The madness began almost a year ago when I signed up for the first ForRangers Ultra. The return to reality begins now.
The day before
Tuesday 31 July, World Ranger Day
Up at 6:30, for a disappointingly tiny breakfast at Wildebeest Eco Camp in Langata, Nairobi. Kenneth and I eye up the other runners, 44 of them. A few we know already: Oli Tovey and Bryan Hemmings, long-time mates who have agreed to share the burden of wearing one of our rhino costumes; Speedy (best marathon time is under 2 hours 40) Dave Mohring; Liz Winton, who’s run three marathons for Save the Rhino, the most recent in rhino costume; her running partner Enda Brady, the Sky Sports reporter who’s only just back from Russia (the FIFA World Cup) and France (cycling’s Tour de France); and Rohan Muir, a delightful bloke we met in a pub two months ago. All 44 are intimidatingly sinewy and muscular.
Intimidation levels drop when our mini-fleet of mini-busses stops at a curio-shop-cum-snack-bar and the elite athletes descend, hoovering up chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks. We pause at a large sign for a series of selfies with the Equator. And we are further cheered when, at the next stop, these hard men and women pile into KFC’s finest. Their bodies are clearly some sort of temple, but not representing any religion I’ve yet come across.
We arrive at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy’s main gate and immediately start spotting animals. For many of the runners, this is their first time to East Africa, and there’s huge excitement about zebras crossing the road. Camp is a series of tents arranged around a football-pitched size patch of short grass. This is where Lewa hosts participants in its annual marathon, two circuits of a 21 km loop. Our challenge is going to be a little tougher: 212 km over the course of five days, during which we must carry all the kit and food we need for the race, and running through four wildlife conservancies that Save the Rhino supports: Lewa, Borana, Ol Jogi and Ol Pejeta. All four have the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino.
Waiting to meet us are the two men who inspired this whole venture: Sam Taylor and Pete Newland. They work for 51 Degrees Ltd, which delivers training for rangers in the four conservancies as well as in other countries. They strongly believe in the value of having not only well-trained but also well-equipped and well-motivated rangers. Budgets don’t always stretch to, or managers don’t always prioritise things like life insurance, gym equipment or anti-venom kits: the sorts of thing that provide a safety net for rangers and their families as well as boosting morale immeasurably. In 2016, Sam and Pete recruited a bunch of people to do a Jungle Ultra, organised by Beyond the Ultimate, and the ForRangers initiative took off from that: a series of hardcore endurance feats, dinners, auctions and fundraisers that have enabled us to make a series of grants for ForRangers’ projects.
From there, it was a natural, inevitable even, progression to wanting to organise an ultra in Kenya, the home of long-distance running. Pete and Sam talked about this a lot, and one day, between Christmas and New Year 2016, I started writing out a list of everything that we’d need to do to make this happen. One Skype call later and we realised that this wasn’t something that ForRangers and Save the Rhino could do on their own; we needed the professionals. A couple of meetings with the awesome Kris King and Andy Ridell from Beyond the Ultimate and the deal was done: the first ForRangers Ultra would take place in August 2018. And now here we all are. It’s finally real.
There’s a bunch of other familiar faces here: Edward Ndiritu, the very impressive Head of Lewa’s Anti-Poaching Unit who I first met in 2011, Joseph Piroris, who manages the canine unit, together with Belgian Malinois Jack and bloodhound Toby; Batian Craig from 51 Degrees Ltd and his father Ian from the Northern Rangelands Trust, and Wanjiku Kinuthia, Lewa’s Comms Manager, who’s visited us a couple of times in London. It is wildly reassuring to know that these wonderful people will all be looking out for us.
We’re just north of the Equator and the sun sets quickly between 6pm and 6.30pm. The temperature falls, but we’re full of warm freeze-dried food and tea, and slip into our liners and sleeping bags, insert ear-plugs and pull down eye-masks, feeling grateful for our British Army cots. Not the sort with pull-up sides, flannelette sheets and a cuddly toy dangling above our heads, but a rigid rectangle of canvas stretched over a frame that threatens sever the fingers of cot-construction novices. And, to the sound of raucous snoring – we’re 16 to a tent – I fall asleep, only to wake up at midnight, frozen. The kit list said a lightweight bag would be fine. It isn’t.
You know when you’ve been jambo’d
Wednesday 1 August, Stage 1: Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to Borana Conservancy (38.3km)
5.30am and people start to move. The dawn chorus is of moans about how cold we were, how hard the cots are, how much people snored. The birds of Kenya can barely make themselves heard. The beginning of the morning routine: which bag of freeze-dried food to hydrate, the huddle around the hot-water heater while trying to force down ’breakfast’, the reluctant strip-down to a Tshirt and running shorts. Race Brief at 6.50. Race Director Kris is chipper – but when is he not?
“Right, a short but tasty 38.3 km today, three checkpoints and then a final 6.4 km to the finish. The first leg is undulating, then there’s a climb, a bit of up and down, and then a final hill before the finish line on Borana. The helicopter’s already up because we’ve had to clear rhinos, elephant and buffalo off the course. Keep your eyes open for the chalk markings that show the route. If you don’t see any chalk or rangers for 400 m, you’ve gone wrong. Good luck”.
We also get a short race briefing from Brett, head of Exile Medics, the team of ten doctors who will patch us up when we break. “Wash your hands before eating. It’s frankly embarrassing if you have to tell your sponsors you shat yourself out the race.” Sage advice indeed.
We cluster around the start, a line on the ground marked in chalk between banners for Save the Rhino, ForRangers and Beyond the Ultimate. More friends from Lewa have come to wave us off: Geoffrey Chege, who helps me with grant proposals and reports, and John Pameri, Head of Field Rangers.
A mercifully short countdown and we’re off. A dirt track leading through Lewa’s plain, a vast area of grassland stuffed full of Grevy’s zebra, impala, Grant’s gazelles, and 46 runners, each sporting 8-10kg rucksacks, lurid trainers and bulging calf muscles. And then there’s Kenneth in the rhino costume. Mr Rhino, as it’s known. For now.
The original rhino costumes were built in 1989 for an opera production. We came across them in the early ‘90s, asked if we could have them, and were slightly astonished when the answer was yes. We promptly did what nature never intended: started running marathons in them. Rhino costumes have been worn to the summit of Kilimanjaro, in every London Marathon since 1992, in marathons from Boston to Sydney via Singapore and the Great Wall of China, and in ultra-marathons including the Marathon des Sables (twice), the Atacama Crossing and the Comrades (twice). And now the ForRangers Ultra – an event we hope will become annual.
Off charges Kenneth in full suit like a rhino in a china shop. I optimistically follow him, but soon realise that despite our pre-Ultra holiday in Rwanda, designed to acclimatise us to Lewa’s altitude (2,200m / 7,200ft above sea level), I cannot get enough air into my lungs. I am sneakily pleased to hear others say “I can’t breathe”. Two minutes later, we are up to our ankles in water, crossing the only river for miles around. Water, heat, dust. Blister city, here we come.
The scenery is stunning. Down in the swamp area are fever trees with their yellow-green trunks and flat-topped canopies of leaves. In the distance, we can see the beginnings of the slopes of Mt Kenya, its summit hidden in clouds, and in the other direction, the Matthews, a range of hills that used to team with rhinos before the poaching crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. Rumours persist of sightings of rhinos there that might somehow have survived, but that’s all there seem to be – rumours.
After an hour of undulations, we meet the public road that cuts through Lewa, and encounter the locals. They are slightly baffled by the sight of the runners and astonished by the sight of Mr Rhino. “Jambo! Jambo!” they shout in greeting. Ignoring the protests of their teachers, kids pour out of their schoolrooms to stare at the oddity in their midst. Kenneth airily waves a paw. This provokes two large mongrels into making a sustained attack on his rear flank, and a platoon of rangers immediately starts lobbing stones to ward them off. Only a few hit Mr Rhino.
Jambo is the word of the day. Nothing like constant repetition to lodge it into everyone’s minds. Our fellow runners come from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, the USA, Canada, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Kenya. The chat between runners as we pass each other is minimal and mundane: “Hot isn’t it? This hill goes on forever!” The F-word begins to overtake Jambo in terms of frequency and vigour.
The four of us planning to take Mr Rhino to the finish reconvene at the first checkpoint, an incongruous gazebo, duly plastered in logos of the three organizations behind this ForRangers Ultra. There are a couple of non-flannelette cots for weary runners to sit on, and a duo from the Exile Medics team. The Medics are awesome. I will say this again and again. Simply awesome. They spend the next five days hugging tired runners, sticking feet back together, refilling water bottles and telling us we are amazing. Without them, far fewer of us would make it. They remember everyone’s names. They care. It’s phenomenal.
The first costume change is not exactly Silverstone-worthy. We fuss around with straps and belts, webbings and Velcro, in the hope that there is a more comfortable fitting with greater visibility and ventilation. There is not.
The hills rise and fall. The endless vistas continue, as do the chalk markings. Wildlife passes. The helicopter buzzes overhead. We hear later that seven rhino and one lion needed to be persuaded to move away from our path today.
After Bryan, Oli is next in Mr Rhino, and then me for the last leg. My rucksack weighed 7kg at the start of the race, plus another 2 litres of water, and then the rhino costume, which weighs about 10kg. In all, that’s more than a third of my body-weight. It’s a long fourth leg into camp, a beautiful site surrounded by more fever trees. Even better, there are
showers with tepid water.
I decide to wash my running clothes, whirl them around in the sunshine and drape them festively over bushes in the remaining hour and a half of daylight, assuming they will dry. They do not. I make the considered decision to tuck the damp garments in the bottom of my sleeping bag, so that my body heat will dry them overnight.
Statistics of the day:
- 46 = number of runners beginning the Ultra; 100% completion of Stage 1
- 5 = hours between Mr Rhino’s arrival and the stage winner
- 1 = hours between Mr Rhino and the last person into camp, after 8.5 long, hot hours
Thursday 2 August, Stage 2: In Borana Conservancy (39.8km)
Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of the night air, I discover that my feet are prune-like and paralysed with cold. My running clothes are still sodden.
Over breakfast – I decide on freeze-dried scrambled egg with caramelised onion and cheese, realising halfway through that while it was indeed the most attractive option available from my supplies, it is not actually edible – we form the day’s strategy. An early recce of the race brief informs us that the stretch to the first Checkpoint, is up a big hill. A really big hill. Even chipper Kris happily admits that this is a serious hill. We agree that Kenneth will take the first leg in Mr Rhino, then me, while I am ‘strong’, then Oli, and finally Bryan.
Retracing our steps from Stage 1 for a few hundred metres, we then turn off to the right and up a gentle incline. It increases. A lot. Kenneth seems not to notice and maintains a steady jog-trot, the sort of pace a rhino would do if it thought you had a carrot in your pocket. (Their top speed when angered is 36 km/hour.) He vanishes into the distance.
I am pleasantly distracted by a delighted greeting from Rianto Lokoran, Head of the Anti-Poaching Unit at Borana. I met him in May last year, when I took part (OK, cowered behind the instructor, the lovely Pete) in a live-firing exercise, as rangers from Borana and Lewa practised extricating themselves from simulated ambushes. The next time I saw Rianto was in London, last December when he came over for the ForRangers dinner attended by Prince William. Put it this way: Rianto looked much more at home in London’s EC1 than I do in equatorial Kenya.
At the Checkpoint Kenneth hands the rhino suit to me, irritatingly looking as if he has not just run 10 km straight uphill carrying 20 kg of cumbersome weight, overtaking several other competitors in the process. Running – or route-marching – in rhino is a strange experience. It has been likened to running in a giant crisp packet. Lots of rustling, limited visibility and its very own micro-climate: that of a humid tropical jungle. I can see a small patch of ground about six feet in diameter about 6 feet in front of me. It helps to have a kind person trot along in front, picking out the flattest bit of the track with the fewest obstacles underfoot, so that all I have to do is follow their heels. No point trying to look out for dangerous animals, no point trying to take photos. We had grand plans before this Ultra to use Oli’s Go-Pro to film some rhino-cam footage but, frankly, it’s pointless.
Off I march, holding a steady six km per hour. The rangers helpfully call out “Pole pole” (rhymes with roly-poly), which means ‘Slowly slowly’ in duplicate and ‘Sorry’ in the singular. I heard it a lot when we trudged up Mt Kilimanjaro. Now it’s a bit dispiriting: I am not sure if the words are offered as advice or as a comment on my pace.
Pints of sweat later, I gratefully hand over the costume to Oli. Oli used to box and has a gait like a Montana cowboy. He’s taken part in ultras with us before, and both times had to drop out part way through with injuries. That he’s here again is testament to his big-heartedness. He’s been training hard and not only has cheekbones to die for but is bouncing with enthusiasm for the task. In fact, his enthusiastic over-training means he now knows the life histories of most of the physios in Manchester. They, in turn, know the inside measurements of his bank account. Oli’s superpower is learning the names of everyone in camp – the runners, the medics, the team that puts up and take down the tents, the truck driver who delivers the day’s water supply – within the first 24 hours.
And then over to Bryan. Bryan did the Marathon des Sables in 2001 and came 34th out of 700. He got home and rang my predecessor at Save the Rhino to say it would be a great idea to put together a team to do the 2002 MdS in rhino costume. The MdS is probably the most famous Ultra in the canon, some 150 miles across the Sahara. One of the things that first impressed me about Save the Rhino was that three of the Trustees actually took part in the MdS – in the rhino suit. They didn’t just turn up to quarterly meetings and write the occasional cheque. They took part. This was the kind of organisation I wanted to work for. In 2003, we repeated their effort – that was my first ultra. Bryan went on to further adventures, including a run-swim-cycle odyssey from Marble Arch to the Arc de Triomphe, and he was one of the first people to respond to my email introducing the ForRangers Ultra. A former officer of the British Army (ex-para, served in Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia) and still formidably tough mentally and physically, Bryan has a never-ending series of tales about blokes doing blokeish things. And here I am, doing the latest ‘blokeish thing with him.
Bryan develops a minor obsession with the rhino costume during the course of this Ultra, in the mistaken belief that it is possible to achieve an ergonomic, comfortable fit with excellent visibility. For a dependable logistics guru, he is surprisingly fanciful.
The three blokes plus Mr Rhino head off into the distance and I follow behind. So I have no one with me to verify the extremely strong impression that the camp, tantalisingly visible on the opposite slope, is not getting any nearer. Perhaps it’s the clarity of the air you get at altitude, but distance and perspective are not the same as in central London. Neither are the animals.
An hour or so later, I can finally smell the sweat of the camp. The runners have all come out of the shade of the tents to take pictures of two giraffes that have drifted nearer and nearer, and are now barely 100m away, golden in the last light of the day. Remembering the neck-swinging fight between giraffes in BBC Africa, we keep a respectful distance.
That evening, as I brush my teeth behind the tent, I hear a group of runners discussing the speed at which Kenneth went up the first hill of the day in Mr Rhino. They are impressed and somewhat awed. I make the mistake of telling Kenneth, who is unbearable until Bryan mentions the “Gandhi shuffle”, referring to the bald, bespectacled, slightly stooped figure that Kenneth cuts.
Statistics of the day:
- 42 = approx. number of times I fantasize about eating a tomato
- 0 = precise number of tomatoes available
In the jungle, the mighty jungle
Friday 3 August, Stage 3: Borana Conservancy to Ol Jogi Conservancy (46.6km)
No one slept a wink. It was bitter cold. Just before dawn, we emerge from the tents to see a large herd of buffalo grazing a couple of hundred metres away. It’s like the ‘Blink’ episode of Dr Who. Every time we briefly turn away and then look back they’ve moved 20 metres, completely silently.
Oli recruits a ringer for our team. Francesco Rigodanza, a gorgeous young curly-haired Italian, who is currently leading the race, steps up when Oli asks for volunteers and offers to do the leg to the first checkpoint in rhino cozzie. We are beside ourselves with gratitude; it’s been a long couple of days and we’re starting to feel the effects. Bryan straps him in. Tightly. No escape.
It’s another chopper morning. There are lots of eles on Lolldaiga, as well as our moving-statue buffalo, and our countdown to the start is drowned out as the helicopter does its full Apocalypse Now thing overhead. I have the Ride of the Valkyries in my head all day. (If only each Stage took me less time than a Wagner opera.)
Now the four of us can enjoy ourselves, as Francesco bounds up the first major hill of the day. In every London Marathon any of our rhino runners have ever done, they consistently report hearing two sorts of sounds as they overtake the back-markers. The first is a respectful grunt of “Good on you mate!” The second is the sound of a tyre deflating, as exhausted runners realise the worst has happened: they have been overtaken by a rhino. Now, our fellow Ultra runners are experiencing the same thing. The race leader and honorary rhino is setting a hell of a pace.
I am among the overtakees. Oli, Kenneth and Bryan have uncannily foreseen this, and worked out a plan to rotate the costume between them without my needing to do a shift, so this is the last time I see the rhino until camp. O blessed day!
It’s another hot day with little breeze. After this first hill, the course undulates through Borana and into Lolldaiga. Rangers pop up next to every bush that looks as if it might be a suitable spot for a wee (we’re not allowed more than 3 m away from the track for obvious reasons) and the checkpoints are far apart considering the amount of water we’re having to drink.
The toughest stretch comes at the end. At Checkpoint 3: we cross into Ol Jogi Conservancy and the track turns steeply uphill. 45 minutes of calf-stretching ascent and then the same again of quad-testing descent, but the views are stunning. Ol Jogi has plenty of picturesque rock kopjies that make excellent listening and observation posts for the anti-poaching units, and handy focal points for tired runners.
Francesco comes third on the day. The two hours in a rhino suit, a self-imposed disadvantage that barely seems to register. After swapping out of the suit, he flies through the field and catches all but two runners, a fellow Italian known as ‘Quadzilla’ on account of his massive leg muscles, and an American who shattered both his knees in a car accident two years ago and has over-compensated ever since. Francesco even overtakes Speedy Dave, which will have been a novel experience for him. Incredible. He’s now in second place overall but surely will retake his lead.
Camp tonight is by Ol Jogi’s animal sanctuary. A former owner collected exotic animals and a few elderly beasts remain. Now, the emphasis is on using the facility, which has a veterinary clinic attached, as a rehabilitation centre for injured native species, in the hope that they can be reintroduced to the wild. It’s visited by bus-loads of local schoolchildren, whose excited cries we can hear as we come into camp.
At our own rehab. centre, I ask for a pair of nail scissors to clip a raggy toenail that is cutting into the neighbouring toe. The Medics look at my tootsies and ask if I’d like them to pop and patch my multiple blisters. I hadn’t noticed them; other things hurt more. While my feet are festooned with fetching blue tape, two of the sanctuary’s residents drop by to say hi: a 28-year-old bull elephant that was hand-reared as an orphan and his 4-year-old daughter. It’s quite something to see them so close, on foot. Everything looks bigger when you’re on foot.
Conversation in the hot water tent turns to the quality of the freeze-dried food we’re all eating. The consensus is that most of it is ghastly. I am convinced that I’ve got scurvy after two days of eating this muck. I have started adding Dioralyte to my water bottle, not because I have stomach problems but because it’s blackcurrant flavour, and that’s the nearest I can get to something fresh and citrus-zingy. Our secret weapon is a mini-bottle of chili oil acquired in Rwanda, and a few drops of that livens up the reconstituted slurry. Word gets around and the Akabanga is in heavy demand. And then Kenneth produces, with a flourish, an apple. An actual apple.
I go to bed happy, temporarily cured of scurvy, with half an apple and more than half of the Ultra under my belt. I wake up at 10.30pm, frozen as usual, and lie awake for a few hours listening to the sound of two male lions roaring as they patrol their territory. They belong here, we’re the intruders. Not a lot of sleeping going on here.
Statistic of the day:
- 09:33:13 = length of time I am out on the course today
- 125 = number of km the apple had travelled in Kenneth’s rucksack
- 87 = number of km remaining
Mbogani ya Shauri Yako
Saturday 4 August, Stage 4: In Ol Jogi Conservancy, Pyramid to Ranch (42.5km)
Kris’s morning race brief reveals informs our plan for today. After the first km, there’s a spectacular gully / bit of erosion that is renowned for the number of leopard prints found in it each morning. Kris warns that we will have to take off backpacks to wriggle through narrow bits, and offers to drive The Beast to the point where we emerge from the ravine. We politely wave aside his suggestion. He has so missed the point. The Beast will complete the race. All of it.
I climb in and set off. There’s a steep descent and I summon my inner mountain goat. The gully is beautiful, a small-scale version of Bryce Canyon, and the early morning light is making the red earth glow. We hit the first obstacle, a natural arch with a hole less than a metre high. I disrobe, we throw The Beast over the top, wriggle through on hands and knees, re-robe, and set off again. Repeat. Repeat. I wonder if the guys will discount these minutes out of costume from my effort today.
The four of us, plus The Beast, emerge from the ravine together. A few kms further, and we encounter a real rhino, Meimei. Adorable Meimei was born on 14 March 2016 and found four days later stumbling around, blind in both eyes. Her mother, Manuela, would have been unable to protect her from predators and it was very fortunate that the rangers found the little calf. She was brought into Ol Jogi’s bomas, fed gallons of formula milk and, after five months of treatment with eye drops, fully recovered her sight.
Now, at just over two years old, she still likes milk formula but is mainly browsing on shrubby acacia. She is let out of her boma every day into a much bigger paddock to forage for herself, accompanied by her minder, a ranger called Laivet Lazaikong. As she grows bigger, she will gain in confidence and there is every hope that she will be able to be successfully introduced to the wild so that she can live independently. For now, though, she’s the most adorable, affectionate little black rhino, and poses obligingly for selfies with all of the runners apart from Italian Francesco, who was so quick off the start she hadn’t woken up by the time he sped through. I back slowly towards her, not sure how she’ll react to The Beast. Meimei takes everything in her stride. Many of the runners, however, are in happy tears after their encounter.
As we tear ourselves away, we see Ol Jogi’s two other boma-care rhinos through the fence, peacefully browsing just a few metres away from the track. Alfie was born blind and can never be free-released; Bobbie, if I remember right, was effectively castrated in a fight with another bull over territory, and would be beaten up if he were left to his own devices. Neither bull will ever be able to mate, so Ol Jogi simply ensures that they live out their lives well-cared for and protected.
I hand over the costume to Oli, but at the bottom of the next hill, barely 500 m away, he seizes up. His former shin splints have resurfaced and he’s in agony. Kenneth and Bryan shoulder the burden for the rest of the day. I set off on my own. I spend a long, long stretch in solitary today. I’m not remotely worried – there are rangers everywhere. It’s easy to daydream, and I fantasise some more about tomatoes.
Daniel, an Ol Jogi ranger, falls into step with me for a couple of kms. The hills have opened out and below me is a vast plain, dotted with tiny bushes. I ask about his training, how long he has worked at Ol Jogi, what he likes and dislikes about his job, and then I ask whether the rangers give names to particular areas or just refer to them by GPS coordinates. He says that this area is known as ‘Mbogani ya Shauri Yako’, which he translates as ‘The plain of up to you’, and explains that if you get caught out in that plain, whether by poachers or recalcitrant wildlife, there’s nothing to climb, hide behind or crawl into. You are on your own. Jamie Gaymer, Ol Jogi’s Conservation Manager, later tells me that an alternative and equally accurate translation is ‘The plain of you’re f*****!’
At Checkpoint 3 I ask Barry, Sam and Pete’s colleague, how Oli is doing. To my astonishment he’s only 10 minutes away so I decide to wait. We spend the next few hours toddling together down the track. We’re the back markers. I wander along to a patch of shade – eyeing up the river that is sadly more than 3 m away, wishing I could climb in and lie down for a bit – and then wait for Oli to catch up. We come in together, after 9 hours 49; it’s been a long, hot day (I find out later that it was 32 degrees) with very little shade. We both head to the medics, me for more blister care and Oli to get his splinted shins and cramped calves massaged and taped.
None of my remaining freeze-dried appeals, so I dine on a couple of handfuls of peanuts and an energy bar.
Francesco retakes the lead with ease.
Statistics of the day:
- 3 = rhinos seen at close quarters
- 3 = number of times Sam checks that the lions really have left the area, before he drags a zebra carcass off the road
- 3 = hours Kenneth and Bryan each spent in The Beast today
Sunday morning, go to church
Sunday 5 August, Stage 5: Ol Jogi Conservancy to Ol Pejeta Conservancy (45km)
Another freezing, sleepless night. Francesco maintains the nights are the real endurance event, running through the day is a positive rest in comparison. Well, that may be so for him, but he’s only on his feet for a fraction of the time a rhino runner is. But I know what he means.
I ditch all remaining food apart from my snacks for the day. My pack feels wonderfully light. Breakfast consists of the remaining peanuts, an energy bar from our South African friends Chris and Elise, and Ibuprofen.
I have my best day of the entire Ultra. For one thing, it’s cooler, and there’s a breeze. OK, it’s a headwind, but that’s better than 32 degrees and no shade. For another, Bryan’s mate Simon has agreed to do the first hour in rhino, reducing my stint. I draft along behind the peleton in a mini-echelon, shielded from the wind by The Beast. Simon adopts the route-march approach too; getting used to the head-bobbing of the rhino costume is an acquired skill. Then, after exactly one hour – he must have set an alarm on his watch – it is my turn. I maintain a steady 6 km-pace until Checkpoint 1. Despite the lower temperature, I’m still sweaty and, as I emerge from The Beast, I might have sworn a bit. Then I look round at the lovely local conservancy managers and their families who have sponsored this checkpoint and promptly apologise. I can only hope that they kept enough distance not to smell me: I am positively peachy after my daily cold showers, but the 3-day-unwashed Tshirt is not.
To my surprise, when Bryan takes over, I can keep up with him (I should have started the Ibuprofen tactic earlier in the Ultra). Kenneth has gone on ahead to wait for us at the next Checkpoint, just inside the gate to Ol Pejeta, our final destination. We turn onto a long, long, straight track that runs through community grazing land.
For the first time since Stage 1, we meet non-rangers. Families whose livelihoods depend on a few goats and cattle turn out to gawp at the muzungus (white people): much more entertaining than the Sunday morning sermon. Bryan mock-charges countless tiny children, who squeal in happy terror as they run away. By the time we approach Ol Pejeta’s north gate, we have picked up a flock of 30 or so infants, all determined to clutch onto the head or body or tail of the rhino costume. I wish my phone had battery to record this.
At Checkpoint 3 we check on Oli’s progress. He’s still going, but very, very slowly (the medics have increased his ration of codeine for this last day), and there’s no chance he’ll reach us by 2.30pm, the deadline we’d agreed. There’s a reason to be concerned about the time: Sam and Pete have persuaded the world record holder for the marathon, the awesome Eliud Kipchoge, to present the medals at the finish line. He’s a busy man but has agreed to be there from midday until 4pm. (Francesco probably has to slow down in order not to arrive too early). We must arrive by 4pm; hence the departure by 2.30pm latest from Checkpoint 3 for the last leg.
Handover to Kenneth, who sets off with Bryan while I regroup (scoff the last Haribos). With the benefit of hindsight, forgotten since the last ultra in 2006, I would have only brought snacks I actually liked and no freeze-dried nonsense. I grieve for Mir space station astronauts who must have to survive months of the stuff. We zigzag across Ol Pej’s rolling plains, with elephants drinking at waterholes, herds of buffalo, gazelle, impala, giraffe and zebra and a few warthogs.
We stay pretty close together until Kenneth in the rhino suit decides to start running and Gandhi-shuffles off into the distance. He says later he just got bored. Bryan heads after him. As the finish line banners come into view, Bryan and Kenneth stop and take off the costume. I catch them up. They hold up the suit between them, I clutch the bobbing horn, and we break into a run, the three of us and The Beast. A patrol vehicle with hazard lights flashing cruises behind us, as 16 rangers in full kit, with their weapons angled down, run alongside us, a flanking row of eight on each side, forming a guard of honour and chanting “Rhino! Rhino!” in time with each footfall. In front of us are 30 or 40 people: Kris and Andy from Beyond the Ultimate, all the photographers and videographers, rangers and staff from all four of the conservancies, runners who finished earlier but have waited around to enjoy the scene. We feel like proper heroes.
And then the extraordinary Kipchoge hangs an enormous medal around each of our necks. My kind of bling. Sam asks me if I would give the world record holder, the fastest marathon runner in history, a ForRangers special medallion, so I do, saying something about it perhaps not being the most important medal he’d ever received but that it meant a great deal to us to have him there at the finish line of the first ForRangers Ultra. And that if he ever wanted to run the London Marathon in rhino, we’ll gladly give him a place. (I’m not holding my breath.)
We get news of Oli, via the GPS tracker. He’s a long way off, but at least he’s inside Ol Pejeta and he’s still moving. We decide to shower and get into clean clothes, and come back to find him.
Two hours later, getting on for dusk, our vehicle drives back along the same track we earlier ran in on, the chalk marks horribly familiar. No sign of Oli. Has he given up, or are we too late for a rendezvous? On, quite literally, the final corner, we see him ahead, with his distinctive bandy-legged gait, wobbling around, surrounded by no fewer than five Exile Medics, who have walked alongside him for the last 7km
to make sure he’s alright. He also has two rangers checking for wildlife. All of them have one objective only: to get Oli to the finish. We leap out and join him, so pleased that somehow he’s kept mind and body together. He crosses the finish line a minute before 18:00, the last runner in. Everyone’s in bits.
We discover later that Kris was so keen for every runner to meet Kipchoge that the helicopter was called in to fly him to each of the backmarkers, so that all of them could shake the hand of this incredible runner. We tell Oli he was hallucinating from the codeine, there was no chopper, no world champ, but the photos prove us wrong.
It’s been an incredible five days.
Statistics of the day:
- 1 = number of world record holders met
- 38 = my overall position, from the 46 starters
- 10.30pm = time the bar ran out of beer, forcing remaining stalwarts onto wine and tequila for the next 6 hours. Ouch
- 6 = number of Exile Medics who have already signed for next year, this time, to run it
- £90,000 = estimated total funds raised for Save the Rhino and ForRangers
Donate to my page to support the real heroes of this race – the rangers that protect rhinos.