By Evelyn Mung'au - It has taken one year and one very special man for me to truly appreciate the struggle of the marathon. I come from a country of great runners; world class athletes, holders of records not yet broken. Still, reading sports page announcements of another Kenyan athletic triumph was trivial pursuit that is until I met Darius Kenyatta Ellis.
In 12 months, Darius has run 10 marathons – "The Athens Classic Marathon" (November 2003 and 2004), "The Bangkok Marathon" (November 2003), "Dubai Marathon" (January 2004), "Kilimanjaro Marathon" (March 2004), "Mombasa International Marathon" (May 2004), "Stockholm Marathon" (June 2004), "Berlin Marathon" (September 2004), "Brussels Marathon" (October 2004) and the "Firenze Marathon" in Florence, Italy (November 2004). He completed the 56 kilometer "Two Oceans Ultramarathon" challenge of South Africa in April of 2004. A single marathon is a triumph. Ten marathons and an ultramarathon on three continents in one year is a feat. Phidippides, the world's first ever marathon runner died at the end of the course and not from the lack of preparation. Watching Darius for the past year has been instruction in what makes good preparation for the 42 kilometer ordeal of endurance that every marathoner faces. There is the diet – pasta, rice, baked potatoes, bananas, nuts and water, water, water... early morning long distance runs for conditioning in all sorts of weather that come with additional hidden privations like leaving the warmth of a loved one; mental priming – a determined regimen of physical and psychological groundwork with the particular purpose of testing and proving the limits of body and mind in a race with a six-hour deadline.
Then it is the night before the race when it is too late for one more practice run. Running kit ready and packed with the requisite electrolyte drinks (and Darius swears by Lucozade), energy bars, headband, maybe sunglasses and a disposable camera. Adrenalin is already coursing through the body and runners are encouraged to unwind at the pre-event "carbo-loading" pasta parties. There is an excitement in the air as marathoners get the opportunity to speak with fellow runners from other parts of world and all walks of life. Gender, race and age are irrelevant here. This is convocation of a special people who have come to actualize Effort. Determination. Commitment. This is a gathering of the ordinary who have set out to do the extraordinary, an homage to the human spirit.
At the starting line, Darius is taking in the sights and the sounds – added adrenalin, chatting with other runners and wishing them luck but remaining focused on the task ahead. It is one of the most difficult things about running long distances – the need to concentrate on a single activity for hours. The weather, time, the course are all concerns when the gun goes off. From the finisher of 11 marathons, each event is its own experience. Even for the same runner. The completion of one marathon is no guarantee that the next will be a cakewalk. Marathons are great humblers. In Brussels, Darius had a woman in her sixties pass him at the 37th kilometer. At half that age, Darius is aware that running a distance of 42 kilometers is not about ego so he does not challenge her. This and other marathon races are about the acknowledgement and celebration of strength and endurance even if it is not one's own.
On the one hand, the challenge of the marathon is this incredible sense of community that comes with sharing an expedition with thousands of others driven by your same aspirations and desire for success with a mutual respect from an appreciation of the sacrifice that brings each individual to the race at that moment in time. On the other hand, marathons are an intensely personal quest to achieve a difficult goal, it is about the satisfaction of owning your accomplishment and the singular significance it has for you, the runner. Heart break is fairly common. On his way back home from the "Athens Marathon" which he had finished for the second time, Darius read about the entrant who had died at the eighth kilometer mark, where he and hundreds of other competitors had actually seen the man slow down to give up his marathon ambitions earlier that day. Ten kilometers to the finish line and the growing feeling of realization is confirmed with every metre. On his favourite, the historical Athens course, the last vestiges of adrenalin and reserve energy go to Darius visualizing his arrival at the Panathanikos Stadium in the footsteps of ancient Phidippides and more recently world champions Paul Tergat and Haile Gebresellassie both of whom he greatly admires. The etching of Paul Tergat on the reverse side of his "Berlin Marathon" finishers' medal makes the award Darius' most treasured prize. With these great runners for inspiration, Darius has run a long way from his 200 and 400 meter high school track days, a fact that he repeats to undecided future marathoners like myself. His advice is to go for it. Running has given Darius the energy takes to work and other extracurricular activities. The exploration of new cities like the 1989 Berlin of Darius' student days and the memories he carries of these places find special meaning for his intimate means of familiarization: running. The psychological preparation that goes into each marathon has allowed Darius to recognize the hero that had always stared back at him from a mirror and given that new man the confidence to step out into the world.
Marathon running is the summa cum laude of sporting events and in Darius' view rightly takes the pride of place in being the final medals presentation at the Olympics. In the future, a very technical Darius would like to see road races give runners gross as well as net times with the start being the actual second a runner crosses the line. He would like for there to be the broadest spaces for starts so that runners do not have to make up time for when narrow streets slow runners to walking pace and disrupt the steady pace training done in preparation for the event. If Darius had his way, every major city would have a marathon in its honor. The alpha person he is, Darius is already planning his conquest of the upcoming 89 kilometer "Comrades Marathon" in South Africa.
It took this stranger to my city and to the country of world class marathoners to teach me to be proud of my compatriots and heritage. Darius has shown me the romance in running with his vivid retellings of Phidippides' chronicles and thumbnail sketches of Tergat, Gebresellassie and his own running adventures without diminishing the effort and determination that running a marathon demands. Heja, DKE!