been recharged by the walk.

The people I climbed this hill with are more or less the ones I finished the race with. I left them behind after the first kilometre but they managed to catch up with me in the fourth and we crossed together. Different pacing for different people. To keep myself entertained, my favourite activity became sounding the whoosh sound every time I passed someone. Most of them were sensible enough to laugh it off or ignore me but a few took the bait and decided to run faster to pass me and quickly burn out. MuahahahaHAHA!!

For the sake of the headline and forcing two stories together, let’s assume I won the 4km race thanks to my unrelated jogging attempts in Ethiopia and was rewarded with a banana, a bottle of water and a massage for my paining ankles. This is the point in the movie when things are in slow motion and some high crescendo tear-jerking music is playing in the background as the flashbacks I’ve just narrated to you fade in and out of the video of le moi running across the finish line. Oscar award material you guy.

Epilogue: I went for another jog with kid bro two days after the marathon. Keep the momentum. But I’ve now been in Kampala for 3 weeks and the momentum collapsed immediately. There is something about this city. I have other legit excuses in addition to that one but their time is running out so let me get out my running shoes and get back to work on acquiring this good habit. For the six-pack!

PS: I swear this is not one of those resolution posts. That ish is a lie.

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Written by Byagaba Roland

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  1. 4km and they gave you what? ???

    Congratulations upon your win. I thought the title was clickbait. Glad you actually won. Surprised,but glad.

    Please don’t give up on exercise. Do a ka short run daily. With the way the economy is looking, we have chances of surviving with you as an Instagram model. ??

    Also, you write how you speak. It’s refreshing. Always.


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