Touching down on African soil, we breathed deeply that distinct aroma and on our journey up to the small town of Gilgil in Kenya, cameras and iPhones worked overtime to capture the stunning views over Lake Nakuru. Our first stopover was at Pembroke House Prep School, where we would be based to acclimatise to the high altitude (a stunning first dawn run took us up Sundowner Point with views of the Aberdare Hills and beyond), and would also provide us an opportunity to visit the Restart Centre, home to orphaned and abandoned Kenyan street children. As a group we had sought to raise funds for the Centre in advance of travelling to Africa through our marathon world record attempt and other sponsored events. It was a significant afternoon, therefore, for our students to spend time with the Restart children, who despite having suffered unbelievable and unspeakable cruelty and sadness, nevertheless manage to smile continually and retain a genuine optimism and hope for a future that is surely far more positive under the framework and support of the Centre and its staff. In bold letters on the wall are the words, ‘Think not what you are, but what you can become’. These were words that would remain with us on the tour, and no doubt for many years to come, and our time at the Restart Centre was a memorable first experience of the reality of African life.
At the Restart Centre, Gilgil, Kenya
As we said goodbye to our hosts at Pembroke and to the children at Restart, our attention turned to our first serious training in Africa as we travelled north-west to Iten, the ‘home of champions’, where we would be based at the Lornah Kiplagat High Altitude Training base. It was here that such athletes as Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah have based themselves in the past, and we quickly could see why. There is a very special atmosphere in the town, with quite literally hundreds of world class athletes training each day on the roads, trails and forests around the small town, perched atop the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. If the Hunt is proud of its history of success, then you can imagine just how impressive it was to visit the local school - St Patrick’s - which under the coaching of Irish priest Brother Colm, has produced multiple Olympic champions and world record holders, most recently 800m record holder David Rudisha.
Our time in Iten involved some very challenging training sessions where we were paced by young steeplechaser Silas Too and by 800m runner Timo Limo. We learned a great deal from speaking with Kenyan athletes and looking at the way they live and train, observing the simplicity and dedication they bring to their daily lives. Meeting African junior 5000m champion and current St Patrick’s pupil Moses Letoiye showed us just how dedicated you need to be to reach the top.
Our time at Iten came to an end, and we made our way east again, this time stopping off overnight in North Laikipia, hosted by Aidan and Claire Hartley at Palagalan Farm, possibly the most remote place any of us had every been to. A night under the radiant stars to the accompaniment of Africa’s symphony of animals was a memory to treasure, and a glimpse of an Africa rarely seen by your average tourist. The next morning, Aidan had prepared an unforgettable run for us - a 10km route that would see us run alongside ostrich, antelope and even two rather large bull elephants. I don’t suppose we will ever again run under the watchful gaze of marshals with rifles and elephant guns!
Further time experiencing African game was had in Ol Pejeta game conservancy, where we were fortunate to see a vast menagerie of animals - most memorably of all, a cheetah scouting out its evening kill. A ‘kill’ of different sorts was on our mind as we traveled back to Nairobi to face Peponi School in a 4km race on the Kenyatta family ranch. (For those unfamiliar with Hunt vernacular, a ‘kill’ is a win, not anything more sinister!) This race would be a significant event in the Hunt’s history, for this would be our first ever international fixture.
RSSH v Peponi School
What nerves there were about competing at altitude, in the intense heat of an African afternoon and against an unknown opposition, quickly evaporated with a strong start from our runners. Fifth Former Ben Remnant led the runners out, with four or five of the Hunt packing well behind him. By the end of the first lap, it was clear that the Hunt’s stamina and speed could not be matched by the Peponi runners, despite their advantage of being acclimatised to the altitude. Indeed, it became less of a race between the two schools, and rather a race to see who could be the first Hunt runner to ‘kill’ on foreign soil. That honour went to Fourth Former Freddie Huxley-Fielding, with Ben Remnant settling for second home and Huntsman Rory Fraser making up the podium. In fact, the Hunt posted the top eight positions, and in the girls’ race there was further success for our two girls with Captain of Girls’ running Lucie Cornwell-Lee coming home third, and new entrant Tory Mobley taking the ‘kill’ over Peponi’s five-time independent schools’ national champion. It was a triumphant afternoon, and as we celebrated with dinner and an overnight stay at the world-famous Muthaiga Country Club, we reflected on a fitting end to our week in Kenya.
Our final leg saw a flight back in to Addis Ababa at an unspeakable hour in the morning, followed by yet another lengthy bus journey south to Bekoji, where the seeds of our African journey began. It is a town rarely visited by Westerners (or ‘faranji’ as we would be known) and a far more untouched part of Africa than we had experienced in Kenya. That said, as Ian Haworth and I set off on an evening run as the sun set on the town, it became quite clear that there was no hostility here, and as countless children ran alongside us or cheered us on with ‘Go America!’ and ‘Run good!’ we felt like privileged guests in this remote corner of Africa. That evening, we were delighted to have a surprise visit from ‘Coach’ who showered us all with bear-hugs, his ever-present beaming smile stretched across his face.
As we congregated amongst Coach's young Ethiopian athletes in the early hours of the next morning, it became clear just how seriously they take their running. Over 120 young men and women had woken early to attend the session, most wearing running shoes barely hanging together, yet all were there believing that they could be the next Ethiopian superstar, and that Olympic glory could be theirs if they worked hard enough. The talent on display was really quite mesmerising, and as we began the workout weaving in and out of the hillside trees, interspersed with sections of unfathomable speed, we reflected on the privilege of being able to train with such impressive athletes. It was an experience that we all felt was one of the most memorable of the tour, and we were only sorry that our time in Bekoji was so brief. Nevertheless, we feel sure that our partnership with ‘Coach’ and the ‘town of runners’ Bekoji will continue for many years to come and no doubt he will be back in Shrewsbury at some point soon to train the next generation of Hunt runners.
With Coach at Bekoji - clockwise from back left: William Hayward, Charlie Davis, Peter Middleton, Coach, Ben Remnant, Theo Clarke, Lucie Cornwell-Lee, Ian Haworth, Sean Sawyer, Jake Samuel, Freddie Huxley-Fielding, Charlie Tait-Harris and Tory Mobley
Our final few days would see us back in the outskirts of Addis staying at YaYa Village Athlete training camp. The facility is co-owned by Haile Gebreselasie and provided our athletes with yet more memorable running experiences. Spending time with Ethiopian prodigy Davit Gashite on our final afternoon (who has already posted 1.52 in the 800m and 3.52 in the 1500m) and hearing about his own ambitions and aims provided a clear view of the commitment needed at this level. As an athlete roughly the same age as the majority of our runners, running with Gashite fired them up to aim high themselves.
Of course we hoped that our talented athletes would leave Africa feeling inspired, motivated and wanting to aim high. Yet the tour was about so much more than that. It was less of a training or racing tour, and instead more experiential. Our pupils gained an insight into a very different world to their own. They saw extreme poverty, hardship, toughness. Yet in amongst it all, there is hope, optimism and a thankfulness for each day and the air that they breathe. There is a real belief that anything is possible against this backdrop, and I hope that this has been the overriding message that our runners have come away with. I hope that they have become better runners, but also more rounded individuals, and young men and women who look ahead not only at the promise of their own future, but also to the future that they can help shape for others. As they say at the Restart Centre, think not what you are, but what you can become.
Huntsman Rory Fraser has also written an account of the tour: Running with Elephants
Below: Ian Haworth and Peter Middleton with 800-metre World Champion Mohammed Aman