What started out as a simple walkabout on the well manicured State House lawns is turning out to be a dream come true for Mrs Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta who is on course to becoming the first First Lady to run at the London Marathon, the world’s most prestigious 42 kilometre race.
And, more importantly, Mrs Kenyatta says she is on course to achieving her target of running to raise money for the provision of 47 mobile clinics, one in each of Kenya’s counties, through her “Beyond Zero” charity that seeks to prevent early child deaths and improve maternal healthcare.
Just to get a feel of her daily workout, I joined the First Lady for an early Thursday morning run at the scenic Iten, covering a punishing 10-kilometre ascent from Tambach to the Iten Viewpoint.
At best a kick-about footballer myself, the end result of the VIP run was an entire afternoon in my hotel bed with aching muscles and deep regret why I stayed up long the previous night, drinking to Robin van Persie’s European hat-trick that catapulted Manchester United past Greek opposition into the Champions League quarter-finals.
Any doubts I had of Mrs Kenyatta’s fitness were brought to an agonising end after we completed two hours of running at high altitude, with the First Lady hardly breaking any sweat.
I sought her out and interrogated her decision to take up running at such unbelievably high performance level.
“I can barely believe it myself,” she said as a group of women sang traditional songs in her praise after garlanding her with traditional Keiyo regalia at the end of her morning run.
“At this age, starting to run is barely believable for myself,” she added with her permanent, infectious smile, giving credit to her personal trainer, Kenya’s former world marathon champion Douglas Wakiihuri.
“I have been blessed with a wonderful team which is training with me, led by Douglas Wakiihuri,” she says. “This team is no exception from other elite teams. We have been using the same training regime.
“The coach is focused and listens to suggestions from other team members. He is very professional.”
Wakiihuri is a legend in distance running, winning the World Championships gold medal in Rome in 1987 and following up with another gold at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland three years later, the same year he won the New York Marathon.
Preparing the First Lady for the London Marathon, which will be run on April 13, is something Wakiihuri does with great passion having himself won the blue riband London race in 1989 with an impressive time of two hours, nine minutes and three seconds.
Wakiihuri started out by crafting a route at State House, Nairobi, where the First Lady launched her belated athletics career with a brisk walk that quickly turned into a jog, and, eventually, broke into a run.
With President Uhuru Kenyatta watching from the presidential balcony, Mrs Kenyatta slowly shook off her rust and was finally ready to go all the way.
“We created a route at State House and once it got boring, we changed location and moved to Karura Forest and also to Kasarani and Sagana,” Wakiihuri, marathon gold medallist at the 1987 World Athletics Championships in Rome, recalled.
“We are now spending a few days in Eldoret and Iten, then we see how it goes before moving again to Sagana, perhaps.”
Mrs Kenyatta says the idea that she should run for charity was conceived at an informal lunch talk, and when the gauntlet was thrown, she quickly picked up the challenge despite never having run a road race before.
“It was just a suggestion over lunch, and I just thought it’s different…we (Kenyans) are different, extra-ordinary people, why not do it.
“Indeed, the training is gruelling but the entire team is focused on why we are doing this. We are making this sacrifice for the sake of ensuring our mothers and children are healthy. It is for our future.”
And if the initial walking sessions were difficult, running was a totally different proposition altogether, but Mrs Kenyatta was only too happy to “challenge myself and, pushing myself miles out of my comfort zone.”
“I really didn’t realise how tough this was going to be, but I also didn’t imagine just how rewarding it would be to set goals and achieve them.
“We have been pushed, we have been to two training camps and I reckon that we are now ready for London.”
Thursday’s Iten run started off with a 6.30am stretching session at the Tambach Prisons grounds before the First Lady and her running mates, including Elgeyo Marakwet Governor, Mr Alex Tolgos, and the First Lady’s Chief of Staff, Connie Gakonyo, hit the road.
We are joined by Kenya’s two world record holders Wilson Kipsang (two hours, three minutes and 23 seconds for the marathon) and Florence Kiplagat (one hour, five minutes and 12 seconds for the half marathon).
Pupils from Kesses Primary School line up part of the route to cheer on their First Lady as our group slowly snakes its way up the hill at a slow pace, a battery of uniformed and under-cover presidential security personnel in tow.
What is particularly striking about the group are the two flashy, top of the range Mercedez Benz limousines, a couple of V8 Toyota Prados and a Range Rover Vogue that slowly trail Mrs Kenyatta and co. along with several other State House vehicles.
Also notable in the entourage was a mobile toilet and ambulance at the First Lady’s beck and call.
“She (First Lady) is down to earth and very easy to work with. She is keen to run, and even though she had never done it before, she wants to be better and better all the time,” Wakiihuri observes.
“She is very flexible, asks questions and is always getting information about what running is all about from other sources. “I’m good at technical aspects of running and I look at her as an elite athlete,” he adds.
“The programme that we are using is tailored for the elite athletes, and we are using (Japanese sportswear manufacturer) Asics running gear and kit which is for professionals and minimises injuries.” Indeed, Mrs Kenyatta’s typical day mirrors that of an elite runner.
“My team and I wake up early and begin our dawn training at 5.30am. We do stretching exercises and then embark on the day’s programme which could be a long run of 20 kilometres or a 10 kilometre run. We run for two to three hours,” she explains to me.
“After training, we have some stretching exercises again. Thereafter we take breakfast, relax and await the 5pm training session which includes exercises and stretching, or an easy five-kilometre run.”
As though the 10-kilometre run was not punishing enough, Mrs Kenyatta followed up with a 16-kilometre morning run in the dusty Iten farmlands yesterday morning. Wakiihuri says she has even had to adjust her diet to conform with the demands of elite marathon training. “Her diet is basically tailored to lose weight and gain mileage at the same time,” Wakiihuri explains.
“With less time and a lot to do in terms of training, she needed to lose weight and gain fitness so she basically eats her normal plate of food, but spread over 24 hours.”
Just why did she and Wakiihuri pick on Iten as a training base?
“In Iten, which is 2,400 metres above sea level, we are focusing on high altitude training to enable us run from 21 kilometres to 42 kilometres, given that the air is thiner at high altitude,” Mrs Kenyatta says after completing the run along with multiple world champion and road racing record holder, Kenya-born Dutchwoman Lornah Kiplagat.
Her training in Iten included a stretching session on Thursday at Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Centre where Mrs Kenyatta met with Kenya’s most fierce running arch-rival, Mo Farah, who had just arrived back at the centre after finishing second to Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai at last weekend’s New York Half Marathon.
The First Lady then did a lap on Kiplagat’s spanking new tartan track at the proposed site for the Lornah Kiplagat Sports Academy which is adjacent to a school owned by another distance running great, former Leipzig marathon champion Christopher Cheboiboch.
Lornah’s track was completed early this year with organisers of the Virgin Money-sponsored London Marathon meeting part of the tab.
During the recent First Lady’s Inaugural Half Marathon in Nairobi, Mrs Kenyatta completed the 21 kilometres in three hours, 43 minutes, with the memorable photograph of her husband, President Uhuru Kenyatta, hugging her at the finish line going viral.
Mrs Kenyatta confessed that she didn’t expect her husband to be at the finish line, but acknowledged the support she continues to receive from the First Family.
“It was great. Wonderful,” she recollects. “It was a tremendous accomplishment for my team and I. And of course the unexpected reception by my husband, His Excellency the President, with open arms is something I will never forget.
“My family has been very supportive throughout this cause. My personal training regime for the marathons means I am no longer available at certain times of the day. My family has to make that sacrifice.
“But, most importantly, they have always encouraged me when I have been low and tired. They have given me the words of encouragement and also rallied their friends and colleagues to support the ‘Beyond Zero’ campaign in their own individual capacities.
“I feel wonderful seeing my children in the race and of course I cannot forget my husband’s reception at the finishing line. They have been great.”
Approximately Sh100 million was raised during the First Lady’s Half Marathon with General Motors donating a mobile clinic worth Sh10 million and Equity Bank leading the fund raising effort with a Sh50 million donation.
“The over 30,000 Kenyan runners who joined us in that run encouraged us every step of the way. The spectators along the route cheered us on. It was very gratifying. My team and I remained focused on the goal, which is to raise awareness about the plight of mothers and children.”
Mrs Kenyatta says she decided to run in London because of the global appeal the race carries.
“The London Marathon is a globally prestigious long distance running event used for fund raising to support charity.
“We shall seek to leverage on this international event which provides a global platform to raise visibility for maternal and child health issues and mobilise resources for a noble cause.”
Her final word for Kenyans? “You cannot over-emphasize the importance of exercising and keeping fit. This is a sue way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“As a country, we can only achieve our visionary goals if we have a healthy population.”
Great words of wisdom from the First Lady that will, meanwhile, encourage me to brave further sessions on the road and spend less time celebrating Manchester United’s progress in the Champions League!